We Must Do a Better Job of Allocating Fish Stocks to Recreational as Well as Commercial Users

The Modern Fish Act recently became law; hopefully, it will encourage and allow federal fishery managers in all management councils to consider reallocating limited fish resources.

Modern Fish Act
The Modern Fish Act is the most significant update to America’s saltwater fishing regulations in more than 40 years.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Who owns the fish?

Those who earn their living by fishing ­commercially? You and me, as ardent sport-fishing enthusiasts? Environmentalists who want to fence them within no-take marine protected areas?

The simple answer: no one.

As author and angler Sid Dobrin argues in his new book, Fishing, Gone? (due out this April), fish are a resource to be safeguarded and shared.

As a nation, we’ve done a pretty good job of ­safeguarding our marine fish stocks, with most now considered healthy.

But we've sucked at sharing that public resource.

The recreational-fishing community has for years noted that federal fishery management has been designed to serve and accommodate primarily the commercial-fishing industry. Plenty of evidence on and off the water makes that ­observation mighty hard to refute.

But over many years, that grievance to fishery managers seems largely to have fallen on deaf ears. Increasingly, however, the voices of 11 million saltwater anglers are being heard by more federal lawmakers, significantly through the efforts of a wide-ranging coalition of recreational-fishing-industry and fishing-conservation groups.

Those efforts last year led to the passage in December of the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 (aka Modern Fish Act) in both the U.S. Senate (unanimously) and House. That’s the first time in history a stand-alone federal bill dealing exclusively with recreational fisheries will, with the president’s signature, become law.

It also signals what I hope will be a sea change in federal management.

While recreational fishing has historically been a mere afterthought in the mind of federal ­fisheries managers, the MFA will require the federal ­government to take a fresh look at management of public fish stocks to facilitate the two very different major user groups. Experience-based recreational fishing is a wholly different animal than the harvest-based commercial industry, and the two must be managed differently.

While provisions of the Modern Fish Act requiring mandatory allocation reviews were pulled from MFA in last-minute ­negotiations, the legislation still requires the Government Accountability Office to review the allocation process in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic, two of the biggest problem regions for anglers.

To me, the most important aspect of updating management strategies goes back to the concept of how we share fish stocks. In ­management terms, that's allocation.

Most industrial/commercial fishers are happy to talk of “allocation,” but consider “reallocation” a four-letter word. The same seems to be true of many of the eight fishery-management councils, showing little interest in even considering reallocating fish stocks. The pressure on those councils from the boisterous commercial industry — with immeasurable help and influence from the catch-share-loving Environmental Defense Fund — to avoid reviews of allocation has been relentless.

Such actions offer strong proof of how skewed allocations are now. The last thing the commercial industry wants is a council considering reallocation of quotas often set decades ago for mixed-use fisheries. As study after study has confirmed, the economic value of a fish to recreational fishermen is often worth dozens of times the value of that same fish commercially. And the size of the recreational sector, particularly vis-a-vis coastal population increases, continues to grow.

So when/if fishery managers truly open up the reallocation process, almost certainly they’ll need to share more of that public resource with the public (America’s anglers), particularly in some popular mixed-use fisheries.

Any fisheries legislation that requires a ­makeover of the ugly “locked-shut” ­allocations that have remained unchanged, year after year, is a beautiful thing.