It's Still About Recreation...Isn't It?

Posted on February 24, 2011 by Ted Venker, Conservation Director, CCA

The catch share issue is generating a lot of attention, and it is certainly warranted. Any concept that proposes to privatize a public resource should get a strong reaction from the public and every attempt should be made to beat it back.

However, some of the rhetoric about catch shares is overheated, and it is threatening to blur some other important concepts, like the very real differences between recreational and commercial fishing. Take for example the recent press release headlined, “Catch Share Activists Meet Heavy Resistance.” That release uses words like, “turncoats,” “sellouts,” “treachery,” and “sharecropping” to blast proponents of catch shares. Very provocative stuff that would get anyone’s blood boiling. Light the torches and grab your pitchforks!
The release goes on to laud elected officials for defending the “fishing industry,” and laments that too many fishermen are struggling to provide for themselves and their communities.
“Honest fishermen work very hard to make a living in our states every day,” it quotes representatives who are pushing an amendment to block funding for catch shares as saying. “We write to express our concern that NOAA’s catch share policy will further endanger the economic vitality of the already struggling fishing industry…”
The release is about an amendment filed by Rep. Walter Jones, who has been an unabashed, unapologetic champion of the commercial fishing industry, to keep any of the millions of dollars earmarked in NOAA’s budget from being used on catch share programs in the Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, Mid-Atlantic and New England areas. It is an amendment that Coastal Conservation Association happens to support – there are far better things for NOAA to be spending scarce resources on than catch share programs. Things like more frequent stock assessments, developing fishery independent data and improved recreational catch data. CCA is currently engaged in a lawsuit against the federal government and Environmental Defense Fund over a catch share program. A victory there, and passage of Rep. Jones’s amendment, will go a long way to slowing down the rush to embrace catch shares as a one-size-fits-all solution to any fisheries problem.
It is important, though, for anglers to keep an eye on the ball in this debate. Beneath the incendiary language of that press release is a continuing, subtle and somewhat sinister slide into defending the commercial fishing industry, which caused most of the problems in our fisheries in the first place. Rep. Jones has filed a potentially useful piece of legislation to derail a management tool that was developed for commercial fisheries, and as a side benefit it would also ward off the negative impacts of catch shares to recreational ones. You may recall that North Carolina made headlines recently for allowing trawlers to continue industrial fishing operations in state waters despite outrageously wasteful striped bass kills that were videotaped by recreational anglers.
So what exactly is this “hard-working fishing industry” described in this release that some groups are fighting to protect? I don’t know too many in the recreational sector who fall into that category other than those in the charterboat industry, which depends on and caters to recreational anglers. The marinas, and the tackle and boat manufacturers could conceivably be the “fishing industry,” but I don’t get the feeling that is who this release was talking about. After all, the same folks who wrote this release also marched on Washington DC last year and, although there were well-intentioned recreational anglers in their midst, for the most part they were arm in arm with trawlers and netters and longliners from all over New England to demand their right-to-fish at all costs.
I know lots of anglers who work hard to support their fishing habit. They aren’t supporting their families with it. They’re passionate, sure, and they spend a fortune buying boats and tackle and fuel and bait and equipment. They want to go fish whenever they can, which is never often enough, and they hope the resources are healthy enough that they can bring a pile home for dinner.
But are they a “hard-working industry” bent on bringing enough fish back to port to sell and support their community? That doesn’t sound like recreation. It doesn’t sound like the for-hire industry either. That sounds a lot like commercial fishing, and as we have seen historically, and most recently in Maryland and North Carolina, industrial fishing and recreational fishing don’t have the same goals on most issues.
In the fight to rein in this Administration’s zeal for catch shares, it is good to find common ground with Rep. Jones and others where we can. But it is also good to not get so caught up in overheated rhetoric that the recreational sector sells its soul and erases the lines between recreational angling and industrial fishing.
To re-rig an old saying, the rear-end you kiss today just might be connected to the trawler who dumps thousands of pounds of dead striped bass over the side tomorrow.