Taking a break from the excitement and activity of the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades show (better known as ICAST) in Orlando this summer, I had a chance to catch up with an old friend from Louisiana who covers fish and fishery issues for a local newspaper. As an aside, ICAST is the world’s largest sportfishing trade show, and draws people from all over the nation and the globe to check out the latest awesome innovations in fishing gear, technology and apparel. Every angler should make a pilgrimage to ICAST once in their lives just to baste in everything that makes angling so much fun.
My friend’s job forced him to leave the bright lights of the show and cross over to the dark side of panel presentations that covered some of the more antagonistic issues impacting recreational fisheries, including one on Gulf red snapper and another on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), the overarching law governing federal fisheries.
Set in a meeting room just outside the massive main hall of the convention center, the contrast between the gritty and often unpleasant machinations of federal management of fisheries and the glitz and economic power of recreational fishing just across the hall was jarring. Metaphorically speaking, the unmistakable conclusion of the panel presentations is that the federal government is a giant anchor, dragging down all the horsepower of recreational angling.
After the presentations, my friend asked a rather reflective question. He wanted to know what could be done to turn federal management into less of an anchor and more…well….of an engine.
It’s a good question, without an easy answer.
For decades recreational angling has been the impetus to improve and enhance marine habitat and resources. A trip around the aisles of ICAST reveals unmistakably that anglers are wildly passionate about what they do. That passion not only translates into product development that fills hundreds of thousands of square feet of exhibit space every year; it fuels a conservation model that the federal government either chooses to ignore or simply doesn’t fully appreciate.
Every time anglers purchase some of those incredible products on display at ICAST - a package of hooks, a fishing rod, reel, lure, tackle box, depth finder, trolling motor – and even fuel for our fishing boat, etc. we pay an excise tax that goes into a fund called the Sport Fishing and Boating Trust Fund. The majority of those funds go back to the states for fisheries conservation, angling and boating access and boating safety. More than 18 percent of that fund is dedicated to a program called the Coastal Wetlands Program. In 2015 alone, that 18.5% equates to around $112 million going to on-the-ground projects to conserve and restore coastal habitats.
And that is just a small part of the story. Anglers not only put their money where their passion is, they identify things that can be done to improve the resource. And then they go do those things. Every CCA chapter has a long list of impressive accomplishments that would not have been done without anglers. Things like opening Cedar Bayou in Texas, reviving the Independence Island reef in Louisiana, removing gill nets from the main stem of the lower Columbia River, launching oyster recycling programs in South Carolina and Georgia, building reefs in the St. Johns River in Florida, and much, much more.
The federal government looks at commercial fishing and sees a neat equation of relatively few harvesters extracting large amounts of public natural resources and selling them for profit. They can get their head around the motivations and they can count it all. They understand that the goal of industrial fishing is to harvest the most fish possible while putting the least amount possible back into the resource. The feds understand profits. For them, managing commercial fisheries is like putting on a comfortable old pair of shoes. They “get” commercial fishing, and because they do, it matters to them.
The federal management system looks at recreational angling and sees a huge, amorphous entity. It doesn’t seem to matter that we spend a lot of money to harvest relatively few fish. Counting exactly how many fish we catch is of utmost importance to the feds, but they have no idea how to do that. We don’t have a profit motivation, and they aren’t sure at all why we put so much back into conservation and habitat enhancement. They just don’t “get” recreational angling, and because they don’t, it doesn’t matter to them.
It was highly ironic to be having a conversation like this right in the middle of ICAST, where the air was practically crackling with the excitement, energy and potential of recreational angling. The answer to my friend’s question was literally right there in front of us. In order for the federal government to be less of an anchor and more of an engine, it needs to realize one simple thing.
CCA Conservation Director