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posted in: Outdoor Economy

May 21, 2018

Experts Respond to the Top Seven Gripes We See from Chronic Wasting Disease Skeptics

There is a lot of misinformation out there, so we had three experts clarify exactly what will and won’t help stop the spread of CWD

Since the TRCP first began advocating for real and meaningful steps from national decision makers to control Chronic Wasting Disease, we’ve noticed that this emerging epidemic seems to be the new climate change. While the topic has become unnecessarily politicized in many online forums, some common misconceptions could be keeping many hunters from taking urgent action.

Many of us get reliable information from our friends and social networks about where to go hunting and fishing, what gear to buy, and what techniques to try. But on an issue that is this important to the future of deer hunting in America, we’d rather have hunters hear directly from the experts. So we brought together three of them to tell us honestly if any of these CWD-deniers have a point.

 

Here’s how they responded—calling on science, field experience, and just good sense—to the most common gripes we see from skeptics.

Gripe #1: “Chronic Wasting Disease has been naturally occurring as long as there have been deer—it is not new and the threat is no more imminent today than it was decades ago.”

RICHARDS: While it is challenging to prove either way, there is little evidence to support the idea that CWD has existed as long as deer have. The CWD distribution pattern observed in several geographic regions suggests disease was introduced in a modern timeframe, became established, and subsequently spread in a radial and progressive fashion. In several areas where the disease has been documented the longest and where prevalence is highest, population impacts have now been documented. If CWD had “been around forever,” it seems likely that these impacts would have been documented in the historical record.

THOMAS: CWD was first identified in the United States in 1967 in Colorado—so, no, it’s not exactly new. But it’s clear that the threat of CWD is growing at a faster rate each year. It has gradually spread around the Western states and into Canada, and in 2002, it was found east of the Mississippi River for the first time in Wisconsin. Mississippi recently became the 25th state to find the disease. Not only is the disease spreading across the United States—through the legal transport of live deer and elk and the natural movements of wild deer—it is also putting down deeper roots in affected areas. In one county in Wisconsin, more than 50 percent of adult bucks tested came up positive for the disease, and that rate has climbed faster each year that testing has been done.

CORNICELLI: It’s also important to note that state wildlife agencies have a moral and legal obligation to manage wildlife populations for the long-term. So, whether or not you believe that this threat is “imminent today”—which I do—it’s my job to focus on the future of these species. This concept is often difficult for hunters and many others to understand, because in today’s society we live so much in the present.

Gripe #2: “I’m not worried about CWD, because the disease has never been found in humans.”

THOMAS: It’s true that a link between CWD in deer and illness in humans who consume deer has not been proven. However, because similar diseases, such as mad cow disease, have made the jump from cattle to humans, both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control urge caution. A recent review of 23 different studies of CWD potential in humans concluded that “future discovery of CWD transmission to humans cannot be entirely ruled out on the basis of current studies, particularly in light of possible decades-long incubation periods for CWD prions in humans.” That’s why the QDMA urges hunters who kill deer in CWD zones to have each deer tested for the disease and wait for test results before consuming the venison.

CORNICELLI: Why take the risk? I am astonished at the low number of deer tested in Wisconsin counties with the highest concentration of CWD. It indicates that hunters are perfectly comfortable feeding infected venison to their families. Perhaps because at this point in time we aren’t seeing human disease, people don’t think it will ever be an issue. However, I follow the CDC guidelines, and so do most of the people I associate with.

Gripe #3: “I’m not worried about possibly consuming venison from a CWD-positive deer, because I don’t eat my meat rare.”

RICHARDS: Disease-associated prion proteins are very resistant to breakdown by heat. As such, cooking venison from a CWD-positive deer, regardless of how “well done” it is, will not appreciably deactivate prions.

THOMAS: One study found that prions are still viable after being incinerated at 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit. “Well done” won’t even scare ‘em.

CORNICELLI: Perhaps Hank Shaw can write a book on CWD-venison recipes?  “Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion: The complete guide to cooking venison ash.”

Gripe #4: “We should just allow the natural predators of deer and elk to take care of the CWD problem.”

THOMAS: CWD incubates in whitetails for an estimated minimum of 16 months and an average of two years before the deer become “clinical.” This is when they begin to show symptoms and would be more susceptible to predators in their weakened state. Higher predator numbers would not control CWD, because adult deer are infectious to other deer throughout the entire incubation period.

Gripe #5: “Can’t we just shut down all the deer farms? Problem solved.”

RICHARDS: Even without the captive cervid industry, CWD will likely continue to grow and spread—it is now well-established among some wild cervid populations. Reducing or eliminating human-assisted movement of CWD, on the other hand, has been identified as a key preventative measure.

CORNICELLI: Even if we agreed it was the right decision, it would be difficult. The captive cervid industry is well-connected politically and has been very effective at promoting their importance to the world economy. Conversely, hunters do a poor job organizing and can sometimes seem more interested in their short-term benefits—antler point restrictions, season timing, and bag limits—rather than the long-term viability of deer populations. This is how deer farming, a small industry at $17 million a year in Minnesota, can overwhelm something as economically important as statewide deer hunting, worth $500 million a year in Minnesota.

Then there are hunters who buy into the captive cervid industry propaganda, saying, “This is not a big deal, we can use genetic manipulation to solve this problem, and captive cervid testing is 100 percent accurate.” None of this is remotely true.

Gripe #6: “You are exaggerating the scope of the CWD problem and fearmongering to raise money.”

THOMAS: Perhaps the most dangerous thing about CWD is how slowly it eats its way through a deer population. It does not create stacks of dead deer that are visible to hunters. In fact, many hunters in CWD zones never see sick deer. While CWD is always fatal to any deer that gets it, they may not show symptoms or appear sick for up to two years. Meanwhile, they are spreading it to other deer and depositing prions in the environment through their saliva, feces, and urine. So the situation may not appear alarming, even inside CWD zones.

The alarming part is what will happen to these deer populations over the next 10 years, 20 years, and beyond. There is no vaccine or cure for CWD, it is 100 percent fatal, and we still don’t know how to eradicate it from areas where it has been established. These are the facts—not exaggeration—and this is a recipe for a slow-moving disaster. Action must be taken now to prevent the further spread of CWD and to focus research on finding solutions.

A bio tech samples deer for CWD. Photo by Tina Shaw/USFWS.
Gripe #7: “CWD is such a huge problem, there’s nothing that any of us can do at this point.”

CORNICELLI: I don’t share that fatalistic view, and I think there’s still a lot we can do—although I admit that in several places (parts of Wisconsin), the horse has not only left the barn, it died some time ago.  As an agency manager for more than 25 years, I would be negligent in my responsibilities, as would my colleagues, if we threw up our hands and gave up. But wildlife management authority is not created equal in every state. Some states have the regulatory authority they need to find solutions, but often state legislatures are unwilling to take the necessary steps to do what the state wildlife agency believes to be right.

THOMAS: Yes, there is, and hunters can contribute. When you travel out of state to hunt, find out if you’ll be hunting in a CWD zone, learn the local regulations about transporting parts of your deer carcass. If you learn of someone planning to illegally transport live deer, report them to law enforcement.

Prevention is the only effective method for dealing with CWD, and hunters in unaffected areas must become engaged in the prevention effort. If you don’t have CWD in your woods, you don’t want it.

 

The top and third photos courtesy of Larry Smith.

31 Responses to “Experts Respond to the Top Seven Gripes We See from Chronic Wasting Disease Skeptics”

  1. Kirk C Robinson

    The argument against allowing natural predation by wolves and cougarsm to see what effect it has on the spread of CWD, is very weak. It is not adequately supported by empirical evidence. Do deer and elk only live for only two years as general rule? No. If they live longer than that, can they still be contagious to other deer and elk? Yes. Do we know for certain that natural predators are unable to detect the presence of infection in cases where we humans cannot – that is, while it is “incubating”? No. If I am wrong, please correct me. If I am not wrong, then aren’t we at least owed a serious discussion on this issue instead of shades of the old irrational prejudice against large carnivores? I should hope so.

    • Robert Turley

      I don’t understand your point about predators being able to detect the disease. The point is that predators prey on physically weaker specimens, not just sick ones. They prey on sick ones because it makes them physically weaker. Also, if they were able to detect the disease before it manifested outwardly, might they not be more inclined to let the animal be? Again, I don’t understand why you think a predator who could tell the difference between a sick and a healthy animal would choose the sick one just because it’s suck but still fully capable physically?

  2. Ben Brown

    Thank you for the simple and straightforward update. We need to keep this topic on the front burners of every state wildlife agency. The more that agencies focus on the detection and management of this disease, the more likely it becomes that we will develop effective means of dealing with CWD at the population level in our deer, elk and moose populations.

    • Dr. J

      On a related note, stork populations increased dramatically, followed by a dramatic increase in the human population. Causal relationship or coincidence. Also, don’t confuse genetic modification with hormone therapy.

  3. Chris J.

    Thanks for clarifying these very important misconceptions with commentary from experts in the field. I would also recommend people listen to the MeatEater Podcast with Bryan Richards.

  4. Simply put, readers that deny the severity of CWD., need to identify which articles they are reading that suggest this. Without such evidence its only guess work. There is info. on the web done by doctors and labs that say otherwise.

  5. mary abo gutreuter

    here’s my thoughts. it seems that the CW problem has increase in areas that have been affected by tick increases. tick increases also seem to be caused by changes in climate. I have also seen noticeable less possums. possums help decrease the ticks. do bats figure into decrease of ticks.seems to me if we can increase the animal population of those that eradicate the ticks, the CW problem might actually DECREASE. my two cents anyway.

  6. Dustin

    This is an article that needs to be shared in an attempt to enlighten and educated hunters and venison lovers all over. My home state of Illinois is trying to reduce deer numbers to attempt to reduce the spread, but something that I have not heard any state trying to do is eliminate the use of scents and urine. I have read that CWD increases in potency once it adhears to clay particles in the soil. Whether or not it increases, it does not disapate, therefore but hunters setting up mock scrapes, running drag lines, and even spraying tinks 69 all around their stand before a sit could be putting their whole herd in danger.

  7. Seems odd that captive farms are ostracized yet nothing is mentioned about baiting. Wild deer can spread prions at bait sites, yet wildlife agencies are unwilling to ban the practice. Guarantees the spread.

  8. Steven Jerde

    Please get experts who’s jobs do not rely on CWD becoming more prevalent. Mr. C seems to have a bur under his saddle about protecting everyone’s safety. Mr. C that is not your job! I’ll protect myself thank you. You remind me of Ronald Reagan joking “I’m from the government and here to help you.”
    The big issue here is captive grow wild animals. End of story.

    • parker

      Jerde, when is the last time you have been infected by Typhoid or cholera? I think the government did a good job there. Don’t be ignorant about the history of communicable disease even if its cross species.

    • Dr. J

      Boy, by that logic, you should also stop going to the doctor, because his/her job also relies on you being sick; therefore, there is no incentive to cure your ailments. Another kid left behind.

  9. Larry Copenhaver

    Thanks for a good article that should give some brain-food for any hunter/conservationist who rightfully should be concerned both with the health of cervid populations as well as human health implications. A couple of thoughts: On game farms – I-143 , a citizen initiative in MT passed to shut down Game farms for shooting operations while still allowing hides, horns(antlers), and food operations for the remaining operators. 1 CWD incident previously in 1996 (approx.) found in a pPhilipsburg game farm opened our eyes. CWD reports from Wyoming were creeping closer and closer to MTs border on the south; I-143 passed in 2000. Coincident with re-introduction of large charasmatic predators in Yellowstone occurred in ’96… I became employed with MT Wildlife Fedration in 2001 and CWD encroachment was anticipated soon afterward, yet the first documented case discovered near the WY border in 2016, more than 15 years after the “imminent occurence” was supposed to happen. I suggested that wolves may impact the spread, as we in conservation do insist that they do prey upon the weakened and sick. Albeit these deer in such a state have been infectious long before symptoms, removing them is alweays beneficial; some leaders scoffed but now accept that large carnivores help balance the equation. So, combine a healthy predator base with reducing movement of captive bred ungulates by outlawing game farms has had its impact. I am a bit concerned that the game farm aspect was diminished in this article. Even though the numbers of farms is low the potential spread and impact is not, in any way, a small one. All-in-all, thanks for keeping the co0nversation alive although it is depressing to observe how little we can do to stop it. Doing what we can do is imperative.

  10. Ronald Shaver

    I would hope this type of info is shared throughout the social and all types of media. Every little bit helps to educate hunters on the severity of the problem. In addition I would like to see the experts thoughts on how(and what impact) hunters actions and practices play in control, both reactive and proactive. Specifically, harvest of 1 1/2 year old bucks; baiting,feeding and food plots; extent of testing beyond a core or management area; transporting carcases; disposal of entrails and skeletons and etc.

  11. Mike Dec

    Luckily CWD not yet reported in Oregon but may be on its way. Wolves have been documented to roam hundreds of miles, not territorial like cougar. Could the wolf eating a diseased deer become infected and become a vector to increase the spread of CWD?

  12. David

    How much of the spread is related yo deer densities? I game managers are managing for hunter success rather than herd health doesn’t that need to be addressed?

  13. Adam Eidson

    A great article that is much appreciated, but all articles like these ever say is “have your animal tested”. What about areas where the state game agency is not testing for the disease and local veterinarians aren’t willing to collect samples (which happened to me on a trip to Kansas)? How then is a hunter supposed to have their deer tested? Could you please write an article describing all of the methods we as hunters could use to collect samples and how and where we can ship them?

  14. STILL wondering why what appeared to be the most promising branch of research of prion diseases was pushed aside. Seems to me that the spiroplasma theory was more or less fiscally isolated because of mere egos and politics; bandwagons of half informed opinion do little to further genuine science.

    • Thanks for posting this theory. I have read a lot of studies on prion theory, and hadn’t even heard of spiroplasma theory. I certainly am at the stage of barely being able understand this science, the spiroplasma theory definitely seems to have merit.

  15. ROGER SINDEN

    Reducing herd numbers was an effective means of keeping CWD at relatively low incidence in Colorado. The herds are expanding again, yet quotas have not been increased. I fully expect another “crisis” because of this. Healthy herds of deer and elk are better for long term management goals.

  16. Matt Lerminez

    Excatly in numbers how much has the deer and elk population shrunk in Colorado do to CWD? What percentage of wild cervids are now dead in Colorado, since 1964 there must be some documented numbers by now?

  17. I’ve written a couple of articles investigating CWD in the context of Colorado and the potential impact to prion transmission predators may have:

    “[Margaret] Wild [chief wildlife veterinarian in the Biological Resources Division for the National Park Service (NPS) and chief author of a study hypothesizing wolves might limit CWD] says one of the best ways to target deer or elk infected with CWD may not be by using human eyes but with the eyes of a wolf who has evolved over eons to know the most susceptible deer or elk to prey on. “And if you can do that over time then the disease will slowly fade out,” Wild says, which may prove critical because there is no cure or vaccination for CWD.” http://www.boulderweekly.com/news/will-coloradans-free-wolves-states-public-lands/

    “A 2009 study led by the Colorado Division of Wildlife (now the Wildlife section of CPW) in Northern Colorado found that mountain lions actively selected CWD-infected deer when targeting adult mule deer as prey, whereas hunters tended to select and thereby remove deer not infected with CWD.” http://www.boulderweekly.com/news/off-target-series-kill-mountain-lions-already-gone/

  18. So, from your article the number one way to slow the spread is via the deer farm industry, but they are “politically well connected”. Another political thing Lou? Whatever happened to your moose with global warming stuff? It took a while but eventually when Mech himself came out with very convincing data everyone agreed that occam’s razor cuts deep. With all due respect how do you think the politics will work out when people figure out you just sat on the issue in fear of politics? I mean you already blew it with the moose, now deer? Soon you’ll run out of large ungulates.

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Travis Cooke

May 16, 2018

Revamping a Key Conservation Funding Program So There Are More Hunters to Pay In

With participation in hunting declining, an important source of conservation funding is also at risk—unless we can invest more in recruiting the next generation of sportsmen and women

Did you know that every year, hunters contribute more than $700 million to state wildlife conservation efforts? That’s right—for more than 80 years, sportsmen and women have been overwhelmingly responsible for the health of fish and wildlife populations in America.

At the start of the 20th century, several wildlife species were imperiled, with few safeguards in place for dwindling populations. Recognizing that inaction may result in not only the mass extinction of America’s wildlife but also our pursuit of wildlife, hunters decided to take matters into our own hands.

In 1937, with support from the nation’s earliest sportsmen’s organizations, Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Act, which created the Wildlife Restoration program. Since then, more than $10 billion in excise taxes on shooting and archery equipment have been distributed to state wildlife agencies for wildlife conservation projects, hunter education courses, and public access improvements. In most states, Pittman-Robertson is the only source of funding for fish and game agencies.

But recent data paints a grim picture for the future of hunting and wildlife conservation.

Uncomfortable Numbers

The most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service five-year study on fishing and hunting participation and spending shows troubling long-term trends that should give us all pause.

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of hunters declined by 16 percent—from 13.7 million to 11.5 million people. Additionally, the hunting population aged slightly, while the average number of days hunters spent afield decreased from 21 to 16. And, perhaps most distressing for hunters relying on healthy wildlife populations, spending on hunting equipment dropped 8.6 percent, from $14 billion to $12.8 billion.

Fishing is the most popular outdoor recreation activity in 47 congressional districts, according to new data from the Outdoor Industry Association. Hunting doesn’t rank in the top three for a single district.

Clearly, maintenance of the status quo should be off the table.

Taking Aim at the Issue

Fortunately, our elected officials are making efforts to remedy this situation. On May 8, the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill introduced by Rep. Austin Scott to modernize the Pittman-Robertson Act by allowing states to spend some of these funds on direct efforts to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters. A companion bill from Sen. Jim Risch has strong bipartisan support and co-sponsorship.

If passed into law, this could boost R3 efforts through mentoring and outreach via television or even social media—you know, where the younger generations spend their time.

“With this legislation, the current generation of sportsmen and women has a chance to leave a lasting legacy on the footprint of conservation—much like hunters did in 1937, when Pittman-Robertson was passed,” says Cyrus Baird, programs director for the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports. “By allowing state fish and wildlife agencies more flexibility to use P-R funds to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters, we are ensuring the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation will remain effective for generations to come.”

A Tackle Box for Information

Champions of the “P-R Mod” effort are fairly sure that legislative changes will be worth it, because the model has already been successful on the fishing side. The Dingell-Johnson Act created the program that distributes excise taxes on boating and fishing equipment to the states for fish and habitat conservation, but with one key difference: Every year, about $12 million in Sport Fish Restoration funds go towards national angler R3 efforts.

This has led to programs like Take Me Fishing, the incredibly helpful initiative that provides resources for beginning anglers looking to purchase a license, tie a lure, identify a walleye, or read up on their state boating laws. Take Me Fishing has also partnered with state fish and wildlife agencies to reach out to Americans who are underserved and underrepresented in the fishing industry.

This is all made possible by Sport Fish Restoration funds and has been critical in growing fishing participation numbers and the economic impact of anglers across the country. Between 2011 and 2016, the angling population grew by 2.7 million people, while spending on fishing equipment increased by more than 36 percent.

The Bottom Line

As hunters, a portion of our purchases goes back to all wildlife—not just the species that hunters care about. And we have shown time and again that we are willing to pay even more to see fish and wildlife habitat thrive. But it won’t be enough unless we swell our ranks at the same time.

Given the foundational role hunters play in wildlife conservation, we should be bold in our pursuit of efforts to recruit, retain, and reengage America’s hunters for the next generation. Bringing Pittman-Robertson up to date is one pragmatic way to do that.

 

Top photo courtesy of Tim Donovan. 

Second and third photos courtesy of Northwoods Collective. 

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posted in: Outdoor Economy

May 1, 2018

Checking In on Our Wishlist for Congress and DOI

Back in January, we came up with six New Year’s resolutions we wished Congress and DOI would make, and some progress has been made on more than half

As we enter the fifth month of the year, it’s a pretty good bet that most Americans have long since abandoned their New Year’s resolutions. In fact, according to U.S. News and World Report, 80 percent of resolutions fail by the second week of February.

But we’re still looking to Congress and the Department of the Interior to work through some serious conservation goals we’ve been eyeing since January. Here are the six New Year’s resolutions we hoped to see them make to improve hunting, fishing, and habitat, and updates on where these issues stand today.

Fix Our Forests

A looming budget deadline offered a great opportunity to finally fix the way we pay for catastrophic wildfires—and reform forest management to help prevent fires in the first place. We thought lawmakers should pass a comprehensive fire funding fix in the budget deal to stop taking funds from forest restoration programs like prescribed burning and removal of invasive species and diseased trees.

Status: Done! Congress came through for sportsmen and all who rely on access to Forest Service lands in passing a comprehensive fix for fire borrowing in the fiscal year 2018 spending bill in March. We were thrilled and relieved to see bipartisan support for many other provisions that will benefit fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy, but the fire funding fix is a truly defining achievement, which will ensure that the Forest Service can get back to the business of maintaining healthy habitat and excellent facilities.

Bulk Up Water Quality Efforts in the Farm Bill

Looking ahead to the new Farm Bill, we hoped it would be one that would strengthen and maintain funding for USDA conservation programs. The work done with these funds keeps tons of pollutants out of rivers and expands water conservation on farms, which improves river flows to support healthy fisheries, strong outdoor recreation businesses, and flourishing rural communities.

Status: Possible. In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018—otherwise known as the Farm Bill. This particular version of the bill is pretty contentious and not likely to be signed into law, but it proposes doubling the scope of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to $3 billion. Of the many features of EQIP, one of the most popular is the incentive for landowners and farmers to incorporate cover crops into their planting rotation, and this practice has some benefit for improving soil health and slowing the progress of polluted farm runoff.

Invest in Access on Private Land

With legislation as massive and far-reaching as the Farm Bill, we knew there would also be a unique opportunity to boost hunting and fishing access in areas where there are few, if any, public lands. If Congress could reauthorize and expand the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that incentivizes landowners to open their property for public hunting and fishing access—the improved opportunities for hunters and anglers would create a draw in some rural communities that desperately need an economic boost.

Status: Signs look pretty good. There was bipartisan support for a standalone bill introduced in the House in February to reauthorize and enhance VPA-HIP. And though the House version of the Farm Bill did not include quite as much new funding for the program as we wanted, lawmakers have proposed a decent bump.

Defend the Clean Water Act

We were insistent that Congress should not make it easier for the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers eliminate a rule that more clearly defined the protections of the Clean Water Act. Americans overwhelmingly support protecting headwater streams and wetlands, which are critical to fish and waterfowl populations. Trimming down on regulation doesn’t have to mean leaving these foundational waters and rapidly disappearing wetlands vulnerable to pollution or destruction.

Status: Still trending in the wrong direction. The two-step repeal process has been ongoing since last year, despite broad public support for the 2015 Clean Water Rule’s benefits to fish and wildlife habitat. But Congress did not use legislative riders to waive any procedures or give the greenlight to move forward more quickly, which is a quiet win.

Image courtesy of Amanda Nalley/Florida Fish and Wildlife.

Modernize Marine Fisheries Management

For five years, the leading advocates of recreational fishing and conservation worked with policy makers to improve federal recreational fishing management by modernizing data collection and allowing more involvement from state agencies and anglers. These essential changes were included in legislation that passed the House Natural Resources Committee in December 2017 and headed to the House floor. As of the first of the year, the Senate had an opportunity to improve upon this legislation and ensure that the vital contributions—cultural, economic, and conservation efforts—of the recreational saltwater fishing industry are finally recognized in federal law and policy.

Status: Closer than ever before. At the end of February, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation overwhelmingly approved the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, otherwise known as the Modern Fish Act. This legislation calls for critically important updates to the oversight of federal fisheries, by adding more tools to the management toolbox, improving data collection techniques, and examining some fishery allocations that are based on decades-old decisions. If passed into law, the Modern Fish Act would bring to fruition five years’ worth of input from the recreational fishing community and increase the level of trust between America’s 11 million saltwater anglers and federal fisheries managers.

Champion Conservation and Access Equally

Some of the best news of 2017 came out of the Department of the Interior, when Secretary Zinke asked agency leaders to identify and prioritize opening new hunting and fishing access to previously landlocked public lands and national wildlife refuges. While this is to be celebrated, we were anxious to see the DOI define a “conservation vision” for valuable habitats and hunting and fishing areas in 2018, to work in tandem with the vision that they have already established for expanding sportsmen’s access. This would include clear measures to recognize and conserve wildlife migration corridors, avoid or minimize impacts to habitat from development, plan locally to safeguard our best hunting and fishing areas, and allow conservation plans for greater sage grouse work as intended.

Status: TBD. In February, Zinke issued a Secretarial Order directing agencies to work toward better conservation of critical big game habitat, including migration corridors, stopover habitat, and seasonal ranges. And we’re hearing every assurance that the DOI will begin to make a broader pivot toward conservation now that they are satisfied with the direction we’re going on energy development. But the BLM is launching an amendment process for greater sage-grouse conservation plans that were settled in 2015—changes could affect 98 land-use plans for about 67 million acres across the West.

 

We originally posted “Six New Year’s Resolutions We Wish Congress and DOI Would Make” on January 5, 2018.

Chris Macaluso

April 9, 2018

How Fisheries Managers Respond When Trash Fish Get Trendy

Fisheries management can be influenced by the American appetite for (certain kinds of) seafood, which makes it even more important that the system works better for anglers

My brother Joey and I were weird, I guess. When we were kids, we loved to fish for sheepshead, which, at the time, were generally thought to be a “trash” fish and were despised by most Louisiana anglers.

Sheepshead are ugly by any objective standard. They have big, goofy buckteeth, gray and black skin, and a row of foreboding spikes along their dorsal fins. They’re also an absolute pain to clean. Some charter guides I knew when I was in my teens refused to even put them in the ice chest, for fear that they would wind up on the cleaning table along with the better speckled trout and redfish.

But I never agreed with sheepshead getting a bad rap. First of all, they fight like caged, rabid raccoons. And on our summer trips to Grand Isle or fall excursions to Cocodrie, the sheepshead aggressively ate a piece of shrimp or hermit crab on a jig head when the speckled trout wouldn’t cooperate, and they guaranteed that we had some fresh fish to go with our suppers of canned beans, and French bread.

Sure, you had to hack through some thick rib bones and tough scales to get a filet. But crabs are hard to clean, and I don’t know too many folks who consider boiled and steamed blue crabs to be “trash,” just because the meat is difficult to pick out.

Then, about 15 years ago, sheepshead started showing up on restaurant menus under the pseudonym “bay snapper.” Suddenly, a bunch of anglers who would never have kept an ugly, stubborn sheepshead were raving about how tasty their fish-of-the-day lunch special was.

Now, pretty much every restaurant in South Louisiana has sheepshead on the menu or as a fresh-fish special. I guess the cliché about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure applies.

 

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2013 National Survey
Tasty Reputation Prompts Adapted Management

I’m often struck by how frequently recreational and commercial fishermen are pitted against each other over a handful of “popular” fish because they taste good or they fight hard or simply because they are easy to catch. How many fish like sheepshead, once considered less desirable by both recreational and commercial fishermen, are out there? How can fishing for these species lessen the animosity that has been built over fish like red snapper?

I’m also dumbfounded, at times, by the argument that states are not as equipped to manage commercial fisheries as the federal government, especially when states have responded to the increased popularity of sheepshead with adapted management for both recreational and commercial harvest. And still we don’t fight over sheepshead at state commission meetings like we do over red snapper at the federally directed Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.

State fisheries agencies generally do a good job of conservatively managing commercial and recreational fishing, which is one of the reasons the TRCP and many of its sportfishing partners support the Modern Fish Act—because it would increase the role that states play in federal management and data collection for recreational fishing.

 

CMac’s special recipe.
Cats, Carp, and Courtbouillon

Like sheepshead, there are other fish thought of as trash, simply by reputation. On a late-March trip to Grand Isle, my fishing buddies got to tie into a handful of gafftopsail catfish, another much-maligned, yet hard-tugging and good-eating saltwater predator. I kept the fish, despite some dirty looks, and I used the filets to make a catfish courtbouillon, a rich tomato-based stew my family ate on Good Friday.

Everyone said it was delicious. They had no idea they were eating trash, I guess.

Gafftops, unlike their cousins the hardhead catfish, aren’t bottom-dwelling scavengers. They strike lures as aggressively as redfish and speckled trout and fight every bit as hard. On a memorable day in late August a few years ago, several five-pound gafftops exploded on topwater plugs in the Grand Isle surf when I was aiming for specks. The surface boiled and my drag screamed as if a redfish or big trout had busted the bait. But when the fight was over, my friends looked in disgust at what was on the end of the line. Similar to the way sheepshead were looked at 30 years ago, some of my friends won’t even put a gafftop in the ice chest for fear of scorn at the cleaning table.

But the list of reformed trash fish is growing each year. Bonito were once only kept for cut bait and chum, but if the meat is taken care of, they are just as tasty as their blackfin tuna relatives. Even the dreaded invasive Asian carp is pretty tasty after being dredged in seasoned corn meal and dropped in hot grease. There are more than enough of them available for those who want to give them a taste.

 

Making the Most of Our Time on the Water

I’m not suggesting that I would give up on a good trout bite or a school of hungry redfish to chase down gafftops or throw chunks of hermit crabs at sheepshead. But, like many fishermen who have busy home- and work-lives, I like to catch something while I’m out there—I’m not going to turn down the opportunity to hook aggressive-striking, hard-pulling fish and keep a few of them for the grill or the fryer.

And I’m not suggesting that improving the management of popular species like red snapper or cobia is less important because there are other fish out there to catch. My point is that, too often, anglers fall into the trap of getting hung up on catching one fish or another, and it can lead to a less enjoyable time on the water if a particular season is closed or the target species doesn’t cooperate that day. It might be up to us to “dig in the trash” more often.

But as attitudes towards these fish evolve and change, it will be even more important that our system of federal fisheries management does not ignore recreational fishing—because restaurant trends will come and go, but the importance of predictable seasons to local outdoor recreation businesses will not.

 

Top photo by Anna Hesser via Flickr

Guest Blogger Brett Fitzgerald

March 30, 2018

There’s an Access Payoff for Reporting What Fish You Catch and Throw Back

Anglers who report catch data using the latest apps help fisheries managers adjust seasons in real-time, so why are some still resistant to sharing?

Recreational angler self-reported data has come a long way. As it has suddenly dominated many of the recreational fishery management discussions over the past year, one might think the concept has come out of nowhere. But the Snook and Gamefish Foundation (SGF) has been working on refining the process for almost a decade, and our work has provided some valuable results. The Angler Action Program (AKA iAngler), a service project of SGF, was born in 2010 after an historic cold event severely damaged a host of tropical Florida wildlife, including snook—a native and highly prized gamefish.

In response to the possible crisis, we partnered with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to design and build a voluntary self-reporting database that would start to get a handle on just how hard the fishery was whacked by the extreme cold weather. Snook anglers—who range from passionate to completely obsessed—were an easy target for soliciting help.

There were many successes over the following years, most of them ‘firsts’ in the world of fishery management at the state level. After helping with the design of the database and angler survey, FWC left us to run and manage iAngler and its data. Participation was fairly high, with thousands of hours of snook-directed fishing trips reported within months of program initiation. FWC found data useful almost immediately in a few areas, particularly regarding data on the fish we let go, called ‘discards’ by researchers.

Within five years, iAngler was expanded to include all species of fish on a global range, and it was used directly in five different Florida stock assessments for snook, spotted seatrout, and red drum. This is the first time that data collected and managed by anglers was used in a state-level stock assessment.

Around that same time, a lab at the University of Florida began running some analysis of iAngler data and comparing it to numbers from the Marine Resources Information Program, which currently collects data for all federally managed fish species. Despite having some design flaws, especially where the program forces commercial models on recreational fisheries, MRIP is responsible for what has long been considered to be the “best available data” for use by federal agencies.

The UF studies focused on how many fish anglers are catching and how big the fish are. This is especially important with discards, as this is an area of fishery information where many species are ‘data poor,’ meaning whatever the best available data is, it ain’t enough.

In general terms, the UF study found that iAngler data in Florida did have some limitations, or biases, however for areas where enough anglers participated the data lined up nicely with MRIP.

Right around the time these very positive results of iAngler data analyses started rolling in, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) reached out to SGF to see if we could partner up with the goal of getting a better handle on the Atlantic Red Snapper situation. Similar to the Gulf of Mexico, recreational anglers have been reporting anecdotally that they are experiencing an explosion in the population of this prized fish, yet the season had been closed since 2014 in the South Atlantic because the current data and modeling suggest that the population is still in trouble. Managers understood that there is a problem, but until data collection was improved or at least changed, their hands were mostly tied.

This new partnership led to a reporting tool called MyFishCount, which will allow anglers in the South Atlantic to report their catches – keepers and discards, along with a host of other data points – by this coming summer.

A pilot program was launched during the 2017 Atlantic Red Snapper season, and the results were again very positive. Anglers were able to report a variety of aspects of their planned snapper fishing trips through the system, researchers were able to see the data in real-time, and managers reacted to the data nearly as fast.

For example, the 2017 red snapper season was originally set for six days over two three-day weekends. Through MyFishCount, biologists and managers were able to see that the vast majority of planned fishing trips never took place, because the weather was not favorable for offshore fishing on those dates. Using this information, SAFMC was able to open a third long weekend of fishing.

The point is that anglers were asked to contribute, and because they did, their data was put to immediate good use. In this case, it led to more fishing access.

Not for nothing, the weather on that third weekend was pretty horrible, too. But this is ok for anglers: It means that the estimated harvest over the full nine-day fishing season is unlikely to overestimate the fishing effort, which could have led to less access in years to come.

“This is one of the few instances where you have technology, industry, fishermen, and scientists all agreeing on one thing—that we need better data in the recreational fishery—and most of us are seeing a similar approach to reaching that goal,” says Dr. Chip Collier, an SAFMC fisheries biologist who has been involved with the MyFishCount project since its inception.

He and his staff are very excited to have a new and improved version of MyFishCount up and running before summer 2018, and it will be functional for a wide variety of fish species, not just red snapper. “One of the great things about having it ready before the summer is that will be able to show anglers what self-reporting actually looks like,” says Collier. “The ‘fear of the unknown’ can make a lot of people hesitant to take the first step towards getting involved, and this will help.”

“The amount of positive comments we’ve received from anglers who participated has been great, and it feels like it really gives a voice to management,” says Kelsey Dick, SAFMC’s fishery outreach specialist. “I have been very grateful to see people coming together and being supportive of this project.”

The benefits of self-reporting are many. Through this kind of reporting, managers and biologists will get a better understanding of angler behavior on the water.

“We don’t have enough time to interview a lot of recreational anglers, so we don’t really know if people are using descending devices, or circle hooks, or other behaviors.” Dick said.

Mass, real-time self-reported data opens the doors to these types of data streams and that is extremely critical when trying to get a handle on how to best set management rules for a given species in a given region.

For example, in 2017 MyFishCount anglers reported very low use of descending devices or venting tools in shallow water (less than 5%), yet a very high (over 90%) in deeper water. Without the opportunity to self-report behavior like this, Councils have no way of estimating how many anglers are taking extra measures to help ensure fish survive release. And when you are managing ‘data poor’ species such as red snapper, any uncertainty in the modeling usually translates to less access.

Still, with all indicators pointing in a very positive direction, there is a lot of work to be done, and it is going to take time. “Managing expectations across the board is hard,” says Dr. Collier. Fishermen, scientists, managers and the industry all want this issue solved.

It is going to take some time, but the more anglers that get involved now, the faster we can improve the system and expand the functional uses. This type of data is not yet ready to answer questions like overall effort or fish abundance – researchers first need to understand just how this information represents the fishing community at large. But the mindset has changed greatly over the past couple years, from ‘the data is no good’ to ‘we must understand and measure biases in data, then account for those biases.’ This is an extremely encouraging trend.

The Snook and Gamefish Foundation is working with The American Sportfishing Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a host of other conservation and fishing industry groups, state and federal agencies to explore ways to better integrate self-reported data the use of technology to improve fisheries management.

Management is going to happen whether the data improves or not. So getting involved and reporting through iAngler now, no matter where you are, is a very important step for recreational anglers. It not only allows you to contribute immediately to a brighter fishing future, but also to keep tabs on how the technology is changing fishing behavior and management so you can help shape the direction in the future.

 

Brett Fitzgerald is the Executive Director of the Snook and Gamefish Foundation. He is also a contributing editor to Florida Sportsman Magazine, and a special education instructor in the Palm Beach County school system for where he promotes an academic curriculum through environmentalism and resource conservation. Fitzgerald is an avid guitar player, fly tyer, photographer and fisherman.

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