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February 05, 2010

Too Late to Stop the Train Wreck?

Millions of anglers in this country feel they're being asked to pick up the tab for many decades of ineffective management...

From sea to shining sea, recreational anglers sense that they are under siege from a federal fisheries-management system and powerful environmental groups that neither understand nor care about us or our sport.

The following headlines, all written in the same week, offer some hint of how pervasive the struggle to fish is becoming, nationwide.

• Gulf Fishermen from Florida to Louisiana Rally Against Tighter Limits for Snapper, Grouper and More (Alabama, Press-Register, Nov. 8, 2009)
• Lawsuit Filed to Challenge Emergency Shutdown of Black Sea Bass Fishery (New Jersey, Asbury Park Press, Nov. 6, 2009)
• Angry Anglers Attack Proposed Ban on Snapper Fishing (Florida, Florida Today, Nov. 11, 2009)
• Tempers Flare as MLPA Panel Decides on No-Fishing Zones (California,, Nov. 11, 2009)

At the same time, the outrage among recreational fishermen - who've been notoriously uninterested in any sort of activism over the years - is leading them to fight back.

Up and down the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, federal fisheries-management agencies have been drawing fire. In the Gulf, decisions almost seemed designed to inflict maximum pain on our sport and industry - though I attribute those to insensitivity and downright stupidity versus vindictiveness - particularly with respect to one of the most popular Gulf game fish, the amberjack.

Closing that fishery with almost no advance warning last October was bad enough, but to announce such a closure during the last days of the very popular annual fishing rodeo in Destin, Florida, simply reiterates how out of touch this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and some fishery council members seem to be with the recreational fishing community.

That sudden AJ closure, along with continuing contention over red snapper (and rumors that Gulf anglers may be facing a one-snapper limit next season, thanks to exceeding their 2009 quota), provided a catalyst that sent thousands out onto the Gulf in boats and by foot onto bridges and other public areas from northwest Florida to Louisiana in November in an unprecedented protest over sport-fishing management and regulations.

The public outcry helped lead to another first: The governors of all four Gulf Coast states west of Florida signed a joint letter in late October to Gary Locke, U.S. Secretary of Commerce (the agency that oversees NOAA), expressing their concerns over federal management of economically vital sport fisheries and urging a go-slow approach before locking up public marine resources in the form of commercial catch shares.

Similar protests and sentiments could be found at the same time along the Atlantic Coast (where draconian federal measures loom, including, in effect, closing much of the Southeast coast to bottomfishing) and in the Northeast (where fishermen face an emergency shutdown of the popular black sea bass fishery).

There's particular irony here in that this sudden activism on the part of recreational fishermen and widespread trashing of bad timing, bad science and bad decisions occurred just after NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco announced the creation of a new senior position of policy advisor for recreational fishing, and her public assurance at the ASA's annual summit in San Diego "that we think you are important, that we will pay attention and that we will work with you. It is my intention to improve our relationship. I look forward to a new era of cooperative relations between NOAA and anglers across this country."

Nice sentiments, but I fear too little, too late - and that's even if those words translate into actions (soon). NOAA might have headed off the widespread distrust of and antipathy toward the agency and fishery-management councils had Lubchenco offered such a commitment - and then worked quickly to act upon it - early in this administration's tenure.

Millions of anglers in this country feel they're being asked to pick up the tab for many decades of ineffective management that in large part accounts for one crisis after another popping up now like amanita mushrooms after a rain. Like no time in history, the voices of all of us who truly value the chance to - as Lubchenco described fishing - "enjoy this wonderful activity" should be heard via any number of national and regional organizations as well as independently. Also, you can stay informed and involved simply by checking the news pages of websites like and initiating daily or weekly alerts at for key words (e.g., fisheries management, fishing regulations, etc.). You may want to add additional alerts that include the name of your state and/or specific waters.

One very high-ranking federal fisheries official acknowledged to me that he now believes the U.S. fisheries-management system is "headed for a train wreck." If so, the damage will go far beyond the tracks. I suspect he's right, but I hope that somehow there may still be time to prove him wrong.