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posted in: General

September 12, 2013

Let’s Get Together

Recreational Fishing Community needs to find common ground with the Environmental Lobby

 

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

 

This past week I spent some time in DC, common slang for our nation’s capitol and a place I like to avoid when the temperature goes above 85 and Congress is in session. I failed on both accounts. I was there to work with a group of folks from the recreational fishing industry/community to discuss the vision for this user group. What do we think the recreational fishing community/industry should look like in say ten years and how do we get there. It is an interesting process and one that is very much still a work in progress.

One of the groups that came to the meeting to participate in the exchange of information was a number of the environmental non-governmental organization (ENGO) community leadership. Wash you mouth out with soap!!! It was soooo intimidating being face-to-face with members of the “great conspiracy.” Okay, I’m just kidding, but there are some in the recreational community that feel we should not be talking to or working with the environmental community. I’ll take the other side and simply say that the recreational community cannot succeed in a realistic future vision without embracing the ENGO community in some fashion.

Let’s take last week’s Blog on the proposed tuna regulations that NOAA Fisheries is asking comment on. Pushing those changes was not done by a single entity, it was a cooperative effort by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC) and the Pew Environmental Group. Could the recreational side of the equation have made this happen on their own? Maybe. Could the ENGO’s have done this on their own? Maybe. But they did successfully do it together and that is what counts.

One of the discussion topics at the visioning project was that all of the groups concerned about sustainable fish resources should be working together more often on issues that move all of us toward our visions. It is my feeling that this is going to be important in an era of budget constraints and increasing demands on fishery managers. Does this mean that the recreational community has to agree with everything proposed by the ENGO community? Heck no. The truth is that the recreational community does not always agree 100% with its own proposals.

A number of years ago, I worked with a member of the ENGO community to bring together a coalition of interested parties to look at common ground where we could all work together to an objective accomplished. We did come up areas of mutual agreement, but the effort lost traction as folks went about their own business, not because it was a bad idea. All of these collective efforts take constant attention and effort to push them forward.

So, do I think that we should be working together with the ENGO community where we have common goals? You bet I do. I do not think that all ENGO’s want to end recreational fishing. It is my feeling that the perception that all ENGO’s are after the recreational fishing community is fear mongering perpetuated by a small and vocal minority. It is my belief that most of the reputable ENGO’s want to see sustainable rebuilt fisheries resources. How does that not benefit the recreational community?

I know that there will be potholes along the road to success, but that does not mean we should not try to work together. I believe that it has the possibility of moving the recreational fishing community/industry toward that ever elusive vision of the future.

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posted in: General

September 11, 2013

Ballot Box Biology Bad for Sportsmen

At first glance, many of the issues facing hunters and anglers today seem overwhelmingly complex. On topics as diverse as ATV use to public land development, climate change to predator management, emotionally charged debates spring up at every sportsman’s gathering. None of these issues seems to have a simple answer.

I often am confronted by individuals or organizations asking about the TRCP’s position on the issue of the day. My answer is always the same: What does the best available science tell us?

The TRCP’s mission is, and always has been, to guarantee all Americans a quality place to hunt and fish. To do this we need sustainable fish and wildlife populations and habitats to support them. Our professional wildlife managers intimately understand this and implement policies and procedures to ensure it.

Where the process falls off the rails is when we start trying to manage our fish and wildlife through what is sometimes referred to as “ballot box biology” – a process by which fish, wildlife and habitat management decisions are made not by professionals using sound, supportable, peer-reviewed and published science but by public opinion. Unfortunately, public opinion can be deeply divided, fueled not by the facts but by emotional rhetoric and snappy catch phrases that fit neatly onto bumper stickers.

A good example of this can be seen in the ongoing controversy surrounding gray wolf management, an issue that has splintered the sportsman’s community. Specifically, wolves have been single-handedly blamed for dramatically reducing big game numbers to the point where the absurd claim of “the wolves ate them all” is commonly heard in reference to elk, deer, moose and even bighorn sheep.

It’s an easy bandwagon to jump on. The image of a snarling, larger-than-life predator with blood-drenched fangs can haunt even the most reasonable hunter’s dreams when he’s on a long and unsuccessful quest and not finding the animals he is used to seeing in his favorite hunting spots. But the scientific reality behind recent population declines is far more complex, and to attribute it solely to any one factor, including predation, is an unjust over-simplification.  In fact, a study sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on the elk declines in the Yellowstone area has determined that wolves have had a minimal effect on elk populations.

Another recent study out of Minnesota, where a 69-percent decline in moose populations has put an end to moose hunting in that state, points toward climate change as the major factor. Milder winters are raising the survival rates of blood-sucking ticks that attack moose in the tens of thousands, when the animal already is stressed by a warmer than normal summer. Unfortunately, despite sound scientific support, “the ticks ate them all” just doesn’t have the same ring to it – and likewise would be inaccurate.

Predators such as wolves or ticks don’t exist in a vacuum. Undeniably, they have an impact; however, a host of other, much less glamorous causes exists, such as habitat degradation and fragmentation, fire suppression, irresponsible development, over-grazing, invasive species and disease.

As difficult as it may be, every sportsman is responsible – for the future of our own and our children’s hunting and angling opportunities – to be factual and credible to ensure we identify and address the actual challenges our natural resources are facing.

We must make the effort to look for the facts of each situation and ask ourselves, “What does the best available science and our professional wildlife managers tell us is best for fish, wildlife and their habitats?” Because ultimately, this also will be what is best for sportsmen.

The science behind sustainable fish and wildlife management is complex. But the decision to use it should be very simple.

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September 9, 2013

New Rules for Bluefin

Amendment 7 could curb bluefin bycatch, but at what cost to anglers

By now, it’s cliché to talk about how destructive and bycatch-prone surface longlines are.  But I’ll go ahead and do it anyway.  These boats put out 30 to 40 miles of baited hooks and let them soak for long periods of time.  Anything that swims by and eats one of those baits — turtles, birds, sharks, marlin, sailfish, etc. — usually perishes, and because most of it isn’t marketable or is simply off limits it gets thrown back dead.  These longlines are mostly targeting marketable yellowfin and swordfish, but believe it or not, the total “unintended” catch/bycatch of bluefin in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the entire U.S. quota.  For lack of a better phrase, that really sucks!  What a tremendous waste of a resource.   Not just a “resource” but an amazing animal capable of growing to 1500 pounds and living to be 40 years old.  If you’ve ever hooked into one, you know the unparalleled strength, power and speed.  They are awesome fish, and well, the unintended mortality from such indiscriminate gear is infuriating.

Certainly, NOAA Fisheries understands the problem.  For the past three decades they have tried to limit the number of bluefin caught and killed by surface longlines, including a prohibition on directly targeting bluefin in the Gulf of Mexico, closing certain areas to surface longlines, and requiring the use of “weak” hooks intended to straighten out on large bluefin in the Gulf.   So far, nothing has provided an effective long-term solution.   Believe it or not, U.S. surface longlines catch more bluefin tuna in the Gulf now than they did prior to the 1982 prohibition on direct targeting.

Such longline bluefin bycatch is of particular concern in the Gulf of Mexico, the only known spawning grounds for the western Atlantic Stock.  In the spring, the region’s powerful eddies bring nutrients to the surface creating distinct hotspots for spawning giants.  The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) effectively prohibited targeting bluefin in the Gulf in 1982, and theoretically, NOAA Fisheries complied.  Yet longline vessels are still allowed to keep a certain number of bluefin incidentally taken as bycatch while targeting other species.  It’s not a terribly big number (still, keep in mind that these are all large fecund fish).  Yet, as it stands now, once the longline boats catch their allotted quota, they still keep fishing, tossing those bluefin they encounter back.  Unfortunately, there is an exceptionally high mortality rate for bluefin released from longlines in this area.  While the warm waters of the Gulf are favorable for the development of the eggs and larval stage offspring, they create physically stressful conditions for giant tunas, which have large metabolic demands and die quickly from lack of oxygen in the warm water.   So, in other words, just about every tuna caught and released on longlines in the Gulf is doomed.  And these are Earth’s largest giant bluefin.  The big breeders that produce the most offspring.  The fish we should be trying hardest to protect.

To NOAA Fisheries’ credit, they are trying to address this, among other issues, in Amendment 7 to the Consolidated Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan, a draft of which they just released a couple of weeks ago.   The initial draft is a huge step in the right direction, but there are certainly drawbacks and it can and should probably go a little further than it does.

NOAA Fisheries’ preferred alternatives do indeed stipulate a significant surface longline closure in the northwest Gulf in April and May.  For decades, angling and conservation groups have advocated for such a closure, and this is a welcome change in position by NOAA Fisheries, yet it’s probably too small and too short.  Published science shows that the eastern Gulf has a hotspot as well, and this closure completely misses it.  It has also been well documented that spawning takes place from January to June and that March is a very significant month.  At the very least, what we should be advocating is a closure of the entire Gulf in U.S. waters from March to May.  Such a closure would capture the majority of bluefin bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico, and would finally be compliant with the ICCAT probation on fishing for bluefin in the Gulf.   Right now, we are indeed fishing for bluefin in the Gulf, whether incidentally or not.

I should also note there’s a significant surface longline bycatch issue off of North Carolina.  If you read any of the print or online fishing media you likely know about the extraordinary winter bluefin fishery off of Cape Hatteras that had popped up literally overnight a little less than a decade ago.  So it’s not hard to understand that the surface longliners operating in that vicinity would be encountering those same fish.  It’s important that NOAA Fisheries addresses this, and the agency is, however it’s probably not as critical as the Gulf closure as those Gulf fish are all western Atlantic giants there to spawn.  According to some recent science (referenced in my last blog) it’s likely that around half of those fish off of North Carolina are of eastern Atlantic origin (spawning in the Mediterranean), and well, those fish are doing a litter better than our western fish that spawn in the Gulf.

Getting back on point, one of NOAA Fisheries’ preferred alternatives is to restrict surface longlines in a relatively large area off Cape Hatteras.  Under the proposed rule, surface longlines could be used from December through April in this area, but only by vessels that have proven able to use the gear without catching bluefin.   Conditional access would be granted for 143 Pelagic Longline vessels, while 18 vessels would not have access.  Doesn’t sound all that significant, but it would apparently reduce the bluefin discards in the Atlantic by 77 fish, and would reduce the bluefin discards overall by 29%.

Now, let’s get away from closed areas for a minute and talk about some other noteworthy parts of the proposed rule.  NOAA Fisheries is proposing a “catch-cap” for bluefin killed on surface longlines along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  As mentioned, under current regulations, the longline fleet is permitted to continue fishing, thereby killing bluefin even long after its bycatch quota is met.  In other words, they keep fishing and keep catching bluefin that they dump overboard, mostly dead.  Under a catch-cap system, they would have to stop fishing entirely when that cap is reached.

One noteworthy component of this catch cap program, and one that industry seems to generally support, is an Individual Bluefin Quota (IBQ).  Each surface longline vessel would be allocated an incidental quota share (a certain poundage of fish).  Each share would represent a set percentage of the Longline category bluefin quota. Based on that percentage, the vessel would receive an annual quota allocation of bluefin. Vessels would need a minimum amount of quota allocation to depart on a fishing trip with surface longline gear, or else they couldn’t sail.  Bluefin landed as well as dead discards would count toward the IBQ.  If a vessel catches more bluefin than the amount of bluefin allocation it has, it could finish the trip and land the bluefin, but must then account for the bluefin landed by leasing it from another vessel before another trip can be made.  Under the system-wide cap, once the total quota is reached, all surface longlining would be shut down.

Both of these alternatives sound pretty darn good to me, mostly because they would shut the fishery down once the quota has been met.  That’s dramatically different than how the fishery is currently managed, allowing longliners to continue fishing/continue killing long after it has reached its quota.

They both introduce a level of responsibility at the vessel level never before seen in this fishery, and create a real economic disincentive to catch and kill bluefin on surface longlines.

Now, here’s the bad news.  NOAA Fisheries’ preferred alternative seeks to add another 7 percent to the current surface longline allocation to account for the new catch cap and/or IBQ by taking it from the angling category as well as commercial tuna fishermen who use highly selective methods of fishing.  Groups specifically fishing for bluefin, from anglers to general category fishing boats, could lose nearly 63 tons of their current quotas to create the new longline quotas.  Arguably, this appears to reward the people who have the worst bycatch issues.

I have to point out here, however, that there is some justification for this.  The current quota (the fish surface longliners are allowed to keep) was really for landings only.  If I’m understanding this correctly, what the quota increase does is reinstate an ICCAT dead discard allowance that was repealed in 2006.  Still, there’s something not right about giving the people responsible for most of the dead discards a larger piece of the pie, so personally I don’t support it.  The surface longline quota should remain at 8.1 percent (the current level) and the fishery should be shut down under the catch-cap and/or IBQ when that quota is reached.

But let’s be honest here.  Regardless of whether we have to give up quota on the angling side as well as those other less bycatch prone gear sides, the cap/IBQ system is still a pretty darn big step in the right direction, because when they reach their quota, that’s it.  They have to stop fishing.  And that likely will translate into less needlessly dead bluefin.   Equally important is that  under this system, there is very real incentive to avoid catching bluefin.  Sure, it might not be fair, but if we’re thinking about the health of the resource alone, it’s still a very good thing for bluefin.  In the end, it’s the resource that’s important, not how many fish we get to kill.

A few other things of note before wrapping up.  One is the angling category “trophy” fish (over 72”) quota.  Right now, that quota is split two-thirds for the northern region (north of Egg Harbor, NJ) and one-third for the southern.  There is no trophy quota for the Gulf which makes sense given we are not supposed to be fishing for them in the Gulf, but fishermen in the Gulf can land giants under the southern trophy quota.  NOAA Fisheries is suggesting giving some fish to the Gulf by splitting the northern, southern and Gulf trophy allocation evenly.  How they could be suggesting such a thing is beyond me, and it certainly appears to be out of compliance with the ICCAT prohibition on fishing in the Gulf.   Not to mention, it would restrict the number of trophy fish in our region to about eight fish.

Also, NOAA is proposing new and improved monitoring of surface longline bycatch in the proposed rule.  There would be enhanced reporting requirements, electronic monitoring (e.g. video cameras on board), and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) requirements among other things.  Such a measure will allow real-time monitoring of any catch-cap and/or IBQ system.  Without-a-doubt, this is a good thing.

Another thing to note is that NOAA Fisheries is proposing limited surface longline access to previously closed areas.  There’s actually a pretty large area that has been closed since 1999 to surface longlines in June off of NY and NJ. It’s currently the only closed area off our coast designed to reduce bluefin interactions.  Access to this area, among others, would be based on past vessel compliance with things such as reporting, etc.  A certain number of surface longline vessels would be allowed to fish in these areas, but would have to have an observer onboard.  Given the requirements, I don’t expect this will be all that significant, but still, probably something I wouldn’t support.  Those areas were closed for a reason, they shouldn’t be reopened.

In addition to bluefin, NOAA Fisheries also proposes to establish a North Atlantic albacore tuna quota.  A northern albacore quota is long overdue; those fish are nowhere near as abundant as they were even 10 years ago.

What the proposal doesn’t seriously address is the issue of underreporting in the angling category, and the possible overharvest of angling-category fish.  See last week’s blog (Report Your Bluefin) for more info on that.  While that subject may be an uncomfortable one for us to broach, it still needs to be addressed.

So, here’s what comes next.  NOAA Fisheries will seek public comments on the proposed rule until October 23. The agency will host a series of hearings during which the public can urge NOAA Fisheries to issue a stronger final rule.  Written comments can be sent electronically: or by fax: 978-281-9340, Attn: Tom Warren.  Or by mail: Tom Warren, Highly Migratory Species Management Division, NMFS – Northeast Regional Office 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930

NOAA Fisheries will consider comments, finalize an Environmental Impact Statement, and then publish the final rule (estimated for Spring-2014).  The effective date of most measures would be January 2015.

Like I said, there are certainly some parts of the proposed rule I don’t like, but overall I think it goes a long way to address the insidious problem of surface longline bycatch.  Can it be strengthened?  Absolutely…  But not unless anglers really make their voice heard on this one.  So, attend one of the hearings close to you, or submit comments detailing what you like about the rule and what you don’t.  And if you need help with comments or a letter, don’t be afraid to shoot me an email:john@nycflyfishing.com.

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posted in: General

Video: Driftless Areas and the Farm Bill

Steven Rinella, host of the hit TV show “MeatEater” discusses the importance of private lands conservation programs in the Farm Bill and their role in ensuring hunting and fishing opportunities.

  • The conservation title of the Farm Bill is the single-largest source of federal funding for conservation on private lands in our country.
  • Farm Bill conservation programs assist farmers, ranchers and other landowners in running economically sustainable operations while conserving important fish and wildlife habitat, safeguarding clean air and water, stabilizing topsoil and enhancing recreational opportunities on private lands.
  • Given the effectiveness of these programs, proposed reductions in their funding would undermine the effectiveness of efforts like those Rinella profiles in the Driftless Area.
  • Every five years when the Farm Bill’s renewal is considered by Congress, American hunters and anglers must fight to ensure that these critical conservation programs are strongly funded.
  • If funding levels for private lands conservation programs are not maintained or bolstered in the next Farm Bill, key habitat for fish and wildlife could be severely compromised.

Learn more about The Driftless Area Initiative.

Learn more about the TRCP’s work to secure conservation funding in the next Farm Bill.

Learn more about the TRCP Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group.

 

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posted in: General

September 6, 2013

Responsible Energy Development

Photo by Mark Weaver.

Energy development, fish and wildlife, and other resource values can coexist. That’s the philosophy underlying the TRCP’s FACTS for Fish and Wildlife – our prescription for responsible energy development. It’s also the goal of a unique partnership between the TRCP and western Colorado’s High Lonesome Ranch. By demonstrating energy development that is balanced with other resource values, we can help improve federal energy policy and provide a model for other private landowners as well.

In short, seeing is believing.

Energy projects often fail to address the needs of fish, wildlife, hunters and anglers. A landscape-level approach is critical to abating negative impacts that are all too common – such as mule deer populations in Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline that have declined precipitously since extensive development began in the late 1990s. We will persevere in our efforts to advance policy addressing outdated and unbalanced federal leasing and development practices. But we’ll also continue to work with the HLR to develop an on-the-ground example for a landscape-level energy model that can be exported to other areas.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA

As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.

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