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Ian Nakayama

September 22, 2022

Get to Know a Key Everglades Restoration Project that Will Improve Wetlands and Estuaries

What is the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir and why is it important to hunters and anglers?

The iconic Everglades ecosystem contains some of America’s largest estuaries, which provide essential habitat to important sportfish and game species. In celebration of National Estuaries Week, we wanted to highlight a key project that will help restore and conserve America’s Everglades: the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

The EAA Reservoir has two primary features—a treatment wetland that will clean the water from Lake Okeechobee and a reservoir that will store excess water from the lake. The wetland will be built by the state-run South Florida Water Management District, and the reservoir will be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This project is necessary to restore the natural north-to-south water flows that once sustained the ecosystem. Before the watershed was reshaped by development in the last century, water flows created a “river of grass” throughout south Florida that extended to both the east and west coasts. Most of the historic Everglades now lays dry, as farmland and housing developments have taken the place of functional wetlands.

These days, water is transported from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts and southern Everglades through a complex system of pumps, levees, and canals. This water is rich in phosphorus from fertilizer and manure runoff, which leads to massive algae blooms.

The EAA reservoir will help filter and send cleaner freshwater south to drain into the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico. In these areas, freshwater and seawater mix to create brackish water estuaries, which are breeding grounds and nurseries for many of the fish, crustaceans, and shellfish that anglers love to pursue. Cleaner water and healthier sea grasses will benefit populations of spotted seatrout, redfish, tarpon, largemouth bass, and peacock bass when the reservoir is complete.

Historically, the Everglades has also provided essential habitat for waterfowl, deer, turkeys and other game species. But poorer habitat conditions and recent harmful algae blooms have killed off much of the food that game and waterfowl rely on. The EAA reservoir will be a boon for these species as new wetlands become loaded with aquatic vegetation that filters out nutrients before the water flows south.

The TRCP is pushing Congress to allocate the funding necessary to restore and conserve America’s Everglades. Take action using our simple advocacy tool to tell your lawmakers you support full funding for Everglades restoration.

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Get to Know a Key Everglades Restoration Project that Will Improve Wetlands and Estuaries

What is the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir and why is it important to hunters and anglers?

The iconic Everglades ecosystem contains some of America’s largest estuaries, which provide essential habitat to important sportfish and game species. In celebration of National Estuaries Week, we wanted to highlight a key project that will help restore and conserve America’s Everglades: the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

The EAA Reservoir has two primary features—a treatment wetland that will clean the water from Lake Okeechobee and a reservoir that will store excess water from the lake. The wetland will be built by the state-run South Florida Water Management District, and the reservoir will be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This project is necessary to restore the natural north-to-south water flows that once sustained the ecosystem. Before the watershed was reshaped by development in the last century, water flows created a “river of grass” throughout south Florida that extended to both the east and west coasts. Most of the historic Everglades now lays dry, as farmland and housing developments have taken the place of functional wetlands.

These days, water is transported from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts and southern Everglades through a complex system of pumps, levees, and canals. This water is rich in phosphorus from fertilizer and manure runoff, which leads to massive algae blooms.

The EAA reservoir will help filter and send cleaner freshwater south to drain into the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico. In these areas, freshwater and seawater mix to create brackish water estuaries, which are breeding grounds and nurseries for many of the fish, crustaceans, and shellfish that anglers love to pursue. Cleaner water and healthier sea grasses will benefit populations of spotted seatrout, redfish, tarpon, largemouth bass, and peacock bass when the reservoir is complete.

Historically, the Everglades has also provided essential habitat for waterfowl, deer, turkeys and other game species. But poorer habitat conditions and recent harmful algae blooms have killed off much of the food that game and waterfowl rely on. The EAA reservoir will be a boon for these species as new wetlands become loaded with aquatic vegetation that filters out nutrients before the water flows south.

The TRCP is pushing Congress to allocate the funding necessary to restore and conserve America’s Everglades. Take action using our simple advocacy tool to tell your lawmakers you support full funding for Everglades restoration.

Jaclyn Higgins

September 21, 2022

Changes Coming Soon for Atlantic Menhaden Harvesters

Fisheries managers are meeting in November to debate and adopt changes to the Atlantic menhaden interstate fishery management plan—anglers have weighed in, but many of our concerns won’t be addressed

In November, the Menhaden Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will consider public comments submitted since August about proposed changes to the Atlantic Menhaden Interstate Fishery Management Plan. The draft addendum up for vote deals with reallocation of each Atlantic Coast state’s yearly menhaden commercial fishing quota and changes to various programs that give states opportunities to harvest additional quota throughout the season.

The plan and options proposed in this addendum are extremely granular—the average angler does not need to wade through and understand it all. What you do need to know is that the TRCP and our sportfishing partners have weighed in with the ASMFC on our preferred options, which we believe would best benefit recreational fishing, sportfish, and the overall health of our marine food web.

It is also important for anglers to understand how industrial reduction fishing fits into this reallocation math. Remember: Virginia is the only Atlantic state that still allows menhaden reduction fishing in its waters, and a single foreign-owned company—Omega Protein, operating out of Virginia—does all of the reduction fishing for menhaden on the Atlantic Coast. Most of the other harvesters who take menhaden out of the water, based on the state allocations up for vote, are fishing for bait that is then sold to anglers. This activity supports many small businesses in parts of the Northeast.

But many states, most notably Maine, have had to reckon with the mismatch of state allocations versus actual availability of menhaden in their state waters, forcing them to depend on conditional programs and quota transfers from other states just to maintain their bait fishing fleets. Virginia, meanwhile, holds much of the power within the fishery, even after years of debate about equity among states participating in the plan.

The numbers make this very clear: Virginia is allotted more than 78 percent of the coastwide quota now and, at worst, they will end up with 73.6 percent of the coastwide quota after the Menhaden Management Board chooses from the available options this fall. Does that sound fair for a fishery with 16 states participating?

The TRCP and our partners have been following this addendum planning process for the past year, and we’re supporting the options that most accurately reflect the current needs of the fishery and the availability of the menhaden resource along the coast, in order to lower states’ reliance on one-time programs and quota transfers that keep them limping from season to season. We’re also pushing for each menhaden taken out of the water to be counted toward the coastwide quota, a universally embraced best practice for sound fisheries management that (unbelievably) isn’t required in the menhaden fishery right now.

Our coalition has also expressed concerns about what’s not included in the proposed plan update.

This includes consideration of where commercial harvest should happen within the menhaden’s range. While the recent single-species stock assessment found the Atlantic menhaden stock to be above the biomass target, how that biomass is distributed and fished along the coast will impact predator stocks, including recovering populations of striped bass and bluefish that depend on the availability of various year classes of menhaden and other forage species throughout their range.

We believe that the fishery should be distributed throughout the menhaden’s known geographic range, not concentrated nearshore in sensitive nursery habitats at the center of their range, as it is now. With the fisheries’ effort and catch centered at the menhaden population’s natal area and focused on juveniles (ages 0-2), this prevents larger, more fecund individuals from existing in the stock.

Further, the fishery should not be dominated by industrial fisheries, but rather enable the growth of smaller-scale and local commercial and recreational fisheries.

Finally, we are concerned that the setting of the coastwide total allowable catch for the 2023 season may disregard vital ecosystem effects, because the latest menhaden stock assessment update did not use updated data on certain species which would impact menhaden availability in the water.

For example, the 2022 Atlantic Herring Management Track Assessment concluded that herring remain overfished at just 21 percent of their target biomass. The 2021-2022 total allowable catch of 194,400 metric tons of menhaden was set using species data from 2017, prior to the decline of the Atlantic herring stock. Herring is a primary alternative prey species to menhaden, so this depletion has likely had wide-ranging effects on both prey and predators since 2017, and these impacts will continue as the resource slowly rebuilds.

Menhaden are increasingly important as bait to compensate for shortages of not only Atlantic herring but also river herring and mackerel, and they, of course, remain important as a food source for predators as well. This is why we’ll continue to push for a precautionary approach to quota-setting for the 2023 season, updated ecosystem data in the next stock assessment, and consideration of the current total allowable catch as a maximum value, not as a baseline.

There are a few limited opportunities for informed anglers to engage in the draft addendum debate before the end of September—if you’re interested in attending a public hearing to speak up for menhaden and sportfish, please email Jaclyn Higgins for more information.

 

Photo by Gaelin Rosenwaks. Follow her on Instagram @gaelingoexplore.

Guest Author Sean Saville

September 15, 2022

Majority of Americans Support the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act

70 percent of survey respondents back proposed legislation that would create new source of conservation funding

A new survey conducted by Responsive Management finds that 70 percent of Americans support the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, pending federal legislation that would allocate an additional $1.4 billion in annual funding to state agencies and Tribal land managers for wildlife conservation.

State-level wildlife conservation efforts in the United States have historically been funded largely by hunters and recreational shooters through an excise tax on their purchases of firearms, pistols, and ammunition. This funding mechanism was created in 1937 through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (often referred to as the “Pittman-Robertson Act” for the legislators who sponsored it.) Because Pittman-Robertson funding comes mostly from sportsmen and sportswomen, it has generally been used by state fish and wildlife agencies to manage game species. For instance, Pittman-Robertson excise tax revenues have helped to fund the recovery of whitetail deer, Rocky Mountain elk, wild turkeys, and many other iconic North American game animals.

While the Pittman-Robertson system has been a major success for almost a century, more than 12,000 wildlife species—including threatened and endangered species and other animals—remain in need of conservation and restoration. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is designed to address these needs and strengthen the current wildlife conservation funding model by redirecting $1.4 billion to state fish and wildlife agencies and Tribal wildlife managers for the conservation and restoration of wildlife and plant species of greatest conservation need.

In a time of stark political polarization, RAWA appears to be one of the few causes able to unite both Democrats and Republicans: The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support in June and has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, where it is expected to be voted on this month.

The survey conducted by Responsive Management marks one of the first major assessments of public opinion on RAWA. In the survey, respondents were first read a description of the legislation that explained the purpose of the bill and the funding source. They were then asked whether they supported or opposed the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. A total of 70 percent of adult U.S. residents expressed support for RAWA, including 42 percent who indicated strong support, compared to only 5 percent who oppose the measure.

Reflecting the bipartisan support for the bill in the House, the survey found strong support for RAWA across the political spectrum, with majorities of Democrats (82 percent), Republicans (64 percent), and independents (64 percent) supporting the legislation.

Furthermore, the survey identified majority support for RAWA among every major demographic group examined in the research, including males and females; younger, middle-aged, and older residents; those of higher and lower education levels; and those in urban, suburban, and rural areas. RAWA was also supported by diverse outdoor recreationists, including 80 percent of wildlife viewers, 78 percent of anglers, 77 percent of birdwatchers, and 70 percent of hunters.

“I was initially surprised at how high the support for RAWA was in the survey,” said Responsive Management Executive Director Mark Damian Duda. “But the truth is that, over three decades of survey research, we’ve seen that Americans consistently back conservation issues. In fact, in the last several elections, upwards of 75 percent of the ballot measures on wildlife, habitat, and green issues around the country pass. When these issues are presented directly to the people, Americans tend to vote consistently in favor of conservation.”

“Something we understand well as wildlife managers and representatives of state agencies is that wildlife conservation transcends party politics, and this polling demonstrates that,” said Ron Regan, Executive Director of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. “The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is the single most impactful wildlife conservation bill in a generation.”

The scientific, probability-based survey was conducted August 25 to 28, 2022, and used a random sample of 1,002 United States residents ages 18 and older. The survey was fielded through a combination of telephone (including landline and cellular numbers) and online interviews. (The use of supplemental online interviews allowed for greater representation of younger residents, as research indicates that younger people are less likely to complete a telephone survey than they are to complete a survey online.) For the entire sample of adult U.S. residents, the sampling error is at most plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Learn more at responsivemanagement.com.

Aaron Field

September 14, 2022

What Hunters and Anglers Need to Know About the CRP Improvement Act

New legislation could boost the acreage and impact of hunters’ favorite Farm Bill conservation program

The Conservation Reserve Program is one of the most effective and impactful Farm Bill conservation programs ever implemented, and recently introduced legislation has the potential to make it even better. Proposed by Senators Thune (R-S.D.) and Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the bipartisan Conservation Reserve Program Improvement Act would add landowner incentives that have the potential to boost CRP acreage and improve wildlife habitat and water quality, leading directly to more and better opportunities for hunters and anglers.

Unlike other important U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs, the CRP did not get a recent boost in funding.

Legislation that is introduced before the massive Farm Bill, like the CRP Improvement Act, helps hunters and anglers push for the programs that mean the most to us just as debate is heating up. Here’s what you need to know about this bill.

Conservation Reserve Program Basics

Introduced as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, the CRP pays farmers to retire highly erodible farmland from production. Its original goals were to reduce soil erosion and support farm income, but it quickly became clear that the CRP was just as valuable for wildlife and fisheries as it was for farmers. By returning marginal cropland to grasslands, wetlands, and forests, the CRP created millions of acres of wildlife habitat while also filtering water, sequestering carbon, and preserving biodiversity.

Despite this success, reduced rental rates, complicated application processes, and a lack of cost share flexibility has caused some landowners to avoid applying. Conservation-minded groups have worked for years to add commonsense flexibility and improved incentives to the program in ways that don’t compromise its conservation benefits. Now, the CRP Improvement Act could make some of this happen.

What the CRP Improvement Act Does

The new legislation continues the trend of added flexibility, targeted application, and improved outcomes in the CRP. Specifically, the CRP Improvement Act would:

  1. Reinstate cost sharing for mid-contract management. Periodic management of CRP through weed control, prescribed fire, or targeted grazing or mowing is necessary to maintain quality habitat, so landowners in CRP contracts are required to perform management activities near the midpoint of their ten- or 15-year contracts. Unfortunately, federal cost sharing for mid contract management was eliminated in the 2018 Farm Bill, leaving landowners on the hook for these costs and discouraging new enrollment. The CRP Improvement Act reinstates this cost share for all approved practices other than grazing and haying, which will lead to both more enrollment and better management and environmental outcomes.
  2. Add cost sharing for CRP grazing infrastructure. Depending on how and where it is applied, livestock grazing can be beneficial or detrimental to wildlife habitat. The grasslands of the Great Plains evolved with grazing, which supports wildlife by maintaining plant diversity there. The CRP Improvement Act provides cost sharing for grazing infrastructure, like fencing and water development, “if grazing is included in the conservation plan and addresses a resource concern.” Having fencing and water in place makes CRP lands more valuable as emergency livestock forage reserves during drought, adding an incentive to farmers and ranchers. And after grazing infrastructure is set up, landowners are less likely to convert grasslands back into cropland at the end of a CRP contract. In the long term, this seemingly small investment has the potential to support more grass-based agriculture and more diverse farming operations, benefiting both rural economies and wildlife.
  3. Permanently authorize the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancements (SAFE) initiative. SAFE enrolls acreage and encourages management practices that benefit priority wildlife in individual states. These practices are chosen by local biologists and tailored to a specific region. As an example, the states of South Dakota and Minnesota have used SAFE to prioritize enrolling tallgrass prairie acreage for pheasant habitat and water quality. In Georgia, SAFE acreage has been targeted toward native pine savannas, excellent habitat for bobwhite quail. Specific Farm Bill language that prioritizes SAFE ensures that the CRP is much more than a land retirement program and is a win for hunters and anglers nationwide.
  4. Increase the CRP rental payment limitation. Enrollment in the CRP by an individual landowner is currently capped by a $50,000 limitation for rental payments. This limitation has not changed since the original Food Security Act of 1985, and simply doesn’t reflect current farmland rental rates. By raising this limitation to $125,000—still less than if that $50,000 limit had been tied to inflation when created—the CRP Improvement Act would allow conservation-minded landowners to enroll more of their land in the CRP. This has the potential to create more contiguous habitat and remove a barrier to enrolling high-impact acreage.
What to Watch for Next

The CRP Improvement Act is a great example of bipartisan legislation that builds on the success of Farm Bill conservation programs. It is being proposed at an excellent time, just as all parties gear up for the 2023 Farm Bill. There are a couple of things hunters and anglers should keep in mind, both in this bill and in upcoming Farm Bill discussions.

Adding flexibility, production value, and management incentives to the CRP is a great way to gain support from farmers and ranchers, but we have to ensure that it doesn’t reduce the CRP’s conservation value. For this bill to be successful, any haying, livestock grazing, or associated infrastructure needs to be well-planned and targeted toward conservation outcomes. The same must be true for future Farm Bill proposals.

Other tweaks to the CRP—like increased funding, more competitive rental rates, and a better application ranking process—are still needed. But this bill is a clear demonstration that across-the-aisle partnerships on commonsense legislation are still possible. We need to promote this kind of cooperation, and we should keep a close eye on upcoming proposals that would modify the Farm Bill conservation title—for better or worse. Hunters and anglers need to show a united front in support of quality habitat nationwide and supporting the CRP Improvement Act is a good start.

 

Photo by @NickMKE on Flickr.

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