Surprising MSA Compromise at the Southern New England Recreational Fishing Symposium

On January 26 in Warwick, the Rhode Island Salt Water Anglers Association (RISAA) hosted its third Southern New England Recreational Fishing Symposium. The event was attended by representatives of many RISAA member clubs, affiliate clubs, management bodies, ENGOs and more.

The first Southern New England Recreational Fishing Symposium was held in 2013 and focused on characterizing the social and economic impact of recreational fishing in the region. A second symposium was held in 2015 and covered hot topics in the community, such as ecosystem-based fishery management (EBFM), NOAA’s National Recreational Fishing Policy and Implementation Plan, electronic reporting for recreational anglers and climate change.

The agenda for this year’s event was designed to build upon the work of these prior events and explore how those findings might inform one of the hottest topics in the 2018 marine fishing world: the ongoing process to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). MSA is our nation’s guiding law when it comes to salt water fishing. If you want more information about MSA we urge you to check out the web site of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which was a co-sponsor of the 2018 SNE Rec Symposium.

The event led off with a welcome message by RISAA President Steve Medeiros, who then introduced Director Janet Coit of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM). Of particular note during Director Coit’s short speech was when she spoke of recreational fishery management as needing to consider “science, integrity, joy and fun.” From your lips to a nation’s ears, Director Coit; from your lips to congressional ears!

Jason McNamee, who serves as the Chief of Marine Resource Management for RI DEM, next gave an update to the presentations he had made at prior symposia describing the current status of forage conservation in the context of ecosystem science and modeling, or otherwise known as the future of all fishery management.

Next up was RISAA 1st Vice President Rich Hittinger who provided a quick review of the prior two symposia, explained the goals for the day and introduced Mr. Russ Dunn who serves as the NOAA Fisheries National Policy Advisor on Recreational Fisheries. Mr. Dunn gave a basic overview of the MSA and the process of reauthorization with a focus on recreational fisheries. He then shared a summary of issues that were identified as priorities by a recent series of regional “recreational round table meetings” held around the country. To the surprise of no one in the room, the subjects of access to fish, sustainability, forage fish conservation, data collection and youth participation echoed from coast to coast.

At this point in the well-structured agenda, attendees had been presented just enough background to inform the main work of the day.  Dennis Nixon, Director of the RI Sea Grant Program, moderated a panel discussion that focused on how recreational fishing can benefit from the MSA reauthorization process.

The members of the panel were:

Ben Bulis, President of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association

Russ Dunn, NOAA Fisheries National Recreational Policy Advisor

Chris Macaluso, Center for Marine Fisheries & Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Capt. John McMurray, One More Cast Charters, & current ASMFC Commissioner

Charles Witek, recreational angler, conservation advocate & One Angler’s Voyage blog

Particularly noticeable was the absence of both the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) and the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). Both of these organizations are heavily involved in the national MSA reauthorization debate and represent portions of the angling community in the New England region. Organizers of the event did confirm that these and others involved in the national MSA debate were invited. It is important to note that Chris Macaluso (TRCP) is part of a MSA-focused coalition that includes both ASA & RFA. It still would have been a much better discussion if the regional representatives of these organizations had actually showed up to make their case.

Each member of the panel (except Russ Dunn) gave a presentation on their views of what should and should not be included in MSA legislation. Mr. Dunn stayed neutral during the debate. Although with some nuance all presenters agreed on a number of issues that should be included in MSA legislation. These issues included a need for improvement of recreational socio-economic data, a need for enhanced recreational catch reporting, a need for more recreational fishing specific research, a pathway to adjust to the effects of climate change in management and a need for increased habitat and forage fish protection.

Where the panel was clearly not in agreement was on subjects such as rebuilding overfished and depleted fisheries, the current system of annual catch limits (ACL) and accountability measures (AM), certain types of re-allocation and other forms of “alternative management.”

Eventually the debate centered on the proposed Modern Fish Act which was supported by Chris Macaluso and opposed by all other members of the panel. The concerns raised by Ben Bulis of AFFTA seems to contradict claims by the American Sportfishing Association that the entire industry supports the Modern Fish Act. Considering that AFFTA includes dozens of rod, reel and tackle manufacturers, I’d say it’s now clear a decent-sized portion of the industry is opposed to the Modern Fish Act.

In his defense, Mr. Macaluso is from Louisiana, and although he is a well-spoken, reasonable advocate for his side of the debate, he was simply not able to engage in specific examples of how the Modern Fish Act might work in New England.

On the other hand, Charlie Witek’s working knowledge of the details within the legislation and how those details might affect Southern New England recreational fishing was more than impressive. Then again, Charlie is a lawyer who is an expert in reading the language of legislation, which is why Team often shares his blog posts on our Facebook page.

Team has aggressively opposed the Modern Fish Act, and we laid out all of our concerns in a single article, which is titled Modern Fish Act: Not So Modern.

More than one discussion focused on the concept of adding “flexibility” to stock rebuilding requirements as proposed in the Modern Fish Act. Although the data is clear that current MSA requirements have resulted in less overfished species than ever before, proponents of the Modern Fish Act want to loosen up the law to allow some level of increased fishing on stocks that are in significant decline.

In what appears to be a MAJOR OFFER OF COMPROMISE by TRCP, Chris Macaluso answered an audience question stating, “flexibility will not be the make or break issue of this legislation.”  This statement alone was worth the price of admission. This is how the process of discussion is supposed to work… by spawning compromise. This was a moment of hope in what is usually a very dark atmosphere of fishery politics.

In the end what was clear is that the debate continues, and all sides will need to keep talking and making compromises in order to reach a comprehensive solution. But I’m pretty sure that is how democracy is supposed to work…isn’t it?

The committee that organized this great event is currently working on a summary report, which, once completed, will be released via the Rhode Island Salt Water Anglers Association web site.

For more perspectives from conservation-minded recreational anglers on these and other subjects make sure to follow the Federal Fisheries section of