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“MODERN FISH ACT”… NOT SO MODERN…

Supporters of the Modernizing ­Recreational Fisheries ­Management Act try and unify anglers around the bill… But it sure as hell ain’t good for most of “us”

By Capt. John McMurray

First snow on the ground yesterday, so it’s not a stretch to say that things are, more or less, done on the fishing front of up here.

Thus, we finally got around to giving H.R. 2023, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 (AKA the “Modern Fish Act”) – a bill that’s aggressively being promoted as the one the “recreational fishing community” supports – a thorough read.

Well… It’s not good. In fact, it’s quite bad… and we’re going to do our best here, from my/our unique perspective, to explain why.

ANGLERS KILL FISH… LOTS OF THEM

Let’s get one thing out of the way before addressing the actual bill. Because I think a lot of the thinking here, and a lot of the motivation for this bill – the premise of which is to manage the angling community different from the commercial side – at least partially relates back to angler impact.

There is, and always has been, a misconception that all the problems in fisheries are caused by commercial guys with their big boats and their giant nets, while we’re all innocent.

Well, having been the owner of a hand that frequently pointed such fingers, yes, it’s easy to place blame. Especially with the inter-webs, social media etc., where piles of dead fish across trawler decks can be regularly seen. And it seems intuitive. We use rod and reel and they use nets. Of course they are killing all the fish!

But the reality is that we kill a lot too. In some fisheries (striped bass for one) we kill considerably more than the commercial side. This is not speculation… it’s fact, supported by the data.

So yes, we need effective measures that constrain recreational catch, just like we need them for the commercial fleet. And we need real accountability if and when we do overfish.

If we don’t have that, we face the likely depletion of the fish stocks that support a lot of business. Not to mention availability of those fish to something like 90% of the angling public. Because of course you know, when they get depleted most of us lose access.

But this whole idea that anglers, as a sector, can’t do as much harm as the commercial fleet? It’s just not true. And as part of the recreational fishing community, who has held seats on two separate management bodies, I feel more than qualified to say that.

The Premise of the Modern Fish Act

Back to the premise of the Modern Fish Act – that the angling community needs to be managed differently than the commercial side.

Well yes… I get that. Our goals are different (fishing for fun, for the experience, for personal consumption etc.), and recreational landings are managed and accounted for in a different manner than commercial harvest, and that creates management challenges.

It’s hard for me to explain this without getting all wonky, but I can probably cover most of it by pointing out while commercial operators and processers are required to report their catch in something close to real-time – and get shut down when quotas are met – anglers are managed though size and bag limits that attempt to meet a “Recreational Harvest Target”. Catch is estimated though a recreational fishing survey commonly referred to as “MRIP.

Because landings are estimated, there are lots folks who feel that the information used to regulate recreational harvest isn’t accurate enough to be used for developing annual catch limits and assessing the effectiveness of current regulations.

Yet, some uncertainty is inherent in all scientific data, and so fishery managers regularly adopt precautionary buffers to account for both scientific and management uncertainty.

Yes, such buffers may result in annual catch limits somewhat lower, and seasons somewhat shorter, than may be necessary. But while such buffers might sometimes cost us some access, they do a good job of ensuring that we don’t overfish, and of keeping an abundance of fish in the water… and that undoubtedly benefits anglers.

Yet, proponents of the Modern Fish Act feel like such precautionary management is unfair and needlessly restricts access to fishery resources. And I get that also…

But the “solutions” offered up in this bill are not good ones. In fact, they are considerably worse than the problems they are trying to address, as they will undoubtedly increase the risk of overfishing.

I’d take it a step further to say they will, in most cases, result in chronic overfishing and a decrease in fish abundance.

And that IS NOT good for anglers.

But let’s get back on track here, and discuss what this bill would actually do.

Reallocation

Of course, a lot of anglers want to take fish away from the commercial side and give them to recreational fishermen. After all, we’re better stewards, and kill less fish.

I certainly used to believe that, but, well, these days, it’s kinda not true…

After spending all those years on management bodies – seeing the commercial side stay within its quota while there were recreational overages on something just about every year, it’s hard for me to make the case that anglers are always the good guys.

Those overages aren’t the fault of individual anglers. But when anglers are managed with size and bag limits, instead of quotas trackable in real-time, and various angling organizations are continually calling for smaller size limits and bigger bags, such overages are inevitable.

And sure, one could argue that anglers, in theory, are better stewards of the resource, given that we need “abundance” to be successful. But if you’ve followed the shift in opinions, or at least the opinions of those who claim to speak for the angling community, well, it’s certainly become less about keeping a few fish in the water and more about “reasonable access” to kill more fish.

Yes, I understand that many commercial/recreational allocations were made a long time ago, when the dynamics of those fisheries where different. And having the Councils revisiting such allocations has undoubtedly been difficult. But frankly, a dead fish is a dead fish.

Speaking personally, my allegiance is toward healthy and abundant fish stocks, so I/we can catch them. Sometimes the whole allocation discussion seems like a distraction from that goal.

So why am I even writing about this here?

Because the first section of the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Act seems to mandate a full-on look at allocation within two years, and every 3 years thereafter… Uhm, for the Gulf and Mexico and South Atlantic only

Why in those two regions, and not all of the Councils? Well, that’s easy. Red snapper politics. Although it’s certainly a possibility that a markup would include other regions as well.

I’d also point out that allocation discussions are notorious for being contentious and painful. From a practical perspective, they could eat up Council time to an extent that could easily create management gridlock.

And really, NOAA recently released an allocation review process, created with the Council Coordination Committee (comprised of Council leadership), which addresses these issues without creating undue burdens on Councils that would likely come from such a mandate.

Let’s move on…

“Alternative Fishery Management”

The next section of the bill authorizes “the use of alternative fishery management measures in a recreational fishery.”

Well… The Councils have always had the authority to use alternative management strategies (i.e. managing at a constant fishing mortality rate over a period of years), but as a requirement of current law, such alternative management measures still have to prevent overfishing (below or at an Annual Catch Limit). However, the intent here, is clearly to avoid that mandate all together.

So really… What we’re talking about here is a loophole… To allow more risky management measures, that aren’t designed to respond to overfishing, at least not in a timely manner, so that a few folks can kill more fish.

Let me be clear that I’m all for the use of alternative management measures, should they work better, and perhaps ease the burden on fishing related business… as long as they continue to prevent overfishing.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what the supporters of this bill have in mind though. Otherwise there would be no need for such language in the first place.

“Rebuilding Overfished and Depleted Fisheries”

Current law is clear on requiring rebuilding of overfished species in a time period “as short as possible” and not to exceed 10 years.

This next section stipulates that a stock rebuilding time-period to be as “short as practicable.”

That doesn’t seem terribly bad at first glance, however having sat at the Council table for 9 years, and knowing full-well the political pressure Council members are under to allow overfishing, how such a change will be interpreted and used to drag out, or simply avoid rebuilding seems pretty clear.

For sure, we should be rebuilding stocks in as short of a time as possible (or 10 years) as current law requires, and not as short as “practicable” (read convenient) for extractive users. Because everyone benefits from rebuilt stocks, not just special interests.

“Modifications to the Annual Catch Limit Requirement”

This is certainly the most egregious section…

It creates such broad exceptions to the annual catch limit requirements that many commercial fisheries, as well as most if not all recreational fisheries, would be exempt.

Some of the exceptions are technical, and apply to short-lived species or species that don’t support a directed fishery. However, another includes confusing and unnecessary language that permits a Council to consider economic impact in setting annual catch limits, which would certainly seem to allow Councils to place short-term economic gain above the biological needs of the resource, while completely disregarding the part of the angling community, that depends on abundance.

Yet another section would seem to exempt commercial and recreational fisheries for many data-poor species, which are those fish most in need of precautionary management, while another would exempt all recreational fisheries which are “not monitored by a data collection system determined by the Secretary [of Commerce] to be adequate for the development, implementation, and enforcement of annual catch limits,” a catch-all that could potentially include all recreational fisheries.

Other stuff…

There’s some other stuff in there I don’t necessarily like either, although such “stuff” isn’t as terrible as the above.

For one, I am not a fan of sector separation – creating different user groups so that they can be managed differently (i.e a “charter/party boat sector” vs. “recreational angler” sector) – nor am I a fan of catch shares (in general). But to effectively remove such management tools from the Council’s toolbox is short-sighted. For some fisheries, such tools may very well be appropriate.

Also, on the data collection section. I don’t see a problem with state data sources being used in conjunction with MRIP, trawl surveys and other federal data collection programs. Some state data is already used in stock assessments. But whatever data is provided by a state better be objective, peer-reviewed and pass the “best-available-science” test. I’m not so sure the language in the bill is very clear on that.

Like I said though. That stuff is the least of my worries, particularly when you consider it in the context of the above.

What’s at stake

I’ve seen and heard folks promote the Modern Fish Act as a “conservation” bill.

Believe me when I tell you that It is no such thing.

Now let me get personal for a minute, because I have real skin in the game here. Not just my charter business, but my life, at to some extent my son’s.

Really, it seems like the ONLY time my boy isn’t jonesing for his I-Pad is when we’re outside, checking the killie or crab traps, clamming, or just doing stuff on the water. And fishing? It’s like a Godly experience for us.

Yet the reality is that if there aren’t a lot of fish in the water for us to play with, and maybe even keep one or two, he just doesn’t’ want to go. The currently depleted summer flounder is a good example of that.

And it ain’t just about my business, or my kid. If we’re allowed to knock the crap outta these fish, and in the end, there aren’t many left to catch, then it’s over. People just won’t go. And please don’t tell me if people can’t kill a lot of fish people don’t want to go either, because I’ve found that to be completely false. Recreational fishing is 90% about the “experience”. It certainly isn’t about simply filling coolers.

Yeah, I want to keep fishing for a living, and that for sure requires precautionary management and conservation provisions that ensure abundance. But what’s become even more compelling for me, is when I see my kid buried in that I-pad, and it takes everything I have to not knock it out of his hands.

While I hate to sound overdramatic, this is import… To me… To us.

Because if we screw this up, with some sort of stupid, short sighted bill like this, well, it’s hard to believe I won’t lose him, and maybe everything else.

Please don’t buy into it…

The Modern Fish Act isn’t modern at all. In fact, it’s pretty darn antiquated in terms of bringing us back to the days of allowing overfishing.

From our perspective, it’s a blatant attempt to avoid needed and useful conservation measures, that yes, can be constraining on a yearly basis, but in the end benefit anglers… perhaps more than anyone.

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