A widely inaccurate ESPN article sets off national panic

When I saw ESPN reporter Robert Montgomery’s misleading and frankly, ridiculous article which claimed that the Obama administration’s was preparing to issue an executive order that bans recreational fishing in America, I didn’t even blink.    I read it as an opinion piece…  nothing more.   Surely most people with a shred of sense wouldn’t believe something so over the top.  Thus, at the time I found it only mildly irritating.   Yet, what I now find quite a bit more annoying about the piece is the attention it has generated. 

Almost immediately after the piece was printed, the talking-heads began to broadcast over national networks that Obama was going to ban recreational fishing.   Even Congress took note as several legislators questioned NOAA head Dr. Jane Lubchenco on the subject.  NOAA issued an immediate response stating in no uncertain terms “The Ocean Policy Task Force has not recommended a ban on recreational fishing.” 

But it was too late.  The rumor mill had already begun to spin out of control.  All over the internet, on TV programs etc., folks were claiming as fact that the Obama administration sought to ban recreational fishing.   

As time passed the accusation was widely discredited.  ESPN issued a retraction and edited the piece (although not that much), and Fox News etc. acknowledged the mistake.  Unsurprisingly, however, there are still quite a few folks in the recreational fishing community who are still claiming that the Obama administration wants to ban or at least severely curtail recreational fishing.   It’s simply not true!

The paranoia is about  the Obama Administration’s Ocean Policy Task Force reports.  I wrote about this here in December, so let’s revisit.

The interim reports produced by the Task Force seek to do two major things that can and probably will affect recreational fishing.  The first is the recommendation to develop a “national ocean policy.” Our waters are currently managed in a haphazard way by well over a hundred different laws and more than 20 different Federal agencies.  There is very little coordination and there is very little accountability, particularly as it relates to factors other than fishing that are sure to effect fish stocks.  How often have we heard fishermen complain that they have to bear the brunt of regulations designed to recover depleted stocks because the management councils have no authority to address those non-fishing “upstream” problems that really caused the stocks to decline?   In short, a national ocean policy puts it all together so those “upstream” and habitat issues would be properly addressed in an ecosystem context.   Why the H anyone would think that’s a bad idea is beyond me. 

The second and without-a-doubt most controversial directive is what the Task Force calls “spatial planning”.  Essentially, spatial planning is the process of allocating spaces in the ocean for its various uses.  This might sound unnecessary to the average angler, but it’s an unavoidable truth that ocean-use conflicts are exponentially arising between traditional uses like fishing and new or emerging uses, such as energy development.  Really, spatial planning is nothing more than a coordinated effort to plan ahead as demand on ocean space grows.

But some folks in the angling community are scared shitless that spatial planning means taking large swaths of ocean and making them off limits to fishing.  The truth is, the task force will not be making recommendations of areas to close off.  In response to the recent hysteria, NMFS head Eric Schwaab stated, “The draft reports by the Ocean Policy Task Force do not contain a zoning map and do not establish any restrictions on recreational fishing, nor make any judgments about whether one ocean activity or use is better than another. Instead, the reports set up a policy and framework for effectively managing the many sustainable uses of the ocean while upholding our responsibility to be stewards of our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes” says Schwab.  If you don’t believe this, take a look for yourself:

The notion that recreational fishing in the U.S. will be banned or even substantially restricted is dishonest and ridiculous.   Pure and simple, it’s fear mongering.  There is absolutely nothing in there that could reasonably be interpreted as suggesting a fishing ban was in the works.  The thrust of this initiative is really to preserve critical fish habitat in areas where it exists, not to ban or curtail recreational fishing.    

The fact of the matter is that ocean spatial planning could provide significant benefits to anglers, such as better protection of important fish habitat and preventing uses and activities incompatible with fishing.   In other words, various industries will not be able to just come in and set up shop in some critical fishing areas and then prevent anglers from accessing it. 

For example, there’s a piece of hard bottom off western Long Island that is one of the only hard-bottom habitats off the south shore, and it’s currently a candidate for a “sea island” LNG plant.  Spatial planning could be a critical tool to keep such plants off prime fishing grounds.   It could also be a useful tool that would prevent bottom trawls from wrecking havoc on bottom habitat.  This is a good thing! 

Yet,  Montgomery quotes Phil Morlock, director of environmental affairs for Shimano as saying “what we’re seeing coming at us is an attempted dismantling of the science-based fish and wildlife model that has served us so well.  There’s no basis in science for the agendas of these groups who are trying to push the public out of being able to fish and recreate.”  No one is pushing anglers out of anywhere, and the entire process of special planning is not only based on science but is totally transparent with stakeholder input an important part of the decision-making process.  Fishermen will be engaged in the planning process with the purpose of safeguarding access to critical fishing grounds and maintaining the properties that make such areas critical fish habitats.  It is designed to be inclusive, not exclusive, meaning that fishermen are involved in the designation decisions which will prevent avoidable user conflicts.   We’ve been assured that all decisions will be based on the best available science, in addition to stakeholder input. 

After the President convened an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force in June to develop recommendations for a national policy, the task force set out to host a series of hearings across the country to hear what people thought this should look like. Of course, recreational fishermen had a strong showing.  With months and months of opportunity to submit written public comments, you bet there were a lot of anglers and angling groups doing just that.  Montgomery insinuates in his piece that because this public-comment period had ended, that somehow this was cutting anglers out of the process.  But the truth is that there was plenty of time to comment, and every comment period has to end sometime.  

Still, there have been frequent accusations that this Administration hasn’t listened to and doesn’t care about recreational fishing interests.   This is simply not true either. 

In a recent press release Schwaab says “As a member of the task force, NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, has said, and I echo her on this, that saltwater recreational fishing is vital to this nation and NOAA is committed to building a strong partnership with America’s saltwater anglers to ensure that Americans have opportunities to fish sustainably for generations to come.”   These aren’t just words…  I’m actually heading down to DC in a couple of weeks to attend a “Recreational Fishing Summit” hosted by NOAA, designed to listen to and address concerns of recreational fishermen.  I can’t say there’s been any Administration in my lifetime that has shown such concern and willingness.   

So back to the fishing-ban hysteria and the Ocean Policy Task Force.   We’ve heard straight from the administration that we will not lose access to the traditional fishery resources we’ve utilized for centuries.  In fact, the head of the National Marine Fisheries Service recently said the administration “is committed to adopting policies that will ensure that current and future generations have the opportunity to enjoy the great tradition of recreational fishing.” The draft reports have been public all along, and they back up this reassurance. 

So, don’t believe the hype.  This administration and the Ocean Policy Task Force certainly acknowledge anglers and have been heading their concerns.    The Task Force recommendations are in no way a ban, or restriction of any kind, on recreational fishing. The whole point behind this policy is to promote cleaner water, healthier and more sustainable oceans and Great Lakes. From what I can tell, and from what we’re hearing straight from the administration, it seems healthy fisheries are at the center of that. Thus, it deserves a fair shake.


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 Articles, Conservation, Conservation News, News, Saltwater Fishing
  1. avatar Jason Smith says:

    I think your wrong..

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