Collateral damage. For those of us who are saltwater-angling enthusiasts, that’s what we’ve become. It’s unfair and counterproductive, but there it is.
Among recreational anglers, the greatest travesty in fisheries management occurs when laws that restrict fishing effort are issued with a blanket approach. Thus, in a one-size-fits-all model, fishery managers announce that all fisheries for a given species or in a given area will face the same restrictions or closures.
With no attempt to distinguish among user groups, this methodology suggests that weekend anglers — who, statistically speaking, release more than half of what they catch and are relatively inefficient as far as what they do catch — are in the same league as factory trawlers and longliners, harvesting tons of targeted fish and, often, tons of bycatch as well.
It’s a global problem that should concern anglers everywhere. For instance, a recent proposal by the European Commission imposes this year a six-month moratorium on commercial fishing for European sea bass (similar to our striped bass) and on all sport retention, and for the subsequent six months allow the commercial fleet a ton of bass per boat each month, and anglers one fish per day.
Ironically, this crisis-management approach to devastated bass stocks came about after years of overfishing, as fishery managers and politicians failed to heed warnings of an imminent population collapse. That should sound all too familiar to anyone familiar with the management of cod in the U.S. Northeast.
And there’s more irony in that the anglers being asked to stop fishing for bass altogether were the ones most vocal for years in calling for much tighter catch restrictions on both themselves and big seiners and trawlers, but to no avail. That too should have a familiar ring for anglers in groups like the Coastal Conservation Association.
Also familiar: managers failing to distinguish between fisheries. The commercial harvest of European bass in 2014 is reported at 3,510 tons, but given certain loopholes in reporting, that number is surely much higher.
No figures exist for the overall recreational harvest, but considering the inherent challenges in fishing wild North Atlantic coasts for these fish, plus the fact that most fishermen release them, it would be minuscule indeed compared to the commercial take.
Yet fishery managers are quick to say of any effort for bass, “Shut it all down,” including the recreational fishery for this most popular marine game fish — which, by the way, is worth 40 to 75 times more per ton of bass harvested than bass caught commercially, according to a study by an independent fisheries consulting firm.
A world away, Palau, the tiny Pacific nation made up of gorgeous islands, has declared all of its waters (an area twice the size of Mexico) to be “fully protected.” Originally, that country’s president declared that catch-and-release world-class sport fishing would be allowed and even encouraged as an economic driver in keeping with the nation’s ocean protections.
No longer. I could find no mention of sport fishing in the considerable press generated by the October announcement — only the phrase “no fishing.” (This change in thinking seems to have occurred after Pew’s increasing involvement and influence, probably not wholly coincidentally.)
So in Palau, as in Europe, Australia and the United States, once again, sport fishing becomes collateral damage. The problem has come about because fisheries councils and commissions, politicians, and environmental powerhouses like Pew don’t realize or acknowledge the importance and value of sport fishing, or they simply don’t care. Trying to fairly accommodate the sport — which is so vastly different from large-scale commercial fishing — in management decisions requires time, money and effort. Why bother, when it’s so much easier to just say, “Shut it down”?
And so anglers continue to be unreasonably and in many (admittedly not all) cases unnecessarily denied access to their sport. Kudos to the groups and individuals fighting to be heard, to be recognized, to be counted. It’s an uphill battle, to be sure.