Angers Op-Ed: Glaciers, Palm Trees and Federal Fisheries Management

As published in The Hill.

Picture this: the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. The differences are stark: glaciers vs. palm trees. 300-foot commercial fishing vessels vs. 21-foot sportfishing boats. But the federal government has failed to recognize the obvious. The differences between recreational fishing and commercial fishing are abundantly clear, yet some in Washington would rather hammer a square peg into a round hole than find solutions that benefit both sectors and America’s prized saltwater fishery resources.

As you might expect, the strongest proponents of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the flawed policy that governs all federal fisheries management, hail from the North Pacific region, where commercial fishing is king and the original legislation was born. Since 1976, the law has worked well for fisheries and fishermen in that region, but for few others across the United States.

The crux of the matter is the indisputable fact that recreational fishing and commercial fishing are two fundamentally different activities needing distinctly different management tools. Finding a solution to this problem must begin with recognizing that what works for fisheries management in some regions of the country does not work for all.

Put simply, a one-size-fits-all management approach has harmed coastal communities, put a major dent in the recreational fishing industry’s economic output, and left too many Americans stranded at the dock unable to enjoy one of the nation’s favorite pastimes. Fortunately, stakeholders in every region of the country have recognized the need for a change, and Congress is following suit. In introducing the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (Modern Fish Act) this past spring, Congress has the best opportunity in years for improving the federal fisheries management system.

If passed, the Modern Fish Act will tweak some areas of the law to address the differences in fisheries and fishing interests across the country. This would distinguish commercial fishing, which has a goal to obtain a maximum yield as efficiently as possible to make a profit, and recreational fishing, which is a leisure experience where anglers seek fun while leaving work behind.

From ports of call dotted along the U.S. coastline, roughly 20,000 commercial vessels harvest large numbers of fish and bring them back to shore to be counted, processed and sold. On the other hand, there are 11 million marine recreational anglers who travel to our coasts from many different parts of the country – including landlocked states – and individually catch relatively few fish. Commercial harvesters take 98 percent of all the finfish caught in the U.S. each year, while recreational anglers catch only two percent.

It is time for federal fishery policies to reflect the differences between sectors.

Because of the sheer number of recreational anglers in the United States, trying to count every fish they catch is impractical. But, the Magnuson-Stevens Act currently requires an annual catch limit for every species regardless of whether there is good data to support the catch limit. The unwillingness of federal regulators to use better, real-time data collected by the states – who are more in tune with recreational fishermen – has brought us to a breaking point in many recreational fisheries in the Eastern and Southeastern regions. But finally, as recently shown in a series of congressional hearings, Congress and leaders of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are considering flexibility with the application of annual catch limits.

While some would like to frame this as recreational fishermen trying to exempt themselves from catch limits altogether, that is not the case. There are better ways than tonnage-based quotas to sustainably manage recreational fisheries that ensure overfishing does not occur without the need to count every fish, including harvest rate management and depth- and distance-based management. The states have proven the ability to balance conservation and access through these approaches over many decades. The Modern Fish Act would clarify that federal regulators can implement alternative management approaches more suitable to the nature of recreational fishing while adhering to the conservation principles of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

For most recreational fisheries, NMFS does not have the accurate and timely harvest data necessary for successful management under the current system. We are relying on data that is designed to show long-term trends over months and years when we are dealing with seasons as short as a few days. Instead, managers need management tools that fit the available data we have.

Recreational anglers are not looking to throw the baby out with the bilge water, but we are asking Congress to improve the way our nation’s marine fishery system is managed to benefit all stakeholders and America’s prized saltwater fishery resources.

Jeff Angers is President of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, a nonpartisan organization focused on maximizing opportunity for America’s saltwater recreational anglers.