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posted in: General

December 2, 2013

Thanks and Good Luck

When my wife Catherine and I look for places to hunt, “off the beaten path” is near the top of our criteria list.  Public lands where we can backpack and not see another human soul for days are a magnet to us.  Recently we found ourselves hunting an area of National Forest which contained both the mule deer we were seeking and a popular hiking trail to a spectacularly scenic waterfall. We decided that we’d willingly share the canyon with others for the opportunity at one of the big bucks we knew were there.

Shortly after sunrise we were sitting at a great glassing spot near the trail when we heard human voices approaching. As the hikers came into view we saw a large group wearing the trendy clothing of the young and environmentally conscious; Catherine and I were in full camo with weapons in hand. I saw my wife inwardly brace for the anticipated disapproving stares and “Bambi-killer” accusations.

We made a point to be friendly, commenting on the beautiful day.  After some small talk on the trail conditions, I heard the inevitable question, “Are you guys hunting?”

“Yes,” I answered as Catherine held her breath, “We are looking for deer.”

“Well,” said the apparent leader of the group, “thanks and good luck.”  Then they headed off down the trail.

That was it – thanks and good luck. Could the complex interconnectedness between hunters and anglers, and the communities in which they pursue their game be summed up in that simple sentence? I’d like to think the young hiker we met that day on the trail understood the essential role that hunting plays in conservation and local economies, and that he was directing his thanks to us for that.

While hikers, mountain bikers and other nature lovers are able to enjoy that spectacular canyon and the wildlife it contained for free, we spent hundreds of dollars on the tags and licenses required for the opportunity to hunt there. Our money goes directly to the state game and fish agency and pays for a wide spectrum of conservation programs.

Sportsmen’s dollars are the most significant contributor to state fish and wildlife agencies and support everything from habitat improvements and fish stocking to scholastic educational programs and disease research. Through their financial contributions, hunters and anglers even support non-game and endangered species management efforts.

However, when we look at the big picture of hunting’s impact from an economic perspective, it’s not just about what hunters spend on permits. It’s also about the local motel that relies on pheasant hunters to extend their season.  It’s about the mom-and-pop coffee shop that sees a significant proportion of their business in the early morning hours as deer hunters head out. It’s about the jeweler who specializes in elk ivory, the taxidermist putting his kids through college and the second generation fly-shop owner carrying on the family business. It’s about the rancher who receives compensation when he loses livestock to predators and the countless other ways in which sportsmen’s dollars directly and indirectly bolster local economies.

In my home state of Wyoming, the hunting and fishing industry contributes $1.1 billion annually. That’s second only to oil and gas, and is no small number when you consider there are only about a half a million people in the entire state. In a state like Wyoming that is dependent upon the oil and gas industry, our abundant wildlife helps to provide a diversified economy that is able to withstand the booms and busts associated with natural resource extraction.

Most people do not realize that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has not had a hunting license and tag fee increase since 2008, even though the cumulative inflation rate since then has been 8.5 percent. They have also been required to spend more of their existing budget on legislatively mandated costs, such as health care for employees. The 2013 Legislature rejected the agency’s request for a modest fee increase, forcing a multi-million dollar budget cut. This has hit Wyoming families and the small businesses that depend on our outdoor industry the hardest.  It’s not hard to see how these severe funding cuts limit the state’s ability to actively manage fish and wildlife, which in turn reduces the number of visitors to the Cowboy State whether they are hunters, anglers, birdwatchers, nature photographers or simply conservationists.

The good news is that we have the opportunity to restore what has been lost, and with it the jobs and economic strength Wyoming derives from our outdoor industry.  Two bills have been introduced by the Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee of the Legislature to provide a modest fee increase that keeps pace with inflation, and to share some of the financial burden of the Game and Fish Department with the non-consumptive user.

Both bills will need to pass the budget session in February, and I encourage every Wyomingite to contact their legislator and express your support for the bills. But it’s not only locals who hunt and fish in Wyoming – sportsmen come here from across America to experience our world-class hunting and angling opportunities. Every sportsman who has ever even dreamed of chasing Wyoming elk, antelope, bighorn sheep or cutthroat trout has a stake in how these resources are managed – contact the Wyoming state legislature today and let them know you are a sportsman who supports the bills.

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posted in: General

November 22, 2013

The Many Fish of Louisiana

Photo courtesy of freepresshouston.com

Jeff Bruhl is a man who lives on the right side of life. In addition to his full-time job as a pharmacist, he is an avid tournament bass angler and manager of the popular marshbass.com website. Beyond all that, he never misses the chance to point his lightning-quick bass boat toward any number of bayous, lakes and bays across southeast Louisiana in search of hard-fighting and tasty speckled trout.

If he hasn’t yet realized it, his mantra has to be “que sera, sera,” an idiom to the Spanish loosely translated to “Whatever will be, will be.”

That’s why it was unusual to hear him mutter, albeit under his breath and all the time holding a fishing rod, some not-so-nice words after fighting 25-30 knot winds for five hours on a late-October journey into the marshes east of New Orleans.

Fishing is more than Bruhl’s pastime. More like a passion, maybe something approaching addiction, but enough was enough in the Delacroix marshes that morning.

Five minutes later, a solid seven-pound redfish filed off his rough edges brought on by fighting wind, grassbeds and trolling motor.

And that got me wondering just how many fishing folks around our country would react to this same trip.

We launched from Sweetwater Marina in Delacroix, an outpost in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish. Not too many years ago, it was a commercial fishing hamlet whose residents looked at recreational fishermen like most react to a painful corn on our little toe – you know, it’s bearable, but only slightly so, and it would be so much better if it went away.

During the mid-1990s, Louisiana’s fight over banning gill nets brought confrontation between these two fishery user groups.

That’s not the case today, and Bruhl was out that windswept morning on a quest to take a Delacroix “slam.”

The “slam” starts out with the basic three species – largemouth bass, speckled trout and redfish  and we chuckled about the mix of cultures that would label these fish “green trout, spotted seatrout and red drum.”

It took just minutes to locate the bass. A pound-and-a-half largemouth inhaled a locally made Creole shrimp-colored Matrix Shad, one of the dozens of soft-plastic minnow imitations available in south Louisiana.

It proved, at least to me, that bass in the marshes will eat shrimp, something that launches fishermen into provocative discussions about a largemouth’s diet. (My answer to the guys who believe bass dine only on finfish is that I would much rather eat a shrimp than a shad, so why wouldn’t a bass have that same preference?)

A speckled trout hit the same bait in the same canal five minutes later and an undersized redfish, maybe 14 inches long, grabbed it, too.

That was the “slam.”

But there’s more to Delacroix, like the “super slam” and the “grand slam” on the same trip by catching a black drum or a flounder to get to the “super” and both to get to the “grand.”

It’s been done, not just in Delacroix, but in the nearby Biloxi Marsh as well as the marsh-draining bayous on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, along and off the Mississippi River between Fort Jackson and the oft-mentioned fishing mecca of Venice.

One day, not too many years ago, on a trip with another fishing addict named Gary Twigg, we got the grand slam and more near Fort Jackson.

Fishing the rocks lining the Father of Our Waters – we were taught at an early age that was the translation of the Native Americans’ “Mississippi” – we put eight different species in the boat on a single, middle-of-the-fall adventure.

We hit the previously noted five species and added sea-run striped bass, white bass and spotted bass.

Maybe that’s why we Louisiana folks celebrate Thanksgiving with dishes like oyster dressing, crab- and shrimp-stuffed potatoes, and redfish courtbouillion. Yes, we’ll have turkey too, fried of course.

And the common bond that links all south Louisiana fishermen is that we’re thankful that our marshes are a year-round provider of fish and other seafood for our holiday tables, even on the days when winds howl and whitecaps cover our shallow, inland lakes.

And that’s something millions of our angling brothers and sisters don’t have.

 

Happy Thanksgiving.

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posted in: General

November 21, 2013

The Great Conspiracy

In last week’s blog, as well as previous blogs, I have mentioned “The Great Conspiracy.” What finally dawned on me is that I have not really addressed what I am referring to in any of these blogs. I have done so in other writings.

We’ll have to start back a few years according to the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” a term popularized by then Vice President Spiro Agnew but actually written by New York Times columnist William Safire. According to the proponents of this conspiracy theory before President Obama was elected, the environmental community led by the Pew Environment Group, the Environmental Defense Fund and maybe the Walton Foundation was infiltrating the fisheries management system and positioning the likes of Dr. Jane Lubchenco to become the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Somehow they knew the outcome of the election, but we’ll put that aside. Pretty amazing stuff! They couldn’t have simply guessed right, it had to be some sort of backroom deal. Actually, isn’t there a lot of that in politics no matter which side one is on. Yeah!!!

Well, OK, I’m getting a little sarcastic, but it does take a fairly vivid imagination to pull all the pieces of The Great Conspiracy together. So the environmental nongovernmental organizations ended up on the right side of the election, which should not be too surprising to anyone, as they tend to be more liberal than conservative in politics. According to the believers, Phase 2 was put in place with the confirmation of Dr. Lubchenco, and now EDF was running all the Regional Fishery Management Council activities. I must have been on an anomalous RFMC.

Yes, we had a council member who worked for EDF, but I’d be hard pressed to find a major or, for that matter, minor, council action that had EDF’s fingerprints all over it. Too bad, actually, as some of the ideas proposed by the council member made a lot of management sense. Oh, yeah, catch shares. Well, we have to rewind the clock on that one as well.

The New England Fishery Management Council began the catch shares discussion in 2001, well before any NGO infiltration, and the rollout of more extensive catch shares was just an extension of that discussion. What happened at the NEFMC may not be typical of what happened at other councils, but I am familiar enough with other council actions to know that the NGO community was not railroading a lot of new council actions through the system. Was the environmental community part of the council process? Yes, of course it was. It is one of the three constituent groups represented on the council.

If we look at inside the Beltway (Washington, D.C., for those not familiar with the world of politics), the story is different. The NGO community has been very active in the political process. In fact, it has been extremely influential in the legislative process. Environmental NGOs were able to get much of what they wanted in the Magnuson- Stevens Act reauthorization passed in 2006 that included annual catch limits, accountability measures and the continuation of mandated rebuilding periods.

This is not meant to be a debate about the merits of those measures but a discussion about our political system. Let’s face it: the environmental NGO community has deep pockets to use in pushing for the issues it wants enacted. From my standpoint the community has been very effective at using that influence to get what it believes in. It also has been effective at working collaboratively. Is that a conspiracy? If it is then organizations like the National Rifle Association, the farm lobby and for that matter all of K Street are involved in serial conspiracies. I am not saying that I agree with all the outcomes. Unless we change the system, the environmental community is simply using it to the best advantage. Money talks and BS walks. Do we need to change the system? I tend to think so, but that is a discussion for another time.

I always have wondered what the response would be from those who think that the environmental NGO community is hell bent on eliminating extractive uses of the ocean environment, if these NGOs used all their clout to do what the conspiracy theorists want. Would there still be a hue and cry of conspiracy then? I doubt it. Folks would happily say that is just the way the system works.

Call me crazy, oblivious or naïve. I do not believe that all environmental NGOs are out to end fishing. Nor do I support all of their proposed measures. I do believe that most are interested in having sustainable resources for the future. They have some very substantial economic clout and are not afraid to use it. What the recreational fishing industry should do is to find a way to partner with them … or would some see that as conspiratorial?

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posted in: General

The Chukar Hunt

A pointing dog’s ultimate challenge and a wing shooter’s nemesis, the chukar is a high speed game bird that runs like the wind and flies like thunder. They live in the arid, high desert regions of many Western states, scampering over upland basalt rim rock ledges. When being pursued the wily birds hold up just long enough for you to get within a 40-yard shot, lift the shotgun, swing and pull the trigger. If you’re not startled by the take-off you might get lucky and hit one.

Over the years, I’ve crossed paths with many coveys and managed to hit a few birds. But when you ask most bird hunters if they hunt chukar their reply is usually the same,  “Hell, I gave up chasing those devil birds years ago.”  They may have learned their lesson but I have yet to learn mine.

I can’t give up on the chukar. In fact, I’ve only become more obsessed by these mischievous, Eurasian upland birds that were introduced to North America in the mid 1950’s. And today, I head out to chase these devil birds.

As we near our destination, fog rolls over the hills and we drive into the thick of it. The fog is so dense that the truck slows to 40 mph and I can only see 20 feet in front of me. Skeptical of the conditions, we don’t say much and keep driving until we hit a muddy dirt road that is slick from last night’s rain and rutted from years of use.  A little further up the hill I park the truck. We will be hunting Bureau of Land Management (BLM) backcountry land.

In Oregon, the BLM manages 16 million acres of public lands, giving hunters endless opportunities to experience a quality hunt with few people in sight. Today we are the only people for miles.  I’ve hunted this spot for a number of years so I know where to go; I’ve crossed these rusty fences and watched chukar dive from the breaks escaping six-shot pellets by the dozen. I hope we see a few coveys today.

Hunting chukar provides an opportunity to experience wide open, undisturbed space and watch the dogs work. My dog Cedar is excited. He’s been here before. Lifting his nose in the air, he follows the scent.  He’s not even 15 minutes from the car when his tail starts wagging faster and faster. His shoulders drop, he points and starts creeping in.  I whoa, Cedar stops, moves in a little closer and the birds flush just out of range; no shots taken. Chukar are amazingly skittish at times, making a shot difficult but I’m confident we will see more.

We keep working the break. The wind is in our favor and Cedar works into it. Suddenly, he takes a hard right, slouches down and creeps forward like a cat trying to sneak up on a mouse. We all move slowly, trying to ambush our target. Cedar holds point and Lucas and George move in. A covey of 20 birds flush. Shots are fired and a bird hits the ground. Cedar breaks and yelps out a victory cry. He disappears and a few minutes later prances back with a bird in his mouth.

 

Join us in ensuring public access to BLM backcountry areas. Part of my work with the TRCP is  to ensure that backcountry areas such as this are conserved by keeping core fish and wildlife areas intact. We  want to maintain public access to backcountry areas – while  balancing the needs for energy development. Without this balance, our favorite places to hunt and fish will be lost forever.   

Watch the video below to find out how you can get involved.

Conserve Oregon’s Best Backcountry Hunting and Fishing

 

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posted in: General

November 20, 2013

Wind Power: Coming to a Coast Near You

 

               Despite what the skeptics say, offshore wind power could be good for saltwater anglers

Depending on who you talk to, offshore wind power (wind farms at sea composed of multiple turbines) is the best thing in the world or the worst.  What I tend to believe is that most people think that offshore wind equates to “sustainable energy” with a minor footprint, certainly smaller than that of oil and gas.  To some extent that’s correct, although the footprint may not be all that minor, and really they are not yet “sustainable” in the true sense, although hopefully they are headed that way.

 Because these massive wind farms are offshore, in one of the most salt-laden/corrosive environments in the world, it takes an awful lot of diesel fuel (think boats with maintenance crews) to maintain them.  I should note here that this is still a young technology, is far from perfect, and not yet profitable mainly because of the maintenance costs.  It’s pretty well known that most of the European wind farms receive government subsidies and that’s presumably the only way they can exist.  It’s my personal opinion that, as a society, we will never get sustainable, environmentally-friendly power right unless we start somewhere, so I understand the rationale. 

 Regardless, wind power is hip.  Overall, the American people seem to like it and want it, and the current administration seems to be into it.  As watermen we all know that at sea, wind blows harder and longer, and suitable sites (note: “not in my backyard”) are more readily available to enable large projects to operate.  Perhaps more important than any of this is that there’s a lot of money being dumped into offshore wind right now by huge companies like Google.  The point is, offshore wind farms are likely coming soon.  I don’t think there’s any stopping them at this point.

 So, let’s take a look at what it means for us.  Sure, there’s the domestic, sustainable energy stuff, and I’m down with all that. But at the risk of seeming parochial, I’m pretty much only looking at this from a fisheries perspective.  With that said, I was invited to go to the United Kingdom with a group of commercial and recreational fishing interests (sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy) to ground truth their offshore wind power programs.  The trip was basically a fact-finding mission to see what these things meant for fishermen and fishing communities. 

 Sure, we spent a lot of time in pubs, talking to local fishermen and representatives from various fishing organizations.  We also spent quite a bit of time in government agency offices, and even wind power industry offices.  But what was without a doubt the most memorable part of the trip was steaming though the Thanet Wind Farm, which is located about seven miles off the coast of the Thanet district in KentEngland and consists of almost 200 wind turbines.  Man that was cool!  And of course I was thinking how “fishy” it all looked.  Each structure was a potential fish magnet.  Unquestionably, such structures would draw in tons of life if they existed on our coast, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic, where save for a scattered array of deteriorating artificial reefs (most states just don’t have the money to add to or maintain them anymore), it’s pretty much all sand.  It’s intuitive to anglers that fish aggregate around such objects placed in the sea. We pretty much always look for “structure” even if it’s something as simple as a depth change.  I mean, you don’t need to look any further than the Gulf of Mexico’s oil platforms to see the potential benefits.   

 In case you aren’t convinced, the analysis of existing wind farms in the English Channel and North Sea have shown an increase in biomass by 50 to 150 times!  Such structures provide a hard stable substrata for colonization by a range of marine organisms.   Mussels, barnacles, tubeworms, hydroids, sponges, soft corals and other invertebrates, attach themselves permanently to the structures attracting various free-living invertebrates and small fish, which in turn attract predators.  The science has been pretty clear that they increase species diversity, biomass and general productivity.  The biomass increases have been shown to be particularly steep if such hard substrate structures are placed in soft substrate environments.

 So really, these things could be damn good for fish.  But that means far less if we can’t access them.  As mentioned, offshore wind power really isn’t profitable yet.  And so there is a justifiable fear that, given the liability that developers may face for accidents that may happen, fishermen may simply be shut out.   While the oil industry can likely afford such risk, a fledgling industry like wind power probably can’t.  That said, access has not been an issue thus far in the UK.  Anglers and charter operations have complete right-of-entry to the sites. The only constraint is a 50 meter “recommended” safety zone around each turbine.  Commercial boats can enter the safety zone too, although it’s obvious that trawlers would have gear problems.  Fixed gear (e.g. pots) have also been problematic as currents tend to wrap them around the structures.  So by default, such arrays become hook-and-line only zones, which most readers of this blog would agree, isn’t a terrible thing. 

 On the other hand, North Sea fishermen were not so lucky.  The Swedish, Danish and German governments, based on environmental and safety assessments as well as a simple cost-benefit analysis, did indeed shut fishermen out.  The risks to cables, liability within the farms and search and rescue issues were all driving factors.  Of course, in that region fishermen weren’t considered as culturally and economically important as they are here, and the fishing industry also didn’t really engage in the development process until it was too late.  There were also regionally powerful environmental groups who pushed for no-fishing zones. 

 While this is indeed a concern, I do not believe that would happen on our coast.  The agency in charge of such offshore wind power – the Bureau of Energy Management (BOEM) – says on their website that they do not intend to restrict vessel traffic in and around offshore wind facilities.  If a safety zone or buffer were implemented, it would be by the Coast Guard, who has said publicly that they have no intention of establishing such zones on wind farms.  If a safety zone is ever deemed necessary it would follow formal proposed and final rulemaking (with public comment).  Could the developers themselves exclude anglers?  Very unlikely.  They would need to go through an extensive public process to do so, and given the public’s historical use and their desire for continued access, it would likely fail. 

 We should be well aware, however, that during construction, which may last one to two years, anglers will be prohibited from entering the area.  It should also be noted that that pile driving during the construction phase does create high levels of underwater noise, which likely will drive fish away.  There will be further considerable turbidity as the bottom gets stirred up.  Marine predators simply don’t like such murky water.  Yet, studies have shown that abundance of both fish and marine mammals not only return but increase post-construction. 

 Yes, there’s some concern, albeit unfounded in my opinion, about noise and vibration admitted by the wind farms once they are operating.  Studies conducted in the United Kingdom indicate the amount of noise and vibration is negligible compared to both natural and prior-occurring noise and vibration.  That said, an electromagnetic field (EMF) produced by the lines that transfer electricity from the array to shore could indeed have some negative effect.  Natural EMFs are detected by sharks, skates, rays and are used for prey detection, finding mates and orientation.  There’s some science indicating lobsters, turtles and cetaceans and are may use EMF for orientation, navigation and homing.  And so there’s some speculation that anthropogenic EMF may disrupt natural movements.  The evidence to support this is sparse though, and there are no data available that allow an assessment of impact. 

 So here’s my honest, no BS take on all of this.  I’m not terribly concerned about the environmental impacts of these things.  Sure, it may suck for a year or two during construction, but generally the long-term increase in biodiversity will outweigh all of that stuff.  I think there are extremists from the environmental community who claim that these wind turbine arrays at sea will alter fish migration patterns, and they may be right to some extent.  God forbid fish actually have to swim around them, and given the wide spacing of the ones that I saw (from what I’m told, the newer larger turbines will require even more space between each other)  I’m not sure what fish couldn’t simply swim through the farms.  And there are also some folks who still think that there will be “vibrations” that will negatively affect fish and the marine environment.  Please show me the science that this is the case?  As far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist.  And then there are the bird people.  Apparently these things kill a few birds trying to fly though.  Seriously???  I can’t help but think there’s some natural selection here.  Why birds can’t simply fly around is not within my understanding of bird migration patterns.

 On the commercial fishing side, there is genuine concern that large areas will be off limits, due simply to the difficultly of fishing inside of these things, and there is always the issue of catching a cable (believe it or not, that’s happened in Europe more than once).  While there are those extremists would have us all believe that the current administration’s ocean policy and particularly the marine spatial planning initiative is a conspiracy to end all fishing, (remember this article?) it is exactly this sort of circumstance that the initiative seeks to address.  It gives fishermen a say in where development is appropriate and where it isn’t.  In other words, they have some input in where wind farms may be placed.  That’s pretty darn important I think! 

 The bottom line is this: experience from the past 15 years in Europe shows that wind farms can be engineered and operated without damage to the marine environment and vulnerable species. Comprehensive environmental monitoring confirms that even large wind farms pose low risks.  Of course, I may end up being drastically wrong, but unless someone can convince me otherwise, I can’t see how wind farms won’t be a boon for recreational fishing.  Really, we should be welcoming these things. Generally, all I’m hearing is pushback, although I have yet to hear reasonable explanation why, save for the access issue which I’ve covered here. 

 When will we see wind farm construction along our coasts?  It looks like construction isn’t that far off.  BOEM has identified several Wind Energy Areas (WEA) off the East Coast that appear suitable. A number of states on the Atlantic coast have initiated planning for offshore wind projects and developers are currently pursuing leases.

 Unless there is some big change in policy, it looks like I may actually see wind farms off our coast in my life time.  I hope I’m not dreadfully wrong about my assessment, but I’m actually looking forward to this. I can’t help but think it will mean better and more consistent fishing, not to mention a big move toward more sustainable energy.  

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