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April 17, 2014

A national recreational fishing policy

Rod and reel courtesy NMFS/NOAA
Photo courtesy of NMFS/NOAA.gov.

Well, it looks like the recreational fishing industry got an April Fools present. No, really, we did. It’s not a joke.

NOAA Fisheries has committed to establishing a national recreational fishing policy. What does that mean? The real answer is in the future, but the door that some like to say was “rusted shut” has been opened.

During the first days of April and what finally felt like real spring, I attended the Recreational Fishing Summit organized by NOAA Fisheries in the Washington, D.C., area. This summit was the fourth time the recreational fishing industry has come together to try to influence federal policies on fishing in general and specifically the policies that directly impact the recreational fishing industry and the 11 million saltwater anglers.

The first summit was held on the West Coast. Then came St. Petersburg, Fla., in the early 2000s. The last was in the D.C. area four years ago and started the ball rolling to change how the recreational fishing industry has been and is viewed by federal policy makers. This summit produced a fairly long list of changes that attendees wanted implemented. To his credit, Eric Schwab, then head of NOAA Fisheries, committed to getting that list checked off as soon as possible. While 100 percent of the items were not completed, most of did get done. One of the outstanding and frankly most important items is to get the “new” Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, completed and functional. Time after time, at the summits and just about everywhere else, the recreational industry has questioned the data being used to manage the recreational users. There are substantial fluctuations in some of the catch number that just do not make any sense. If bad data are being used to set seasons, bag limits or assess catch, then folks’ suspicion is warranted. MRIP needs to be fully functional and completely trusted.

Marine Visioning Report for America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries
Image courtesy of Trcp.org.

This year’s summit was a follow-up to the previous one. The output was a list of things to be addressed by NOAA Fisheries. The list was not as long, but it has some fairly complicated issues to address. To a great extent the list is directly reflective of the Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries and the report presented by the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, Recreational Working Group. The “vision report” had a short list of important items, but several rise to the top in my mind. They did also at the summit. First, establish a national recreational fishing policy. Next was allocating marine fisheries for the greatest economic benefit to the nation. Also managing for the forage base. All of these were high up on the short list from the summit. All of these would change management policy and finally recognize the value of the recreational fishing industry.

I am happy to report that Eileen Sobeck, the newly appointed head of NOAA Fisheries, concluded the summit with the commitment to move ahead with establishing the national recreational fishing policy. Great stuff! But from the recreational industry standpoint, the real work now begins. We need to make sure that what goes into this policy is the right stuff. John Brownlee, editorial director of Salt Water Sportsman, Sport Fishing and Marlin magazine and keynote summit speaker, put it correctly when he said that the real work begins after we get NOAA Fisheries to say yes!

Yes, I do think that we are making headway. Rather than looking back and saying, “It’s about time,” I look forward and say, “We need to make sure we get it right this time!”

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posted in: General

April 15, 2014

Bigger than bighorns

Most sportsmen agree that although fish and wildlife biology is complex, the decision to use the best available science in the management of valuable natural resources should not be. Unfortunately, the management objectives developed by fish and wildlife professionals too often are trumped by policymakers who undermine the science with special interest agendas. When this happens hunters and anglers inevitably lose.

We do not have to look far for examples, including the politically charged legal challenge to a decision made for bighorn sheep in the Payette National Forest of Idaho, which recently was settled after a lengthy court battle.

At the time of European settlement in the West, bighorn sheep were one of the most prominent large mammals on the landscape. Paleontological data indicates that there may have been as many as 2 million of these regal animals in America. But by the mid-1950s bighorn sheep had plummeted to only about 10,000 individuals. This decline was primarily due to unregulated hunting, forage competition from livestock grazing and the introduction of diseases transmitted by domestic sheep and goats. Today, we have regulated hunting and livestock grazing, but the disease transmission from domestic sheep and goats still occurs and is considered the No. 1 limiting factor to bighorn sheep recovery in the West.

According to Dr. Subramaniam Srikumaran, D.V.M., chair of the wild sheep disease research facility at Washington State University, large scale pneumonic die-offs have “decimated bighorn sheep populations time and time again.” These die offs are “unequivocally” the result of wild sheep being forced to share their native range with domestic sheep and goats.

Over the last 30 years bighorn advocates have worked with the domestic sheep industry on the only viable course of action currently available: separation of the two species. Mutually beneficial solutions such as buying out public land domestic sheep grazing allotments, converting them to another livestock type (such as cattle) or moving domestic sheep to alternative allotments outside of suitable historic bighorn sheep habitat all have been proposed. In a number of cases progress was made, yet in others, agreements could not be reached.

Then in March of 2005, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service announced a groundbreaking decision on an environmental impact study conducted in the Hells Canyon area of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. He determined that the forest had a responsibility to ensure there was habitat available to support a viable population of bighorn sheep and that allowing continued domestic sheep grazing in or near occupied bighorn sheep habitat would have adverse impacts on bighorn sheep populations. The final forest plan, completed in 2010, used the best available science to identify suitable rangelands for domestic sheep and goat grazing, while identifying other allotments on the Payette National Forest requiring closure.

This decision was a win for wildlife, wildlife managers, sportsmen and the economies that benefit from sustainable wildlife populations. However, it still came under fire as recently as this year when an appeal, challenging the science behind the transmission of disease from domestic sheep and goats to bighorns, was filed in federal court by the American Sheep Industry and several state woolgrower organizations. They asserted that the analysis performed by the U.S. Forest Service using best science was flawed. The federal judge in Boise, Idaho, denied their appeal and stood with the science and the analysis it supported, declaring that the victory for the bighorns decided in 2010 remained.

When you take a step back and look at all of the pressures our fish and wildlife face due to human induced factors, it is easy to see that this decision is not just a victory for the 500 or so bighorns that  now inhabit Hells Canyon or even for single species. From a conservation perspective, the case  is much bigger than bighorns.

This verdict set the precedent that science, not politics or special interests, should be the determining factor in wildlife management decisions. A different verdict would have opened the door to challenges of decisions that conserve everything from sage grouse to marine fisheries – and potentially by much more influential industries than the woolgrowers. This decision represents hope for the future of fish, wildlife and ultimately all life.

Neil Thagard is the Western outreach director for the TRCP and has been closely involved with wild sheep conservation throughout North America for the past 20 years, including his direct involvement with the Payette National Forest decision. He was the first U.S. citizen to receive the Lex Ross Wild Sheep Conservation Award presented by the conservation community in British Columbia, Canada, for his efforts.

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posted in: General

April 11, 2014

For us humans to digest, first we must swallow

Red snapper on ice. Photo courtesy of Jeff Dute/www.al.com.
Red snapper on ice. Photo courtesy of Jeff Dute/www.al.com.

For recreational fishermen along the Gulf of Mexico, swallowing was a difficult task last week.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council set out what is sure to be an unpalatable menu for recreational fishermen last Thursday at its meeting in Baton Rouge, La., when it voted a shortest-ever 11-day recreational red snapper season for 2014.

Just three hours later, the Louisiana Department of  Wildlife and Fisheries found the decision so distasteful the agency’s top man, Secretary Robert Barham, announced that come Monday, April 14, his state will open state waters to a year-round recreational red snapper take.

“After reviewing what our biologists expect Louisiana’s recreational red snapper landings to be this year, and the recent action taken by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to have a very short federal season, I have decided to support our anglers and the associated fishing industry by opening state waters 365 days until further notice,” Barham said in a prepared statement.

“The Gulf Council’s action is clear evidence that their process is broken and they give no consideration to the needs of individual states. For two years, I have been trying to persuade the Gulf Council to move forward with regional management, allowing the states flexibility in management by empowering our anglers and fishing industry to decide how they want red snapper managed. That hasn’t happened.”

The move aligns Louisiana with its neighbor Texas in having 365-day seasons in state waters. Louisiana will continue its two-fish-per day limit, while Texas allows a four-per- day take. Florida has elected to not comply with federal regulations in state waters as well, citing similar frustration and distrust of federal management.

It was clear the 17-member Gulf council was running in fear of an early April ruling by a Washington, D.C., district court that told the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Gulf Council that its recreational red snapper management schemes allowed recreationals to exceed their sector’s quota during five of the six years between 2007 and 2012.

A group of commercial fishermen brought the lawsuit and used NMFS data to show the recreational overages, numbers some on the recreational side believe are drawn from the upper end of a built-in “fudge factor” in the federal formula. Numbers on the factor’s low side show recreationals are within, or very close to, their sector’s annual quota.

Louisiana’s reaction came after NOAA Southeast Region Administrator Roy Crabtree announced a 40-day recreational red snapper season late last year, a welcomed addition of nearly two weeks from 2013’s 27-day season.

Last year’s season came after Crabtree, (who has a Gulf Council vote) was forced to recommend a Gulf-wide 27-day season after he issued a directive for respective nine-day and 14-day seasons in federal waters off the Louisiana and Texas coasts. A Texas-based federal judge ruled the directive was punitive towards individual states, which is prohibited by federal fisheries-management law, and forced a more equitable number of season days across the five Gulf states last season.

Presumably, and only if 2014’s 11 days follows precedent, this year’s season will begin at 12:01 a.m. June 1 and run through 12:01 a.m. June 12.

A more complete picture of what ultimately happened began last Tuesday when the council’s Reef Fish Committee debated 14-day, five-day and no season. That’s right: NO DAYS for 2014 despite recent stock assessments showing the largest ever stock of red snapper recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s when the recreational fishing world got a primer on “buffers,” especially a 20-percent buffer, an addition to the formula to restrict a season to try to ensure red snapper harvest comes as close as the federal managers can estimate in keeping the recreational take under its current quota.

A 14-day season with a 20-percent buffer is an 11-day season when the buffer removes its 20 percent, or 2.8 days.

Another suggestion last week was for an eight-day season with a 30-percent buffer, but that proposal had so little traction it slid by with minimal debate.

The short explanation of it all is that the Gulf council will forward its decision to NMFS showing the council’s willingness to make sure recreational fishermen stay under their 5.39 million-pound allowable catch (49 percent of an 11-million-pound quota for 2014). Plugged into the formula, the 20-percent buffer produces a 4.312-million-pound “annual catch target” when the daily creel limit is two-per-angler per day.

There was more, much more, and without sharing the fatigue of listening to nearly 20 hours of the back-and-forth of the council meeting in Baton Rouge, here are other items of interest:

–The Gulf Council approved an exempted fishing permit for Alabama’s near 100-vessel charter boat fleet.

The proposal came from Alabama charter boat operators who want to extract what was outlined as an 8-percent total catch by charter operators from Alabama’s historic recreational red snapper catch. That 8 percent would be doled out to charter operators with a 10-per-day take for “six-pack” charters and 20 per day for larger charter boats, effectively making charter boat operators, who are taking recreational anglers fishing, exempt from following the same rules and regulations private recreational anglers have to follow. Six-pack boats are those vessels on which the captain is only licensed to take six customers.

What happened this week in Baton Rouge certainly will give us more to chew on in the coming weeks and months. Whether recreational fishermen can or should swallow any or all of it is another story.

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posted in: General

March 31, 2014

Red snapper battle lines in the “Sportsman’s Paradise”

Louisiana-Sportsmans-Paradise
Photo courtesy of rongcheek.com.

You’d think that somebody living in Louisiana, the self-proclaimed “‘Sportsman’s Paradise,” would learn through the years that the word “sportsman” didn’t arrive in a dictionary because man was spearing fish or entrapping them with any ancient or modern device.

Yet, every time there’s a chance to comment publicly about the ongoing battle between recreational and commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, especially when it comes to red snapper, the Louisiana Restaurant Association lines up squarely against recreational fishermen – the sportsmen living, working and spending money, sometimes in the restaurants that open their doors daily in the Sportsman’s Paradise.

The LRA is a powerful organization in Louisiana. It should be. Some of Louisiana’s restaurants are renowned worldwide: Chefs working in them produce culinary masterpieces mostly because of the rich blending that brought together so many unique ethnic cultures in one place – and also because our waters yield such a variety of marine creatures those ethnic groups could adapt for their tables.

How odd that, given Louisiana’s freshwater, brackish-water and saltwater bounty, battle lines have been drawn over one species – red snapper.

Yet that’s where the lines are drawn today.

Louisiana Sportsman Logo
Photo courtesy of shopsportsmanstore.com.

And it’s why I, someone who has for more than 60 years breathed our humid air, lived through dozens of hurricanes, watched millions of gallons of oil gush from an underwater well, and witnessed the greatest wetlands loss in our nation’s history, despise the more than 20-year fight over this one species, the red snapper.

I grew up during the years when recreational and commercial fishermen drew on our bountiful waters with a certain respect for each other.

That’s not the case today – not with the recent attacks on the allocation and re-allocation of Gulf of Mexico red snapper.

Most years the annual Gulf red snapper quota is 9.12 million pounds, divided 51 percent for commercial anglers and 49 percent for the tens of thousands of recreational anglers living in the five Gulf states.

For the last five or six years, the commercials and the LRA decried data that show the recreational take has exceeded its 49 percent.

But the question today is “How factual is that data?” The question arises because, by its own admission, National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, cannot accurately count the recreational take.

You don’t have to be a theoretical mathematician to look at the statistical model used to quantify the recreational take to know it’s flawed.

For instance, Louisiana’s estimated annual recreational catch is somewhere in the 600,000-pound neighborhood, according to the NMFS, but the model used to produce that number has a wide variation – one that would result in the recreational estimate being as low as 300,000 pounds or closer to 900,000 pounds.

You see the problem. This is why recreationals here, especially with more and more red snapper showing up off the Louisiana coast, don’t understand why the LRA’s comments in Gulf Council hearings call for more recreational restrictions, that any increase in recreational catch puts severe limitations on members’ ability to make money in their establishments.

In those meetings, I’ve heard on three occasions that as much as 80 percent of the commercial red snapper harvest is shipped out of the country. Those comments, too, leave the recreational side scratching its head over the LRA claim that more fish would help their bottom line and provide fish to Midwest markets.

Sportsman Paradise Sign
Photo courtesy of John L.H./Yelp.com.

There is some truth in the LRA protest: Red snapper is a wonderful fish to eat, but in Louisiana there’s so much more than red snapper, and because there is so much more, we don’t have to worry about the downward spiral of blue crabs closing the doors of diners in Maryland or the collapse of the cod stocks shutting down Northeast fish-n-chips shops.

Our state’s epicurean history has drawn on so much more that we don’t need to fight about one species, not when it’s selling in our local fish markets for more than $20 a pound, a price that’s too rich for my blood.

Chris Macaluso

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posted in: General

March 25, 2014

As marine fisheries legislation heats up, it’s time to revamp the federal management system

Congress is moving forward quickly to revise the federal act that governs our nation’s marine resources. The sportfishing and boating industries, along with recreational saltwater anglers, are stepping up efforts to ensure that their economic, social and conservation priorities are well represented.

As the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act reauthorization advances on Capitol Hill, Bass Pro Shops Founder Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats President Scott Deal, leaders in the recreational angling industry and co-chairmen of the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, will present A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries at the National Press Club on March 26, 2014, from 9:30–10:30 a.m.

The report, introduced to fishing and boating industry stakeholders on Feb. 13, 2014, at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show, is receiving critical acclaim as an important step toward commonsense saltwater fisheries management. Now, with strong support from the boating and fishing community, the commission is taking the report to the Hill to work with Congress as the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization proceeds.

The Morris-Deal Commission assembled an expert panel of state and federal agency administrators, researchers, industry representatives and economists to promote a proactive vision for saltwater fisheries management. The current Magnuson-Stevens Act does not sufficiently address this important use of our nation’s public fishery resources. The commission’s report addresses recreational fishing specifically and differentiates the economic, social and conservation needs from those of commercial fishing.

According to NOAA Fisheries, 11 million Americans recreationally fish in saltwater each year. These sportsmen and -women contribute more than $70 billion to the nation’s economy and $1.5 billion for on-the-ground conservation of aquatic resources and habitats.

Who:     Johnny Morris, founder and CEO, Bass Pro Shops
Scott Deal, president, Maverick Boats

When:   Wednesday, March 26, 9:30–10:30 a.m. EDT

Where:  Fourth Estate Room, The National Press Club
529 14th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20045

RSVP to Lauren Dunn, National Marine Manufacturers Association, at ldunn@nmma.org; or Mary Jane Williamson, American Sportfishing Association, at mjwilliamson@asafishing.org.

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