On NOAA’S Recreational Fishing Policy

What most of us really want is pretty simple, but will that be the message NOAA gets?

2008 action scenery (5) edited

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Earlier this spring, at the behest of some of the talking heads in the angling community, NOAA Fisheries announced that it would create a national recreational fishing policy. According to the NOAA website, the idea is to “institutionalize within NOAA the key tenets of recreational fishing. The policy will be a thoughtful set of principles to guide agency actions and decisions over the long-term.” Such a policy would “institutionalize NOAA’s commitment to healthy recreational fisheries and the benefits they provide to the nation” and would provide “guidance when difficult choices need to be made.” Blah, blah, blah. …

I guess this is all well and good, but before moving on to the point of this post, let me be honest: I’m not sure I understand the utility here, and I can’t help but think that this may result in a lot of wasted time and effort. In the end, we have to comply with federal fisheries law anyway. Or worse, we could end up with a more risk-prone/pro-harvest “recreational fishing policy” that most of us don’t want, because the great majority of anglers – the conservation-minded users with foresight – are relatively quiet when it comes to public input because they fish for sport, not money. Maybe I’m wrong, or just too jaded at this point to feel any differently. I dunno.

I’m the first to admit I’m no Einstein, but I’ve been doing this stuff long enough to where I have a pretty good understanding of the fisheries management system. Yes, people love to bitch about the feds, mostly because they don’t understand complicated management decisions. But despite what you may have heard or read, while it isn’t perfect, when councils stick to their guns and rebuild fish populations like they are supposed to, federal management is actually pretty good for anglers. That’s because it requires councils to rebuild federally managed fish stocks. While we may not be able to kill as many fish as we used to, it’s generally meant more fish in the water. For a good explanation of how and why federal law works, I suggest reading my post from a few months ago: Understanding the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Some organizations purporting to represent anglers have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with federal management, suggesting of course that we move to a system where we’d have some flexibility in rebuilding timelines. But the suggestion that this would somehow be good for the great majority of anglers is absurd. History has been pretty clear that such flexibility does little but give managers excuses for perpetual delay. And we all know at this point that if managers can find any way to avoid rebuilding, they will. Yes, such flexibility might allow anglers to kill a few more fish in the short term, but it would almost certainly result in less fish in the water in the long term. That may be fine for the commercial guys and a segment of the charter/party fleet that is good at finding fish even if they are depleted, but it sure ain’t good for the rank-and-file anglers. Okay, I’ll shut up about the ill-advised calls for flexibility for now, as I’m sure you’re probably thinking “broken record” here.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

These same organizations also suggest that the way states manage recreational fisheries is somehow better, which, from my perspective, is preposterous given the fact that state-managed fisheries in my region have pretty much been a train wreck. Dare I mention striped bass … again? (Wow, I guess I really can’t make it through a post without mentioning striped bass.) Really though, every single fishery managed in my region by the states, which are under no obligation to comply with federal rebuilding requirements that the aforementioned talking heads appear to have such distain for, have been a disaster. With of course the notable exception of summer flounder, black seabass and scup, the only reason they are doing well is because they are managed under a joint plan with the feds, so of course they are required to be rebuilt. Pretty sure that if we left management of those species up to the states, we’d be fishing on depleted stocks of those species as well. But again, this is nothing I haven’t already said before. The point is that the people advocating for that kind of thing are probably not the kind of people we want dictating NOAA’s recreational fishing policy.

Yes, I’ve heard these recreational fishing organizations refer to federal management as a “commercial fish management system” and suggest “managing for recreational fisheries.” However, it still isn’t entirely clear to me, or anyone, really, what that means. On the one hand they talk about managing conservatively, for abundance, which of course I’m down with, but then in the same breath they advocate for “flexibility.” Come on, man. The two are mutually exclusive. You simply can’t have rebuilt, abundant stocks if managers have the flexibility to avoid rebuilding. Why don’t they get that?

I understand that the recreational community wants more consistency in seasons, size limits, etc. And I understand that some folks suggest that we manage on fishing mortality rates rather than what are essentially hard quotas. And I do understand the issues with the way we get recreational fishing the data and how that works with the accountability measures that we are required to implement under the law. This gets a little complicated here, so I’m not gonna get into it. But I would note that we already have some flexibility within the law to address these things, and the Mid Atlantic Council used that flexibility recently with black sea bass.

Using something other than hard quotas – the only thing that has historically worked to rebuild stocks – to manage fisheries will almost certainly result, in the end, in a greater risk of overfishing. Do we really want that kind of thing as part of a “recreational fishing policy”? I think that the aforementioned commercials and the “meat” section of the party/charter fleet would be okay with that. I don’t think that the other 80 percent of anglers who fish for sport would. And let’s remember that this is supposed to be a recreational fishing policy, not a recreational fishing industry policy.

So brass tacks. What I believe the great majority of anglers want out of fisheries management is simply abundance. In other words, policy decisions that result in more fish in the water. It’s pretty darn simple. Forget about all the other stuff. A “recreational fishing policy” should be all about managing for abundance, which benefits the great majority of recreational stakeholders. And that means managing conservatively, with precautionary buffers, avoiding the risk of overfishing and depleting stocks that are important to anglers – kind of like we are doing already.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Yes, this means that we won’t have the liberal size, season and bag limits that we had in years past, but what we will have is the reasonable probability that we can and likely will catch fish on an outing – maybe even a lot of fish – and perhaps more importantly, we’ll have the motivating expectation that we may actually catch one or two big fish, even if regulations require that we throw them back. And that is what keeps us coming back. That is what inevitably supports a robust recreational fishing economy.

It is not, as some will lead you to believe, about liberal size and bag limits and filling up coolers. While it may seem obvious, it’s far cheaper just to go to the market on your way home from work if that is your primary motivation. It’s about the experience, the hope, the expectation. I’m not arguing that keeping fish isn’t important to some, and I believe reasonable precautionary regulations allow that. I also would argue that with abundant rebuilt stocks there will be an even greater opportunity to encounter large “keepers.” But allowing more and shorter fish now doesn’t accomplish much, and I think most anglers realize that.

But will managing for abundance and opportunity be explicit in a recreational fishing policy? As fellow blogger Rip Cunningham points out in his last post, Time to Show Up, NOAA Fisheries is currently hosting town hall meetings in an attempt to find out what exactly anglers want in such a policy. If you take the time to read Rip’s blog you will see that the attendance at such meetings has been sparse thus far. And generally, the input they are getting is from the same people they always hear from. And those are mostly the people who just want to be able to “put people on the meat.” And that really sucks.

I get it. Most anglers have at least one full-time job and families. And fishing is supposed to be fun, an escape. The last thing you want to do attend one of those irritating meetings. It’s too much like work. And this is precisely why the pro-harvest/anti-conservation crowd (mostly those folks who stand to profit by killing more fish) end up being misconstrued as the voice of recreational fishermen.

But you can, and should, take five or 10 minutes tops, to submit a note about how you want the recreational fishing policy, first and foremost, to emphasize managing for abundance. And feel free to paraphrase or just copy and paste from this blog the reasons why.

Do it now: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/management/recreational/policy/comment_online.html.

If you don’t, we’ll have the loud (but mostly wrong) types dictating a recreational fishing policy that emphasizes all the wrong things and none of the right ones, which could translate to less fish in the water and slower fishing. I don’t want that, and I don’t think you do, either. So to borrow a phrase from Rip’s blog: BE HEARD!


After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

Posted in Conservation
3 comments on “On NOAA’S Recreational Fishing Policy
  1. avatar Gavin Fraser says:

    tremendous article

  2. avatar John Rice says:

    You’ll never have abundance and less restrictive regs until the ENGO’s get out of the management process. At this point, due to the constant interference of PEW, Oceana, EDF, etc., NMFS has to manage from the perspective of insulating against possible lawsuits.

  3. avatar Adam Smith says:

    Great Article, And really fishing should be fun not like a 9 to 5 job that you have to get strict to the rules of fishing.

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