May 12, 2017
Few thrills can compare to hooking a high-jumping billfish, powerful striped bass or hard-fighting redfish. And when it comes to good eating, few meals are more delicious than freshly prepared grouper, snapper or seatrout.
In large part, facts like these explain why more than 11 million Americans participate in saltwater recreational fishing. Catching saltwater sportfish on rod and reel is one of America’s greatest pastimes and has a national economic footprint of $70 billion per year, an economic benefit worthy of attention.
Sadly, current laws governing federal saltwater fisheries are ill designed and largely based on bad data and management. Among the many challenges faced by America’s saltwater recreational anglers are harsh restrictions on fisheries access, road blocks against the use of modern science to monitor the health of fish stocks and inconsistent season dates that discourage participation.
Recreational anglers aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of outmoded saltwater fisheries management and regulations. Thousands of bait and tackle shop proprietors, retailers, manufacturers, lodge owners and others suffer the consequences of the government’s foolishness. With their time on the water limited by regulations, boaters and anglers are much less likely to purchase goods and services related to fishing, and this has a negative impact on businesses nationwide.
Conservation suffers as well. A large portion of the overall funding for the nation’s conservation efforts is generated by excise taxes and sales of recreational fishing licenses. No one should take this lightly. It would devastate our natural resources if anglers and boaters—who contribute $1.5 billion annually to fisheries and habitat conservation through excise taxes, donations and license fees—decided to quit fishing due to lack of access and other problems.
That’s the bad news. The good news is a new law making its way through Congress could fix those problems.
The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act, or Modern Fish Act for short, was introduced April 7 by bipartisan members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Rather than focusing on commercial fishing, the new bill is a comprehensive package specifically aimed at addressing the needs of the nation’s saltwater recreational anglers.
Introduced by Congressmen Garret Graves (R-La.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the Modern Fish Act would improve public access to America’s federal waters, promote conservation of our natural marine resources and spur economic growth by incorporating modern management approaches, science and technology to guide decision-making.
“Private citizens who like to fish are on the losing end of the federal government’s failure to bring the way it manages our nation’s waters up to speed with the information age,” said Rep. Graves. “Our bill is designed to fix that. By leveraging technology and data collection capabilities that already exist, we can use real-time information to improve fisheries management decision-making and enjoy the flexibility that comes with being informed by accurate numbers. By modernizing federal fisheries policy, the Modern Fish Act will let us practice data-driven sustainability, get more people out to enjoy recreational fishing and unlock economic growth for coastal communities that rely so heavily on fishing activities.”
An important provision of the bill would encourage the use of alternative management approaches for the recreational sector. Since 1976, federal fisheries management has been guided by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), which focused primarily on commercial fishing activities. Commercial and recreational fishing are fundamentally different, however, and each requires different management approaches.
State fishery managers use different management approaches for recreational and commercial sectors, but NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for the stewardship of the nation’s ocean resources, does not. NOAA Fisheries manages recreational fisheries the same way as commercial fisheries—by setting a poundage-based quota at or near maximum sustainable yield and attempting to enforce it in real time. While this may be an ideal management strategy for commercial fishing, where harvesting the maximum pounds of fish is desired, it is not an effective management tool for many saltwater recreational fisheries.
Under the Modern Fish Act, managers would be encouraged to use measures like extraction rates or harvest mortality targets, which are more similar to the successful approaches used by state fisheries agencies to manage recreational fisheries.
The Modern Fish Act also would prevent new “limited access privilege programs” in mixed-use fisheries in the Gulf and South Atlantic regions. These programs are intended to reduce participation in a fishery, which can be a good thing when it’s applied strictly to commercial fisheries, but one that has created significant user conflicts in fisheries used by both recreational and commercial fishermen. Limited access privilege programs remove flexibility to manage resources according to changing economic and demographic factors, and present an often-insurmountable obstacle to managing marine resources to their highest and best use for the public which ultimately owns those resources.
Other changes to MSA offered in the bill include periodically reexamining fisheries allocations, establishing reasonable exemptions for annual catch limits, strategically rebuilding fish stocks and improving recreational data collection.
The coalition of groups supporting the Modern Fish Act includes American Sportfishing Association, Center for Sportfishing Policy, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, International Game Fish Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Recreational Fishing Alliance, The Billfish Foundation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Members of these and other organizations are praising the introduction of this bill.
“On behalf of America’s 11 million saltwater anglers, we thank Congressmen Graves, Green, Webster and Wittman for championing this legislation to modernize federal recreational fishing management,” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. “For decades, the recreational fishing community has been subjected to antiquated federal policies not designed to manage recreational fishing. The time is now to update these policies so families can fully enjoy our nation’s remarkable marine resources and continue a proud American tradition on the water.”
David Cresson, CEO of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana, said, “Since 1976, federal marine fisheries have been managed by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a law with good intentions but designed to manage commercial fishing and not recreational fishing. Therefore, recreational anglers are penalized when federal managers are forced to guess at how many anglers are targeting certain species and how successful they are in their pursuit. The Modern Fish Act would update these broken federal policies that are unfairly managing the public’s natural marine resources and failing recreational fishermen and the businesses they support.”
“Getting more Americans outdoors and enjoying our wonderful natural treasures, including in saltwater spaces, requires updating and modernizing federal management approaches,” said Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “The Modern Fish Act addresses the core issues within federal saltwater fisheries management that are limiting the public’s ability to enjoy saltwater recreational fishing, and will help maximize the economic, social and conservation benefits that recreational fishing provides to the nation.”
“For decades in federal fisheries management, recreational fishing was always an afterthought,” explained Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. “The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act introduced by Congressman Graves and his colleagues finally addresses the specific needs of the recreational fishing community, stands to bring parity to fisheries management and will get anglers back on the water.”
Not everyone is happy with the proposed legislation, particularly those in the commercial fishing industry. A statement published by the Seafood Harvesters of America (SHA), a broadly based organization that represents commercial fishermen and their associations, said the Modern Fish Act will “hamstring federal regional fishery councils’ ability to manage the fishery sector and most species, while also limiting the ability to innovate new solutions to overfishing.”
“We support the bill sponsors’ effort to obtain additional, more accurate and real-time data on our fisheries and, in particular, the recreational sector, which will help better manage our fisheries,” said SHA Executive Director Kevin Wheeler. “However, this bill would fundamentally exempt the recreational fishing community from adhering to the basic conservation standards that have been central to the rebuilding of many of our fish stocks. Waiting for fisheries to be overfished before we act led to stock collapses in the past and created economic hardship for the entire fishing industry. We can’t afford to take that route again. Doing so would devastate not only the fisheries themselves, but would have enormous economic impact on the commercial sectors that harvest, process, market and sell seafood across the nation. While not engaged in the drafting of this legislation, we look forward to working with Congress, NOAA and the fishing community to ensure that we have accountability in both the commercial and recreational sectors so that our fisheries can be a renewable resource for the enjoyment of all Americans.”
The Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, which is a member of the Seafood Harvesters of America, said in its own statement that it supported more data collection but opposed other proposals in the legislation.
“More and better scientific partnerships—federal and state, public and private—as well as credible third-party validations, help ensure the integrity of the data that managers use to make decisions,” it said. “The more precise and accurate the data are, the more effective the management measures can be, which can improve fishery access for all fishermen.”
Despite such opposition, there’s little doubt this landmark legislation would do much more than has been done before to improve public access to America’s federal waters, promote conservation of our natural marine resources and spur economic growth. These are goals all of us as sportfishermen can support, and we should vocally encourage leaders in Congress on both sides of the aisle to do everything in their power to see that the Modern Fish Act becomes law.
The proposed Modern Fish Act can be read in its entirety at this link to the Center for Sportfishing Policy website.