(This editorial appears in the June issue of Sport Fishing_ magazine._)
I think most anglers would agree that federal fisheries management hasn’t done real well by or for our sport. After years of disappointments on that front, I attended the National Saltwater Recreational Fishing Summit in Alexandria, Virginia, recently with considerable skepticism.
By the end of that conference, I found myself thinking that things may yet fall into place for sport fishermen.
That event certainly reinforced the notion that a lot of things need to fall into place for this sport and industry. There wouldn’t be any argument on that from many quarters — such as the northern Gulf of Mexico where, as I write, there’s talk of an 11-day red snapper season, thanks to a ruling on a federal lawsuit by commercial fishermen. In truth, the whole Gulf snapper mess is a symptom — perhaps an open, gaping wound, but still a symptom — of the many issues raised at the summit.
Those issues include, first and foremost, the lack of a national recreational-fishing policy for our coastal waters. That issue — establishing just such a policy — is foremost among recommendations in the recent, pivotal report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” (aka the Morris-Deal Commission report, since Scott Deal with Maverick Boats and Bass Pro’s Johnny Morris were chairs).
Why, you might wonder, do we need a policy specific to saltwater recreational fisheries? After all, there’s no such policy just for commercial fisheries, right?
Wrong. The National Marine Fisheries Service became an agency under the Department of Commerce umbrella in 1970 with one purpose: managing and promoting our coastal commercial fisheries. Recreational fisheries were an afterthought, and for the most part, have long been managed using the same approach.
But recreational fishing is a very different animal from commercial fishing, which the Morris-Deal report (to which, by the way, most major recreational industry and conservation organizations contributed) emphasized.
The report made the case convincingly that NOAA Fisheries desperately needs to establish a separate recreational-fishing policy for the nation.
At the end of the two-day national fishing summit, we all heard from Eileen Sobeck. The newly appointed chief of NOAA Fisheries (NMFS) had sat through the conference, listening to many speakers from the sport, the industry, and the government discuss the promise and problems of our coastal sport fisheries. What she heard there and what she had read in the Morris-Deal Commission report clearly had an impact.
“We will start work on a formal NOAA Fisheries policy on [saltwater] recreational fishing,” Sobeck told the large gathering of industry leaders. Going forward, she also vowed to work closely with the recreational-fishing community to optimize NOAA’s efforts.
That historical pledge won’t immediately resolve the disaster brewing in the northern Gulf. The metaphor of NOAA turning as slowly as a supertanker is valid. But as long as Sobeck’s promise is kept, things for sport fishermen around the nation should gradually get better — possibly much better (including red snapper allocation and regulations).
With Congress this year working on a new version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (which guides federal fisheries law), NOAA Fisheries’ unprecedented commitment to adopt a national policy to manage recreational fisheries couldn’t come at a better time. Of course many devils lie in wait, but Sobeck promised to work closely with the recreational-fishing community in resolving the inevitable, messy details.
Despite so much widespread and well-earned cynicism among our ranks, it looks like the supertanker may finally start turning (our way).