At ICAST, we brought together conservation experts, business leaders, and other luminaries to highlight why we need better data on recreational fishing harvest and how to better control aquatic invasive species
Last week, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and its sportfishing partners and sponsors hosted two days of in-depth discussions on improving fisheries management and conservation during the organization’s 8th annual Saltwater Media Summit at ICAST in Orlando. TRCP’s Chris Macaluso moderated the discussions, which were attended by more than 60 media members and representatives from several state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, and fishing tackle manufacturers.
This event is an important opportunity to raise awareness around the most pressing conservation issues facing our marine fisheries. Here are some of the highlights.
Better Data Could Mean Longer Seasons
The first panel focused on improving data collection on recreational fishing effort, fish harvested, and stock assessments and incorporating this information into federal saltwater fisheries management. Speakers included Jessica McCawley, Florida’s marine fisheries director; Kevin Anson, chief marine biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; and Dr. Greg Stunz, chair of the Harte Research Institute for Sportfish Science and Conservation.
Anglers, fishing conservation and advocacy groups, and state and federal fisheries managers all agree that improving data collection on fish stock sizes, migration patterns, and fishing effort and harvest is critical to preserving the long-term health of fisheries and making access more consistent. Over the last decade, several efforts have been undertaken by fishing advocacy groups and state agencies to use smartphones and other electronic devices to shorten data collection times and provide more accurate in-season accounts of the number of fishing trips taken, as well as how many fish are being harvested by anglers.
In the case of Mississippi and Alabama, red snapper anglers are required to register electronically and submit information regarding the date of and how many fish were caught on each trip. Louisiana requires offshore anglers to obtain a Recreational Offshore Landing Permit and submit a phone number and email address, so they can be contacted during the season to determine effort and harvest. Florida, too, requires anglers to obtain a State Reef Fish Angler designation.
Requiring anglers to register and incorporating mandatory reporting and increased surveying has, by and large, improved the accuracy of in-season quota monitoring over the federal Marine Recreational Information Program and has led to more stability in Gulf of Mexico red snapper seasons.
At the same time, efforts have been made to improve stock surveys, most notably with the Great Red Snapper Count, a $10-million three-year effort in which several universities and 80 scientists used innovative techniques, like advanced sonar and remotely operated vehicles, to determine snapper populations over a variety of natural and artificial structures. They found an estimated 118 million red snapper Gulf-wide—more than three times the latest NOAA stock assessment estimate.
However, that abundance estimate has not yet resulted in longer red snapper seasons. In fact, Mississippi and Alabama anglers face the prospect of having their red snapper seasons cut by as much as 60 percent in coming years because of difficulties “calibrating” their mandatory reporting programs with existing federal MRIP data.
This is not simply a Gulf of Mexico red snapper problem. The hope was that improved data collection programs and the Great Red Snapper Count could serve as a model for management improvements in other contentious fisheries. Similar efforts to better determine stock abundance are underway for Amberjack in the Gulf and red snapper in the South Atlantic.
Fishing advocacy groups and anglers have been supportive of efforts to improve data collection and even urged Congress to provide funding to improve stock assessments for a host of fisheries. Anglers have also stepped up to help pay for improved data collection by supporting license fee increases and participating in mandatory reporting programs.
That support is in danger of waning in the future, however, if anglers and supportive legislators do not see their efforts resulting in management improvements—or if they believe the increased scrutiny will result in more constraints on access. The goal of our discussion was to identify ways to more efficiently incorporate new technologies and improved data collection programs into federal and state fisheries management, while building confidence among anglers and lawmakers that these new approaches are worth their time and money.
The Ongoing Threat from Aquatic Invasive Species
The following day, our second panel discussion focused on the negative effects of aquatic invasive species on state fisheries management, boating and fishing access, and efforts to recover and improve striped bass stocks in the Chesapeake Basin. Our speakers were Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Eric Sutton, National Marine Manufacturers Association Director of Federal Government Affairs Clay Crabtree, and CCA Maryland Executive Director David Sikorski.
The recommendations of the panel ranged from identifying ways to reduce bureaucratic impediments and ultimately better manage and control aquatic invasives to encouraging anglers to fish for and harvest invasive fish and eat them. We also covered ways to work with commercial fisheries to expand the selective harvest of some invasive fish—like Asian carp in the Mississippi and Tennessee river basins and blue catfish in the Chesapeake—and improving outreach with the boating public about how to limit the spread of invasive plants and mussels through proper boat cleaning.
Controlling invasive species is a growing issue across the country, with an estimated $140 billion in economic damages each year. The added costs of trying to contain the spread of invasive plants, fish, and animals has strained the budgets and personnel of state and federal fish and wildlife agencies and has cut into funds that could be used for improving native fish stocks and enhancing access to waterways.
The discussion highlighted the ongoing work of the TRCP, American Sportfishing Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association, and corporate partners Yamaha, Bass Pro Shops, YETI, BoatU.S., and others on a campaign to identify ways to limit the spread of invasive plants and animals and encourage the harvest of invasive fish and crustaceans. Policy change would be needed at the state and federal level.
The advocacy organizations and corporate partners supporting this campaign have organized an expert commission of scientists, economists, state and federal fisheries managers, professional anglers, and others who have spent their careers trying to manage and adjust their approach to fishing because of the spread of aquatic invasive animals and plants. In early 2023, this commission will release a report that identifies ways to reduce bureaucratic and legal impediments to controlling aquatic invasive species and what recreational anglers and boaters can do to help manage and limit the spread of invasive fish and plants.
Photo by Clay LeConey.