More than any time I can recall, federal management of our coastal fisheries by the National Marine Fisheries Service (and fishery management councils) is sending waves of concern and controversy through the recreational-fishing community. Charged with oversight of NMFS and fishery management is the head of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In March, Jane Lubchenco was confirmed as President Obama's pick to head NOAA.
Who is Dr. Lubchenco? And what is her oversight of NMFS likely to mean for coastal sport fishermen around the country?
We wanted to find out - and Sport Fishing secured the very first interview with Jane Lubchenco on topics relevant to recreational fishing and its concerns.
That interview will be published in the September/October issue of Sport Fishing magazine; watch for it.
For now, I want to use this space to give visitors to this editors' blog a glimpse of just a few relevant and/or revealing comments from that interview, and particularly to consider Lubchenco's thoughts on catch shares (a new name for individual transferable quotas, wherein an entity or an individual buys a share of an overall harvest quota which can then be used or sold). I made the dominant focus of the interview catch shares -- two words causing great consternation in the recreational-fishing industry.
On fishing as a leisure activity: "I've greatly enjoyed catch-and-release fishing with friends and colleagues from bonefishing in Cuba to fishing for stripers in Maine. I understand and appreciate the strong attraction of recreational fishing."
On the economic importance of recreational fishing: " ... saltwater recreational fishing pumped $31 billion a year into the U.S. economy and supported half a million jobs. ... the challenge in all of this is to acknowledge that what we need to is protect jobs and grow new jobs ... but with an eye toward doing so in a way that's sustainable through time."
On federal fishery management serving recreational-fishing constituents: "I do think it's likely that NOAA has not given recreational fishing as much attention as is warranted. That's an impression, not grounded in data, but I think it's something that we should pay attention to."
On the issue of "flexibility" in managing recreational fisheries: "Its clear that many of our fisheries are in trouble and rebuilding them is going to bring great benefit. At present, we are bound to uphold the existing laws... ."
On catch shares (individual transferable quotas) as a means to manage recreational fisheries: Catch shares "are not a panacea ... but I am, indeed, enthusiastic about their potential."
"I do see some possibilities for catch shares being a useful tool for recreational fisheries, but I think we have to explore the pro and cons ... relative to, as you said, other innovative strategies."
" ... not all recreational fishing is the same. There may be opportunities for catch shares to be more appropriate for charter boats, for example. I think we have to look at this in a way that is sensitive to the different parts of the country and different parts of the recreational-fishing enterprise at large."
"I would just say that I'm open to a dialogue. I'm open to exploring new ways of working together [with the recreational-fishing community]."
When you read the entire interview in SF, you'll note that I spent the lion's share of time focusing on catch shares. Hanging over the head of many in our sport, like a Damocles sword, is the thought that the government (encouraged by some supposedly anti-fishing green groups) is going to "privatize" our public game-fish resources by forcing catch-share programs on us. So the issue is of the utmost relevance.
Will NMFS try to make catch shares a fundamental approach to managing recreational fisheries as it has done for many commercial fisheries? Of course, I don't know. As I noted when I spoke with Dr. Lubchenco, I have yet to see any plans that specify how catch shares could be applied to the sport side. Her comments to SF suggest, at least, that she wants her agency to work with the recreational side on such issues That would seem to imply we may not be forced to swallow any catch-share programs that would hurt rather than help an industry already in danger of flat-lining in some areas/fisheries (with red snapper but one example).
I certainly hope that go-slow approach to catch shares proves to be the case, and that in near-term actions regarding rec-fish management, NMFS is guided by Lubchenco's comment made here that she is "open to exploring new ways of working together."
I don't think we've ever needed that more than now, particularly because I believe that under Lubchenco, NOAA/NMFS has shown precious little interest in or outreach to a recreational-fishing community and industry already unhappy and suspicious after a widespread sense of neglect or apathy.
There are indications very recently that this NOAA/NMFS has finally begun to reach out and show it does value recreational fishing/fisheries and does intend to work cooperatively to manage our fisheries with (vs. against) us. Again, I certainly hope that proves to be the case. We shall see.