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Our Woman Conservationist Wednesday series continues as we nerd out over angler catch data and how it can inform better marine fisheries management with the woman who oversees citizen science programs in the Southeastern states
When I invited Amber to be featured in our series of Q&As with women in conservation, I quickly discovered she and I share another uncommon affinity—a love for large datasets. As part of TRCP’s communications team, I leverage data to learn as much as I can about you, our members, and share content that resonates with you personally. Meanwhile, Amber is working to collect more reliable catch data from anglers to influence how the federal fisheries management agency, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council will manage species in the future.
Here’s how her personal connection to fishing keeps her going in a challenging field and why she is determined to hear about what you’re catching.
TRCP: How did you begin working in fisheries management?
AMBER VON HARTEN: I grew up catching croaker in the Chesapeake Bay area and made up my mind to work in marine science in fifth grade. When you tell people you’ve dreamt of studying ocean sustainability from a young age, most picture you saving sea turtles or something. Well, my first gig was working closely with commercial fishermen within the shrimping industry, and that’s where my love of applied research began.
TRCP: What is the biggest challenge for the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council?
VON HARTEN: We are charged with conserving and managing 73 species of fish, seaweed, lobster, shrimp, and crab within the South Atlantic, from North Carolina all the way down to Key West. It’s a vast amount of habitat to protect, and it’s managed for both commercial and recreational fishing, where it’s hard to find a balance. The way we manage fish has biological, social, and economic impacts on coastal communities. The state of these fisheries directly affects people’s livelihoods, and that’s why the Council has one of the most rigorous processes for federal fisheries management in the world.
TRCP: What do you consider to be some of the biggest threats to the species you manage right now?
VON HARTEN: Habitat issues are always a concern. Any loss of habitat affects many species. For example, groupers spawn offshore and their young grow up in our estuaries and bays. With grouper and other species, we’ve seen some moving north and expanding their range with changes in water temperature and availability of habitat—all of a sudden, we have a species that travels out of our jurisdiction, complicating management across agencies. Fish don’t recognize state boundaries, of course and without coordinated management, the shifts in species distribution could upset the regional balance of resources in the process.
TRCP: So, how can better data help lead to better management of fish and habitat?
VON HARTEN: There is no substitute for thorough data collection. The effects of our management decisions are personal and recreational and commercial fishermen tell us all the time that they don’t trust the data that influences management decisions or their seasons.
One of the ways we are trying to think outside the box is to explore the idea of citizen science—having anglers pitch in with data collection through the use of smartphone applications. Scientists can be skeptical of the quality of self-reported data, but if you really look at current data determining fisheries management, much of it is already self-reported.
Citizen science offers a way for fishermen, scientists, and fisheries managers to all work together so that expectations are met about what data is needed for management and everyone has a shared goal in mind for how the data can be used. We hope that our latest programs will supplement existing data and fill in gaps in our current knowledge, like how many fish recreational fishermen are discarding because of their size and or because they’re a prohibited species.
TRCP: How is this different from what has been done in the past?
VON HARTEN: The use of an app to make it easier—more and more scientific fields are moving towards electronic reporting. There are lots of examples of cooperative research between scientists and fishermen, but often once the research project ends, the data sits on a shelf and isn’t revisited again. The Council’s program is pioneering the use of citizen science to supplement existing data streams using this approach.
TRCP: What continues to be your inspiration? What advice would you give other women and girls who want to take up fishing or even break into your line of work?
VON HARTEN: It was my experience fishing as a kid that made me relate to the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay area. These places are special—you can’t deny it after you’ve spent a full-moon tide up on the flats, watching the tails of the drum as they eat fiddler crabs or sight-casting to redfish.
I’d encourage young girls to believe that the sky is the limit and they’re good enough to study what interests them—even if they’re the first to do so. I was lucky to have had that kind of connection to the natural world early on, but it can be fostered at any age. It’s never too late to get your feet wet, ladies.
The most recent attempts to revive the Pebble Mine proposal and roll back sensible limits on mining activity in one of the finest fishing destinations on Earth
Even by Alaskan standards—and we’re lucky to have our pick of remote streams with big and plentiful fish—Bristol Bay is a sporting paradise. It is recognized as one of the finest fishing destinations on Earth, tucked away in an isolated corner of southwest Alaska. The region also produces about half the world’s sockeye salmon, with a record 60 million fish returning last summer to our famed rivers.
There’s no question that Bristol Bay is unique, and yet we continue to have to speak up to make sure it stays that way. Here’s why.
The now-infamous proposed Pebble Mine would carve out an open pit at the headwaters of the Bay’s two largest rivers, threatening clean water and fish habitat. Somewhere between 1.2 billion and 11 billion tons of mine waste could then remain in the area forever.
That’s why anglers, recreation businesses, tribes, chefs, commercial fishermen, conservation organizations, and hundreds of thousands of Americans came together to successfully take the proposed mine from a done deal to a less-than-popular project—it has lost three major partners, but the mine’s remaining proponent, Northern Dynasty Minerals, is still looking for new investors.
Together, we’ve successfully created major hurdles for Pebble, and in 2014, there was enough widespread public support to place sensible limits on mining in the region. In 2017, the EPA attempted to roll back limits on mining, but those who recognize the value of Bristol Bay had something to say about it—and the agency listened. The EPA received over one million public comments in response to their attempts to withdraw proposed protections for Bristol Bay, and surprisingly, the agency announced in January 2018 that they would keep these protections on the table.
Though the protections are not final, they haven’t been eliminated, as we feared. Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers cannot issue a final permit for Pebble Mine while a review of these protections is ongoing. And while the Pebble Partnership has been touting that it has a green light on all fronts to proceed, our decision makers are expressing serious reservations about the possibility that mining in Bristol Bay can happen safely—even in a pro-development political environment. EPA Administrator Pruitt and Governor Walker both made very strong statements on the heels of the announcement to maintain protections.
Though this is a huge victory, Pebble Mine backers are gaining momentum and the fight is far from over. The vigorous support of hunters and anglers has been critical to protecting the bounty of Bristol Bay in the past. But we will to speak up again, as early as this spring.
At the end of 2017, Pebble Limited Partnership applied for the first of many dozens of permits they’ll need, and this kicked off a multi-year NEPA review and Environmental Impact Statement process. Mine opponents will continue to demonstrate at every level that for scientific, economic, and cultural reasons, Pebble should not be granted a permit.
We expect the federal agencies to open a scoping comment period soon, and this is the first major step of the EIS process. Sportsmen and women need to make our voices heard once again during that process. Additionally, Alaskans are advocating for options at the state level that, if enacted, would establish higher hurdles for Pebble to overcome to get approval for its state permits.
As an Alaskan, a mother, and an angler, I’d like to thank the thousands of sportsmen and women from across the country who have already spoken up time and again to tell decision makers at all levels that Pebble Mine is not worth the risk in Bristol Bay. We’ve seen that when enough of us do so, we are heard.
Nelli Williams is Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Director. She has worked on the effort to safeguard Bristol Bay’s fish, wildlife, communities and jobs for nearly a decade. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska with her husband and two young children – they get out fishing and playing on Alaska’s rivers every chance they get.
Top photo courtesy of Ben Knight and Wild Salmon Center.
The Modern Fish Act would allow updated management approaches that acknowledge the difference between recreational and commercial fisheries, and it’s nearing the finish line
Saltwater anglers celebrate this time of year, knowing that the bulk of winter has passed and warmer temperatures, calmer seas, and lines stretched by sportfish of all sorts are likely just a few weeks away.
But the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee recently gave anglers another reason to be optimistic about March’s arrival—last week, they approved the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, also known as the Modern Fish Act, by a wide margin. A bipartisan contingent of 22 out of the 27 committee members voted to approve the bill and advance it to the Senate floor.
This is great news for America’s anglers, because the bill contains a host of provisions aimed at improving federal management of recreational fishing, specifically by acknowledging in federal law—finally—that recreational and commercial fishing have fundamentally different approaches and management should be “adapted to the characteristics of each sector.”
The Modern Fish Act allows regional fisheries management councils to maintain conservation measures and explore approaches that update management to better serve anglers. This includes strategies that have been very successfully used by state agencies to manage coastal and inland fish species.
The bill also calls for NOAA to work with the National Academies of Sciences to examine and improve data collection programs for recreational fisheries. More state-collected stock assessment and recreational harvest data could be used by federal managers under the Modern Fish Act, as well. More precise harvest data could result in longer, more stable recreational seasons.
Under the bill, NOAA will need to take a hard look at commercial and recreational fishing allocations in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic to determine if current allocations are based in the best available data and meet the economic and cultural needs of the entire fishery—not simply the commercial side. This could mean more fish allocated to recreational or commercial harvest, depending on how conditions have changed, but the updates are critical. Many current allocations are based in information from three decades ago or more and have not been examined with an eye toward meeting both sectors’ needs.
Finally, the Modern Fish Act calls for a thorough examination of the social and economic impacts of implementing additional limited-access privilege programs, also known as individual fishing quota systems, in fisheries shared by commercial and recreational users. While individual fishing quotas have worked well in the Alaskan crab and Pollock fisheries, which are entirely commercial, they aren’t suited for recreational fisheries where the fish must continue to support every American’s opportunity to fish.
Sportsmen would never suggest that private companies and individuals own ducks, deer, or largemouth bass—and private ownership of saltwater sportfish should not be tolerated either.
It is important to note that this bill has garnered broad bipartisan support since being introduced by Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker and Florida Democrat Bill Nelson last July. Twelve co-sponsors have added their names to the bill over the last eight months, split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
Help also came from both Republican and Democratic staff on the committee, who worked extensively with recreational fishing conservation groups over the last year or more to ensure that the bill accomplishes the targeted fixes to federal law that anglers are seeking, while making sure that resource conservation isn’t compromised. “This is the Commerce Committee at its best,” said Wicker after the February 28 committee hearing.
Since the bill was first introduced, the TRCP and a coalition of partner and non-partner groups—including the American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Sportfishing Policy, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Yamaha Marine Group, and others—have worked tirelessly with staff from Senate offices on both sides of the aisle to address concerns and make reasonable amendments to the bill. Many concessions were made in the last 10 months to bring the Commerce Committee a bill that is a source of pride for Republicans and Democrats, and, more importantly, the sportsmen and women who have always been leaders in resource conservation.
“The Modern Fish Act represents five years’ worth of input from our community and will increase the level of trust between America’s 11 million saltwater anglers and federal fisheries managers,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We’re extremely encouraged to see these updated management approaches tailored to meet the unique needs of recreational fishing, rather than forcing recreational seasons into a management scheme designed for commercial fisheries.”
Certainly, when congressional staff is helping to write legislation with cooperation from recreational angling conservation groups, and both Republicans and Democrats are willing to compromise to improve legislation, it represents the best of our country’s lawmaking process. Hopefully we can expect to see this level of agreement and cooperation extended to other efforts to improve law and policy.
But even a popular bill isn’t necessarily a done deal—there are many demands competing for our lawmakers’ attentions, and we need to continue to engage Senate and House members to move the Modern Fish Act to passage as soon as possible. Saltwater angling and the management of our most important fisheries are closer than ever to getting well-deserved recognition from the federal government.
We can’t let another Congress go by without addressing the very real differences between recreational and commercial fishing—or improving fisheries management to rebuild trust between anglers and federal fisheries managers.
The Department of Commerce released the first-ever official data on outdoor recreation’s outsize impact on the American economy, and these numbers don’t lie
For the first time ever, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis has released data on the financial clout of outdoor recreation in America. Thanks to a 2016 law, the agency is now charged with tracking this sector as it does other parts of the U.S. economy.
The new BEA data quantifies what many of us already knew: Outdoor recreation is big business, accounting for $637 billion, or more than 2 percent, of the nation’s gross domestic product.
This doesn’t even consider trips of less than 50 miles—about two-thirds of all outdoor recreation trips are of the close-to-home variety—nor the sale of imported goods. Those numbers are included in the Outdoor Industry Association’s five-year report, the most recent of which showed that the outdoor recreation economy is worth $887 billion.
What is also striking about the BEA numbers is the growth rate of the industry. While the U.S. economy as a whole grew by 2.8 percent in 2016, the outdoor recreation economy grew by 3.8 percent—nearly 36 percent faster than the national economy.
It’s an extraordinary step forward to be able to quantify exactly how much America’s hunters, anglers, boaters, hikers, bikers, skiers, wildlife watchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts are contributing to a healthy economy and job market. When you consider that there are also many unquantifiable benefits of getting outside, including fostering healthy bodies and minds, you would think that growing this sector would be a top priority for our national decision makers.
This is not always the case. Right now, the same agencies charged with managing the 640 million acres of public lands that provide a foundation for outdoor recreation are being targeted for budget cuts. And the dilapidated infrastructure of our public lands facilities—from roads and visitor centers to trails and campgrounds—is an afterthought, at best, in the president’s recent infrastructure proposal, which is largely contingent on expanding the industrialization of our public lands.
According to the BEA’s findings, boating and fishing are key drivers of the outdoor recreation economy, accounting for almost $40 billion annually, but the president’s recent budget proposal shortchanges the federal agencies responsible for keeping our water clean and our recreational fishing sector thriving.
The EPA budget is slated for a 23 percent cut, and two U.S. Department of Agriculture programs aimed at incentivizing private landowners to improve land management practices and reduce polluted runoff would be eliminated. Meanwhile, massive dead zones caused by nutrient runoff in the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and South Florida directly impact fisheries and tourism.
It is time for the administration and Congress to take the outdoor recreation economy seriously and invest in this sector, and perhaps the BEA statistics will help this process. The availability of this new data should be celebrated, and Americans should demand that these numbers are recognized in every debate about the future of our country’s public lands, waters, and conservation incentive programs.
We can have strong energy, agricultural, and industrial sectors without directly harming the lands and waters that sustain the hunting, fishing, hiking, boating, birding, and biking industries—or the clean air, clean water, and open spaces that all Americans need.
But this will require a different mindset, one that rejects the notion that industrial jobs are somehow worth more than outdoor recreation jobs.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More