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An agreement signed last week to address the impacts of industrial menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay falls short of limiting real damage inflicted by the fishery on recreational fishing and broader ecosystem health, based on a collective initial assessment by a coalition of sportfishing and conservation groups.
Last Thursday, commercial purse seiners announced a voluntary agreement with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to avoid fishing in a small portion of the Chesapeake Bay, purportedly to avoid net spills near populated areas. However, the non-binding agreement is centered on the narrow goal of limiting and responding to future spill incidents, in which dead menhaden and other fish species released from nets foul area beaches, and does not address all areas within the Bay.
What the MOU does:
What the MOU does not do:
In short, the agreement does not address the concerns of Virginians regarding user conflicts and fish spills that have plagued the Bay for years.
“The menhaden MOU is a positive step, but it falls short in several ways,” says Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “The buffer of one nautical mile does not extend to the Rappahannock River area, which is a popular spot for recreational fishing. The agreement also fails to address longstanding concerns about overharvest in the Bay.”
In December 2022, hundreds of Virginians attended a VMRC meeting to comment on a proposal by the Youngkin Administration that would have established regulations negotiated over months of stakeholder engagement. At that meeting, the VMRC agreed to instead pursue the non-binding memorandum of understanding with industrial menhaden harvester Omega Protein, which became final last week.
“While the memorandum of understanding covers a similar set of issues as the regulations put before VMRC last December, there is one big difference—enforceability,” says Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “Whether or not Omega Protein abides by the agreement, and we hope they do, there is still much more work to be done to lessen the harm that reduction fishing is causing to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.”
Throughout 2022, reduction fishing boats caused multiple Eastern Shore fish spills, resulting in the waste of an estimated 12,000 pounds of red drum bycatch and beach closures on major holidays, including Independence Day weekend. As recently as 2019, Omega willfully exceeded its 51,000-metric-ton catch limit in the Bay, inspiring tens of thousands of anglers, dozens of business and organizations, and nine East Coast governors to request that the Secretary of Commerce get involved.
“This memorandum of understanding with a foreign-owned, industrial-scale fishing operation in the Chesapeake Bay does little to address conservation of menhaden as a vital forage fish for striped bass and other sportfish,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “While it is our sincere hope that the Commonwealth of Virginia will work to minimize user conflicts and fish spills in the Bay, this non-binding framework relies on the state’s ability to trust cosigners to abide by the rules. The reduction fishery hasn’t earned this trust.”
Last year, more than 10,000 anglers and conservationists from Virginia and up and down the East Coast signed a petition asking Gov. Youngkin to move industrial reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay until science could show that the fishery was not having a negative impact on the ecosystem or the economy. The petition was delivered to Youngkin and the VMRC in October 2022.
“It is our hope that the signing of this MOU is only the first step toward increased conservation measures for this staple forage fish species,” says Chad Tokowicz, government relations manager for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “As we inch toward the May openings of Maryland and Virginia’s respective striped bass seasons, it will be obvious the importance menhaden have for this keystone recreational species.”
Anglers remain engaged and anxious to see more meaningful action to safeguard menhaden, sportfish, and the Bay economy. The conservation community looks forward to working with the Youngkin Administration this September on the implementation of a menhaden study that would fill gaps in the data about the impact of the reduction fishery on Bay health and sportfish populations.
Virginia continues to be the only East Coast state allowing reduction fishing of menhaden—a practice where millions of pounds of these forage fish are turned into fishmeal, fish oil, fertilizer, or similar products—in its waters.
Photo by Gaelin Rosenwaks. Follow her on Instagram @gaelingoexplore.
At its 15th annual Capital Conservation Awards Dinner, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership proudly celebrated the conservation achievements of Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Representative Blake Moore (R-Utah), and CEOs Becky Humphries of the National Wild Turkey Federation and Howard Vincent of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, who will both retire in 2023 after many years of outstanding leadership in our community.
The gala event was hosted by MeatEater’s Steven Rinella—a TRCP Board member—at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
“We proudly honor these leaders whose commitment to conservation has had real and lasting on-the-ground results for hunters, anglers, and all Americans,” said Whit Fosburgh, TRCP president and CEO. “Senator Manchin and Rep. Moore have been instrumental in clinching recent legislative victories for habitat, access, and conservation funding that will impact hunting and fishing opportunities for years to come. Our gala event is also a fitting way to celebrate two deeply appreciated colleagues in conservation, Becky Humphries and Howard Vincent, who have been part of the fabric of TRCP and this community for many years.”
As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Joe Manchin championed the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020 to provide full and permanent funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and reduce the maintenance backlog at federal land management agencies. More recently, Manchin negotiated the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, securing major new resources for forest management, climate-smart agriculture, drought mitigation, and coastal resilience. He is a lifelong hunter and angler and continues to prioritize conservation and outdoor recreation legislation in Congress.
Since entering Congress in 2020, Rep. Blake Moore has quickly developed a reputation as a pragmatic lawmaker and champion for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. Moore worked closely with the TRCP and our community to secure passage of the Modernizing Access to Our Public Land (MAPLand) Act, to digitize access data for millions of acres of our public lands. He’s also led efforts to expand access to public shooting ranges, remove barriers to outdoor recreation, and address the management needs of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.
Becky Humphries started her career in wildlife conservation as an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before joining the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in 1978. Her 32-year career with the agency saw her move from field biologist to Wildlife Division chief and, finally, director—she was the first woman to ever hold the position. In 2011, Humphries left public service and joined Ducks Unlimited as director of conservation programs before joining the National Wild Turkey Federation as chief conservation officer in 2013. She became chief operations officer in 2016 and CEO in 2017. Since its founding in 1973, NWTF has invested more than $500 million into wildlife conservation and has conserved or enhanced more than 22 million acres of critical wildlife habitat. Humphries retires this year.
Howard Vincent started with Pheasants Forever in 1984, two years after the organization’s founding, and became CEO in 1990—he will step down this year. During Vincent’s tenure, Pheasants Forever has grown into one of the most respected wildlife conservation organizations in the country, dedicated to habitat conservation, education, and advocacy. The organization has more than 400 employees and 400,000 members, supporters, and partners. In its history, the organization has been responsible for delivering more than 22 million acres of habitat.
Vincent and Humphries have both served as TRCP Board members for many years. They will be introduced onstage by conservation giant Steve Williams, who is also retiring this year from the Wildlife Management Institute. Williams received TRCP’s conservation achievement award in 2015.
Photo by Jon Fleming
A new Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership film, to be released on Saturday, April 15, unpacks the complexity of public land access in collaboration with Eastmans’ Hunting Journal, onX, Savage Arms, SIG SAUER, and Kenetrek.
With an October 2022 Wyoming pronghorn antelope hunt as a backdrop, Paper Trails and its characters uncover the challenges hunters and other outdoor recreationists face when accessing and navigating their public lands and describe what’s being done to improve that access.
“Hunters know from firsthand experience that public access can be difficult, and even confusing to figure out, but many people don’t know why it is so complex or what to do about it,” said Joel Webster, TRCP vice president of Western conservation. “Recognizing this challenge, TRCP and several of our partners created Paper Trails to uncover several issues surrounding public access that have never before been explored on film—such as difficult to retrieve public easements and inaccurate or absent public signage—and offer solutions to the problem moving forward, such as the MAPLand Act.”
The film highlights the reality that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have 90,000 road and trail easements scattered across the nation, of which 50,000 remain on paper file and have not yet been digitized or made readily available. The film further explores the need for better information to be made available about the location of county roads, which are also open to the public. The status of BLM travel management plans are also discussed.
“For many of the lines that people see as roads on our maps, there isn’t a designation between public and private,” said Lisa Nichols, senior access advocacy manager at onX. “And the reason for that is there are very few road data sets that exist in the whole country that classify roads as public or private.”
Paper Trails also features the MAPLand Act, which was passed into law in April 2022 and requires federal agencies to digitize and make information publicly available about recreational access to public lands. This process is presently being implemented and will provide greater transparency to all Americans about the location of public land access easements—unlocking more public land.
“Every state is a little different. Every access issue is a little different. I think the MAPLand Act is going to be a huge benefit to sportsmen,” said Brandon Mason of Eastmans’ Hunting Journal.
“Accessing public land is one of the biggest challenges hunters face,” said Beth Shimanski, Savage Arm’s marketing director. “Public roads, access points, and easements are not always clearly marked or known to the public. This film shines a light on the problem and highlights what needs to be done today to protect public land access for future generations of hunters,”
“SIG SAUER is extremely proud to help support this amazing project in partnership with Eastman’s and the TRCP,” said Jason Wright, SIG SAUER’s vice president of marketing. “The challenge of maintaining the rights of landowners combined with providing access to America’s public lands is immense, and this film demonstrates the incredible work the men and women of the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are doing to ensure the interests of both parties are met and the tradition of hunting the vast expanse of the western U.S. is maintained.”
“Hunting access to public lands is one of the most challenging problems facing our industry today, and Kenetrek is happy to provide support for this important documentary,” said Jim Winjum, president of Kenetrek LLC.
Watch Paper Trails here. Full film to be released April 15.
Photo Credit: Eastmans’ Hunting Journal
Anyone who has spent time driving in rural America trying to reach public land or water to hunt or fish knows just how difficult it can be to determine if an unpaved road is public or private. And while you’d think paper maps and GPS units would simplify this confusion, they often don’t.
Road mapping information has traditionally been focused on road surface type—ie. dirt, gravel, or paved—and not whether a road is legally open or closed to the public. This system is good at helping you decide if, for example, you need a high clearance vehicle, but it doesn’t clarify if you have a right to drive down a two-track toward a parcel of public land.
Opportunities afield are being lost because of unclear information, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership believes that everyone should know if they can legally drive on a road or not. This is just one of the many access challenges we are addressing at the federal, state, and local levels.
The root of the confusion around county and state road access is a lack of data. We now enjoy digital tools that have changed the game for finding hunting and fishing access, but they are only as good as the data provided by agencies overseeing public lands and access points.
Solutions are being implemented. The TRCP helped the hunt-fish community achieve a milestone in 2022 with the passage of the MAPLand Act. This legislation directs the federal land management agencies—including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management—to create digital mapping files of over 90,000 individual access easements that serve to open otherwise difficult to access public lands. The MAPLand Act further orders federal agencies to geospatially map designated roads and trails on 640 million acres of public land, and to specify what kinds of vehicles are allowed on those routes.
While MAPLand will help eliminate confusion surrounding numerous access routes, there are thousands of non-federal public roads and trails, such as country roads and state-held access easements, where public access has been secured but information about the access is difficult to obtain.
To start, county roads are public rights-of-way that have been established by a formal county action. County roads are open to the public and, in rural areas, were often created to serve as local access roads to help people travel from their ranches and farms to town, commonly passing through public lands along the way.
In many places, local governments have been establishing county roads for well over a century, and they never expire. The only way county roads can be legally removed is if they are formally and actively eliminated by the local government in a way that complies with state law.
Some county roads are dusty two-tracks that lead off into the sagebrush toward public hunting and fishing grounds. In many rural counties where budgets are tight, little has been done to clarify the location of county roads, and hunters and anglers have a difficult time telling the difference between a county road and a private lane.
While county road information can generally be obtained by inquiring directly with the county, there should be an easier way. The TRCP is presently investigating possible funding sources to help counties gain the capacity to digitize their county road maps and make that information readily available to the public and mobile app companies.
In addition to county roads, individual states across the nation own millions of acres of trust lands, wildlife management areas, parks, and forests. There are 39 million acres of trust lands in 11 Western states alone. Just like the federal government, states also own easements across private land to make their lands accessible, and access easements may not be physically marked with signage.
Because state access records are held on paper file in government buildings across the nation, the TRCP does not know how many easements are out there, but we know they exist. The TRCP is encouraging state lawmakers in places like Wyoming to dedicate resources toward digitizing these easements and making them publicly known.
Ultimately, the TRCP believes that transparent and readily available information about public access will lower barriers to entry and open new opportunities for outdoor recreation, while also reducing conflict with landowners by making it clear where the public does and does not have legal access.
Photo Credit: Steve Smith
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