Shaking Things Up

Posted on April 26, 2017

For recreational anglers, good news is often hard to come by in federal fisheries management.

For many years, anglers have been frustrated by federal policies that seem to favor commercial harvesters, despite the fact that recreational angling is the largest economic engine in many of those same fisheries. While our opportunities have shrunk and our access to some fisheries has almost disappeared entirely, schemes that literally give private ownership of public marine resources to a select few commercial harvesters have boomed.

As challenging as these times have been, lately there have been some encouraging signs of the pendulum swinging back in the direction of anglers. For the first time in recent memory, a candidate who truly understands recreational angling is in the running for the post of Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. NOAA Fisheries is the agency charged with managing the nation’s marine resources from the seaward boundary of state waters out to 200 miles. It was originally created as the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and the bias in favor of industrial harvest has been ingrained in the agency ever since. Having someone like Robert Barham, who was most recently secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and has successfully managed both commercial and recreational fisheries, in charge would be a game-changer. Appointment processes are always an inexact science, but we are certainly hoping (and working) for the best.

Additionally, the governors of three Gulf states have made their recommendations for seats on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council that are up for appointment. The Gulf Council is the entity that sets regulations for federal fisheries and is comprised of 17 voting members who serve staggered three-year terms. For many years, it has suffered from a significant under-representation of anglers and the predictable result has been an onslaught of regulations unfavorable to recreational angling. The governors of Texas, Florida and Alabama have all submitted slates of candidates that would go a very long way toward leveling this playing field and establishing a true balance on the Gulf Council.

Finally, and most importantly, the recreational angling community has come together as never before to back legislation that addresses critical challenges facing saltwater recreational fishing at the federal level. The “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017” (Modern Fish Act) would improve public access to America’s federal waters, promote conservation of our natural marine resources and spur economic growth. Current federal law was designed almost exclusively to manage commercial harvesters and is hopelessly incompatible with recreational angling. The Modern Fish Act will bring parity to fisheries management and get anglers back on the water.

All of these developments represent tremendous potential for America’s recreational angling community and all are sorely needed. The federal fisheries management system has been dominated by commercial fishing interests for far too long, and it is certain that that sector will feel threatened by this multi-front progress. The recreational angling community should not be surprised to see a flurry of attacks using all the old tricks - indignant rebuttals, dramatic innuendo and vilifications - from industrial harvesters desperate to protect the status quo. As the saying goes, you know you’re over the target when you start taking flack.

When the target is un-raveling a historically biased system and finally achieving a level playing field for anglers, a little flack is a small price to pay.