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March 20, 2014

Washington, D.C., goes to the Bassmaster Classic

Every other year B.A.S.S., that’s the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, hosts a conservation summit in conjunction with the Bassmaster Classic. While the Classic is the nation’s premier bass fishing competition, the summit is the premier gathering of conservation leaders from the bass fishing community. This year was no exception.

Nearly 100 state fisheries chiefs and state-based volunteer B.A.S.S. Nation conservation directors convened in Birmingham, Ala., last month to discuss conservation topics including invasive species, state and federal legislation affecting fishery resources and grant opportunities for conservation projects.

The TRCP was there as well, sponsoring a special discussion during the summit on the importance of water quality to successful bass fishing. The topic was especially relevant because the federal government is poised to release an administrative rule any day now clarifying where the unique safeguards provided by the Clean Water Act apply to important bass fisheries.

B.A.S.S. has been a great champion of this issue, because without quality water supplies we can’t have successful bass fishing, and the Clean Water Act is the most successful and powerful tool we have to keep pollutants out of our water.

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is one of the two agencies proposing the Clean Water Act rule (the other is the Army Corps of Engineers), delivered recorded remarks at the conservation summit.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy addresses the 2014 B.A.S.S. Conservation Summit at the Bassmaster Classic about the need to protect wetlands, streams and rivers so we can sustain our nation’s hunting and angling heritage.

In addition, Ken Kopocis, policy advisor in EPA’s Office of Water, spoke to the group about the importance of clean water and the need for a rule that makes the Clean Water Act work effectively.

Mr. Kopocis’s most important message to summit participants? The draft rule won’t be perfect when it is released for public input. Bass fishermen – and sportsmen of all stripes – will have valuable advice for how to improve the rule, and the EPA will want to hear it – and needs to hear it!

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to restore Clean Water Act protections to waters sportsmen care about the most. As such, the TRCP will be facilitating sportsmen comments on the rule after it is released.

In the meantime, sign up to receive important updates about the development of the rule and notices about how to participate in the public comment process.

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March 18, 2014

Toxin talk

Mercury in seafood food chain
Mercury in seafood food chain. Image courtesy of Bretwood Higman, Ground Truth Trekking/Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday morning, I happened to be talking with another avid recreational fisherman about the presence of toxic elements and chemicals in some of the fish that anglers like to catch and a lot of people like to eat. The discussion centered on striped bass and the health warning posted in just about every Atlantic coastal state, with the exception of Massachusetts, where migratory striped bass and bluefish are caught.

Then, out of the blue, comes an email press release that the Food & Drug Administration is being sued because it has failed to respond to a petition filed in 2011 that requested (1) informational labeling on packaged seafood that reflects the joint recommendations of the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency in their online advisory; (2) consumption recommendations at the point of sale of unpackaged, fresh seafood, presented in a user friendly format; and (3) informational mercury level and consumption limit labeling on packaging or at the point of sale for seafood species with moderate or high mercury content that are not otherwise listed in the online advisory. 

Bingo! So the two of us having the discussion are not the only ones wondering why there is not more public awareness of this problem and why there are not more comprehensive requirements for making the public aware.

In my case, it is probably too late to worry about this problem. But I have four grandchildren, and they are likely to be impacted by their consumption of some fish. My children should be given the information that will allow them to make the right decisions for their children. Studies have shown that methylmercury, which occurs when airborne mercury is saturated in water, is a neurotoxin that leads to learning disabilities, lowered IQ, and impaired cognitive and nervous system functioning. Studies also have shown that PCBs have a known neuropsychological effect in children and can cause an elevated risk of cancer. Both of these contaminants bio-accumulate, primarily in fatty tissue. A copy of the study can be found here and Maine’s recommendations for stripped bass and bluefish consumption from the Atlantic coastal states are found below.

Striped bass and bluefish consumption advisory, Atlantic states
Figure from the Interstate Workgroup report indicating recommendations for striped bass and bluefish consumption. Figure courtesy of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, here we have a fairly comprehensive study of contaminants in fish and the potential hazards to the sensitive group, which consists of women of child-bearing age as well as young women and children. That group is advised by this study to consume from one meal a month to zero consumption. Others are advised to consume no more than one meal a month – not exactly an endorsement for eating seafood.

Virtually every state from the Mid-Atlantic to Maine has posted these warnings except for the state of Massachusetts. Why, I cannot find out. It may have to do as much with the workings of state bureaucracy as any other possibility. Some think that this has been done to protect the commercial striped bass fishery. I don’t know, but I do know is that it is not protecting the general public. There may be some reasoning by state health officials that they do not post the health warning. That has to do with the testing methodology. Methylmercury bio-accumulates in the fatty tissue. In some testing methods the entire fish is ground up, and the testing is done on that. This gives a lower reading of the toxic contaminants than if the test had been done solely on the part of the fish normally consumed.

It still seems strange to me that almost all the coastal Atlantic states have some level of warning about consumption of bluefish and striped bass. Most of the states in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took part in the study workgroup, in which Massachusetts had three participants. All of the New England states except Massachusetts since have posted health warnings about consumption of these fish. It seems odd to me that when fish cross the imaginary state line into Massachusetts waters they somehow become cleansed. Could be, ya know! There have been other Massachusetts Miracles. And if you believe that…!

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March 12, 2014

Rules clarified for Florida snapper and tilefish take

Vermillion snapper
Vermillion snapper. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

You gotta love it when fishery managers admit they messed up and go back to doing the right thing.

That’s why, as of March 13, charter captains and crews in Florida will be allowed to keep their recreational bag limits of vermilion snapper, groupers and golden tilefish in state waters of the Atlantic, including all of the Florida Keys.

Here’s the back story: In 2009, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council wanted to reduce the number of gag groupers and vermilion snappers kept by recreational anglers in federal and state waters of the Atlantic Ocean to help increase those fish populations. In addition to closed seasons, the council prohibited captains and crews of charter boats from keeping their recreational limits of vermilions. They also weren’t allowed to keep any groupers and tilefish, in the hopes of preventing bycatch of gag groupers. But captains and crew could keep their recreational limits of fish such as dolphin and other snappers, which led to confusion.

A year ago, the council voted to get rid of the rule. As of this past Jan. 27, captains and crew could keep their limits of vermilion snappers, groupers and tilefish in Atlantic federal waters. At its meeting last month in Tampa, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to eliminate the rule in Atlantic state waters, which means captains and crew can keep the recreational bag limit of all species of reef fish caught in those waters.

The reason for the change? The council said the decrease in the harvest of those species because of the rule was minimal. Plus, doing away with the rule eliminates confusion and will have a negligible effect on the populations of those species. More helpful was a five-month closed season for vermilion snapper. And there continues to be a four-month closed season for shallow water groupers, including gags, reds and blacks, the three most popular grouper species in Florida.

The vermilion snapper closure in Atlantic state and federal waters was Nov. 1-March 31. That closed season was eliminated because the closure worked and vermilion snapper populations had significantly increased. Lately, fishing for vermilion snappers and tilefish has been the best bet for South Florida anglers seeking to bring home fish for dinner. Fishing for sought-after species such as kingfish, cobia, wahoo, dolphin and tuna has been inconsistent at best.

Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.
Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

Being deepwater fish, golden tilefish are quite tasty, and they are fairly easy to catch. They are typically targeted in 600-700 feet of water by dropping bait to the bottom using an electric fishing reel. When you get a bite, you flip the reel’s switch, and up comes the tilefish. Captains I know regretted not being able to provide their customers with more golden tilefish than their allotted one per person. Now they can make additional drops and provide one or two more fish to take home.

The vermilion snapper change definitely won’t make much of a difference, as the fish are almost exclusively caught by drift boats in 160-300 feet of water. The limit on vermilions is five per person, and allowing the captain and the mate to keep their 10 fish on a drift boat with 15 or more anglers would not be significant except, perhaps, to those anglers who didn’t catch anything and would like to go home with a couple of snapper fillets.

 

Chris Macaluso

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March 10, 2014

A Louisiana duck hunt: How sportsmen and conservation have restored a tradition

Louisiana duck hunters
The author and his father duck hunting in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

I love to duck hunt. If I was forced to pick the things I enjoy most about being a sportsman in Sportsman’s Paradise, they would be catching speckled trout on topwater baits, battling big mangrove snapper on the reefs and rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, pitching jigs and soft plastics against the cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin for largemouths – and hunting ducks in the marshes and swamps across South Louisiana.

This past season, my dad and I were invited to join a group of longtime, passionate, Bayou State outdoorsmen in Pecan Island. The community, which is not really an island, consists of a handful  of mostly elevated homes, hunting camps and a few businesses stuck smack-dab between the seemingly endless expanse of rice and crawfish farms of Southwest Louisiana’s “Cajun Prairie” and the fresh and brackish marshes to the south that eventually give way to the Gulf.

Hunters venturing to Pecan Island enjoy the best of the habitat provided both by agriculture and Mother Nature, with ducks and geese by the hundreds of thousands piling into fields and marshes to feed on a variety of flora and fauna. While I had hunted many times in flooded fields to the north and west, it was my first venture to Pecan Island, one of North America’s true “duck meccas.”

My dad and I were assigned a marsh hunt for the morning. After a short and chilly pre-dawn boat ride, we arrived at the pit blind, camouflaged with native Roseau cane and wax myrtle on the northern edge of a shallow pond loaded with submerged aquatic vegetation and teeming with bird activity.

The sunrise was spectacular. The decoys soon were buzzing with bluewing and greenwing teal. Our guide’s dog worked without a hiccup, and we shot just badly enough to allow us to hunt past 7:30 when the mallards and gadwalls started to work. It’s a day that my dad and I will long remember. However, without the aggressive work to restore that marsh over the last decade-plus, that day never would have happened.

As is the case with most hunts or fishing trips, half the enjoyment comes from the story swapping and talk of the good ol’ days with fellow sportsmen, though my “good ol’ days” don’t stretch near as deep into the past as many. The night before our hunt, Pecan Island hunter-historians recounted the 1980s and ’90s when they wondered if they were going to lose their precious marsh forever.

Habitat changes precipitated by efforts to drain nearby wetlands for agriculture, construction of canals to facilitate oil and gas exploration, and saltwater intrusion were limiting sediment distribution, killing grasses and making marshes more vulnerable to subsidence and hurricane storm surges.

Open water led to increased wave action, causing more open water. Without grass to filter sediment and break up waves, the water became increasingly turbid, further inhibiting grass growth and creating an environment far less fecund and hospitable for both the migrating waterfowl and the fish and crustaceans seeking nursery grounds and protection.

The salvation for the marsh, the reason ducks descended into that shallow grassy pond all morning, came from a state and federal effort paid for by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act to build coastal habitat projects across Louisiana’s coast over the last 25 years. Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as part of that larger effort, to build a series of marsh terraces and introduce more freshwater to keep the salt at bay, or more specifically, in the bay. The terraces, best described as a series of low, linear sediment piles, quickly reduced insidious wave action, helped sediments fall out of the water column and encouraged the return of native grasses. The project was a bargain as well, with more than 3,500 acres of terraces built with less than $3 million.

Marsh terraces certainly aren’t a wide-spread, long-term answer to the ever-present and drastic coastal land loss in Louisiana. A variety of projects and initiatives have been prescribed and must be utilized simply to sustain what remains of Louisiana’s coast, much less reverse the habitat loss and actually see new wetlands. But, in the case of Pecan Island, one project helped extend the life of a productive habitat for several decades in an area where few other options existed.

Last year, as I worked with the Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Coastal Conservation and American Sportfishing Association to host workshops with fellow anglers, charter captains, scientists and researchers and other conservation groups across the five Gulf States to identify habitat restoration projects to restore, enhance and sustain Gulf fisheries, I quietly celebrated that many of the habitat projects discussed for fish, especially the effort to comprehensively restore the Mississippi River Delta, also benefit a host of other wildlife like ducks. After all, how could I go on a “cast and blast” trip to hunt ducks in the morning and fish for redfish and speckled trout in the afternoon in Buras if there isn’t quality habitat to do both?

The projects identified in the workshops are the basis for a report released by the TRCP last fall titled: “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability.” Proudly, I can say that my fellow sportsmen used the workshops and the report to champion a host of efforts that should lead to better science, management and habitat for saltwater fish using oil spill recovery penalties. We are taking their recommendations back to federal and state decision makers who are determining how to spend the money.

Quality habitat is the tie that binds all sportsmen to each other and to the land, no matter where they fish or hunt. Without a concerted effort to conserve, protect, enhance and expand that habitat, like many of the projects recommended by Gulf anglers aim to do, the bind is certain to break.

Learn more about sportsmen’s recommendations for rehabilitating recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.

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March 7, 2014

President’s budget good for sportsmen’s water priorities

President Obama’s budget request to Congress released on March 4 contains a number of spending priorities sportsmen should like. The budget proposes full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as strong funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and an increase in the price of the federal Duck Stamp. Important reforms to funding wildfire suppression also are proposed.

Of particular note for hunters and anglers who want to make sure we conserve water for access to quality aquatic habitat, the budget includes the strongest request to date for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program. Among other things, WaterSMART supports cost-shared grants to develop local water solutions, and it funds, in partnership with the states, studies of how to reconcile the long-term water supply and demand needs in several river basins.

At a total of $52.1 million, the request maintains the strong investment Congress made in WaterSMART in its fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill and adds two new programs focused on drought response and building resilient infrastructure. (The details of those two new programs are to be announced.)

Perhaps more importantly, I’m told the budget also includes a request for Congress to raise the legal spending cap on WaterSMART by $200 million. Without such a move by Congress, many of the most important WaterSMART services will come to an end this year. (Documentation for this request should be available around March 10. I’ll update this post when more information becomes available.)  * Update: The Bureau of Reclamation’s FY15 Budget Justification is available here. The request for authority to spend another $200 million on WaterSMART is on p. 5 of the Appropriations Language section.

This request represents an important commitment to a highly successful program that is conserving 616,000 acre-feet of water annually – enough water for 2.5 million people each year. Much of the water conserved through this program will remain instream to support species recovery, such as salmon or endangered steelhead, or in reservoirs, thereby improving waterfowl habitat.

Legislation from Sen. Brian Schatz and five other Western senators that would extend the WaterSMART program already is working its way through Congress, reflecting support from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, too. Companion legislation in the House is forthcoming.

The president’s proposal may not play a significant role in the final spending decisions made by Congress, because Congress already has passed a budget for fiscal year 2015, and most Republicans have already panned it as a Democratic “wish list” in an election year. This is unfortunate, in part because we have just begun to see a return to normalcy in the annual budget and spending battles.

Nevertheless, sportsmen should be pleased by the priority federal decision makers are placing on a program that will help us make the most out of every drop of water we have. If Congress acts to maintain WaterSMART, we will continue to see improvements in water management, leading to more high-quality aquatic habitat and better access to hunting and fishing opportunities.

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