The Politics Of Fish

Identifying the friends of saltwater anglers on Capitol Hill

September 7, 2012
Politics Of Fish

Politics Of Fish

Fish are the most political of all animals. Commercial fishermen want to make a living harvesting them. Recreational fishermen want to enjoy time on the water pursuing them. And even if they’ve never been fishing themselves, environmentalists want to guarantee there will be fish for everyone.

Fisheries managers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must make tough decisions interpreting the limited science — particularly regarding recreational fishing — available to them. And members of Congress are caught in the middle.

Political Tug of War


Congressmen hear from commercial fishermen that ­regulations are strangling their business, from anglers that management uncertainty is strangling their fishing opportunity, and from some environmentalists that there are no fish left so all fishermen should get off the water.

Then the members of Congress call fishery managers and administration officials to Capitol Hill to explain why. Why are fisheries allocated between the commercial and recreational sectors as they are? Why are seasons so short? So unequal? So unpredictable? Why do some regions spend so much on fisheries science but others so little?

Like you, I’m not always happy with the on-the-record answers to these questions. As a matter of fact, I’m not always happy with the questions.


But it’s easy to see the political tug of war over ­saltwater fish, the most political of all animals.

Sport Fishing: Big Business

The most recent year that NOAA Fisheries generated national estimates of fishing effort and participation was 2006. Those numbers from six years ago indicate that 24.7 million saltwater anglers take four fishing trips a year. That translates to almost 100 million fishing trips annually.


This great homegrown enterprise — marine ­recreational fishing in America — offers numbers to back up its ­importance. It:

  • Generates $92.2 billion (2011 dollars) in total sales;
  • Employs 533,813 people;
  • Contributes $621.5 million in license purchases ($329.8 million across just the coastal states); and
  • Pays $650 million nationwide in excise taxes to be ­apportioned back to the states for fishery-management purposes.

In terms of economic impact, Florida has the highest numbers at $14.2 billion in total sales, supporting 130,900 jobs, followed in order by Texas, California, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Despite these amazing economic numbers, we don’t see headlines in the secular (nonfishing) media offering a hat tip to sport fishing. It would sure be nice to occasionally see, “U.S. Saltwater Angling: $92 Billion-a-Year Business,” or “Recreational Fishermen Support Stewardship, Pay the Bills for Conservation Nationwide.”


Instead of such news stories, we are barraged with headlines in the mainstream media generated by ­environmental organizations (“No Fish Left”) and ­commercial fishing groups (“Too Many Regulations”).

A Throw of the Dart to Manage Fisheries

Congress reauthorized the overarching federal law governing fisheries by unanimous consent in December 2006. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) required the Regional Fishery Management Councils to put in place annual catch limits (ACLs) for fisheries by Dec. 31, 2011.

This provision was interpreted by NOAA to apply to every single stock of fish under management, leaving fishery-management councils with the conundrum of either deleting stocks from federal management or applying highly restrictive ACLs based on very poor — or in some cases, nonexistent — data.

Guesswork has no place in the management of America’s natural resources. Management tools such as annual catch limits should be based on actual scientific calculation of what is appropriate for a given stock. The reality is that too often fishery-management decisions have been made using inadequate or outdated data and incomplete analysis. Sound science should drive management of our valuable fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries currently manages 528 stocks of fish or complexes of stocks, but stock-assessment data is adequate and current on only 121 of these 528 stocks — that’s less than 25 percent.

Improving the Science

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced the Fishery Science Improvement Act last year to lift the MSA requirement implementing ACLs on stocks for which there is inadequate data (and no evidence of overfishing). FSIA maintains the conservation tenets of Magnuson, and ensures an end to overfishing based on sound scientific management.

Surprisingly, the big environmental groups like Pew and the Ocean Conservancy are unable to see the forest for the trees. Their contention: If Congress lifts the ACL requirement, NOAA will never have reason to assess those stocks. Sadly, they’ve got it backward. The fact is that until NOAA Fisheries gathers scientific data on stock abundance, the federal agency should not be setting quotas.

FSIA is currently pending before the 112th Congress. It is one of many pieces to the puzzle of fixing federal ­fisheries management.

Friends of Saltwater Recreational Fishermen in the 112th Congress

It’s easy for a politician to say he or she supports ­recreational fishing. After all, who could oppose it? Who would begrudge a family a day on the water? Who is against a grandfather and grandchild wetting a line?

Recreational fishing actually has plenty of ­opponents. Often their opposition to our sport is masked by their support of a competing agenda. In the case of environmentalists, we might be so much collateral damage.

In the case of commercial fishermen, we might be viewed as competitors for the same resource. Commercial fishing has ardent proponents in D.C. It’s no secret on Capitol Hill that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) advocate for ­commercial-fishing interests at every turn. Similarly, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) stand for commercial fisheries.

Ocean environmentalism has its own advocates too. Two California Democrats come to mind as its best-known proponents: Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Sam Farr.

The list below stresses who stands for us — members of Congress who stand up for the average recreational fisher­man. We can rely on these federal legislators for their support; they understand recreational fishing as an economic driver in coastal economies and work with a broad spectrum of interests for ­responsible stewardship.

Many of the 535 members of Congress fish. But most highlighted in this article serve in the trenches, on the committees that oversee saltwater fish/fisheries: the House Committee on Natural Resources and Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska

(Commerce, Armed Services, Homeland Security, Budget, Veterans’ Affairs)

Fishing is important in Alaska. Really ­important. So, not surprisingly, Mark Begich was an original co-sponsor of the Fishery Science Improvement Act. Fishermen were really pleased with his assignment as chairman of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, which is responsible for federal fisheries matters. Begich also serves on the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus. His focus on fish has been central to his public service. Fishermen today enjoy great salmon fishing in the heart of Anchorage thanks to the award-winning Salmon in the City program Begich launched while mayor in 2007. No one can doubt that Begich is a real friend to fishermen.

Del. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam

(Natural Resources, Armed Services)

Madeleine Bordallo’s longtime ­commitment to marine conservation helped account for her being named 2009 Conservationist of the Year from the Center for Coastal Conservation. That honor had a great deal to do with Bordallo’s efforts in 2008 and 2009 in securing important changes to marine monuments proposed in the western Pacific. Bordallo’s position in the last Congress as chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife made her a key player in marine conservation. Never wavering in her support for recreational, indigenous and commercial fishing, Bordallo co-authored the Fishery Science Improvement Act, and has led efforts to tackle Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

(Appropriations — ranking member)

One of the most enthusiastic anglers you could ever have on your boat, Norm Dicks’ name is synonymous with good fisheries management. He believes in it, and he has fought in Congress to fund it. Dicks is a veteran member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus. First elected to Congress in 1976, he had served on the staff of the late Sen. Warren Magnuson, after whom the Magnuson Act was named (subsequently Magnuson-Stevens Act). He has been a major player in fish-and-game management for more than three decades. Wild salmon and salmon fishermen have been the biggest beneficiaries of his leadership. Dicks was at the center of the creation of the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund, which has restored and conserved approximately 1 million acres of habitat for salmonids since its creation in 1999. In addition, the congressman authored and funded the law to require the clipping of all adipose fins of hatchery salmon along the West Coast, to ensure the release of wild salmon hooked by anglers. The fish are losing a champion, as Rep. Dicks has announced his retirement at the ­conclusion of this term.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.

(Natural Resources, Homeland Security, Foreign Affairs)

As a member of the Natural Resources Committee, Jeff Duncan advocates for some of his passions, including enjoyment of the great outdoors as an avid hunter and fisherman. Duncan sits on the Subcommittee for fisheries and wildlife but is happiest when he’s outdoors with his two sons in their native South Carolina. Duncan was first elected to Congress in 2010, and immediately stepped up to advocate for good stewardship of America’s marine fishery resources through his original co-­sponsorship of both the Fishery Science Improvement Act and the Billfish Conservation Act. Duncan has been a strong supporter of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, even predating his service in Congress. He has been an active member of the Coastal Conservation Association and a friend to anglers all across the country.

Rep. John Fleming, M.D., R-La.

(Natural Resources, Armed Services)

John Fleming hails from an inland district in a coastal state; he’s intimately familiar with the politics of fish as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs. Fleming is an active member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus. A family physician and small-business owner, Fleming is a solid supporter of recreational fishing. As one who used a stethoscope most of his life, Fleming quickly diagnosed the challenges facing saltwater fishermen. Concerned about MSA implementation problems, Fleming was an original and enthusiastic co-sponsor of the Fishery Science Improvement Act. Anglers have an important advocate in John Fleming.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

(Natural Resources — chair)

The Center for Coastal Conservation named Doc Hastings its 2010 Conservationist of the Year with good reason. Representing eastern Washington since 1995, he has long been a leader for good stewardship of America’s natural resources. The House Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs, has jurisdiction over most federal land- and water-use policies, including national forests, national parks and monuments, wilderness areas, national scenic areas, Indian (Native American) reservations and Bureau of Land Management lands. A veteran member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, Hastings has assumed a leadership role in saltwater-­fisheries conservation and is a friend to anglers from coast to coast. His committee has an active role in domestic energy production, and strives to guarantee access to public lands for recreation and job creation and effective management of our nation’s oceans.

Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

(Natural Resources, Armed Services)

Though he hails from a landlocked state, Martin Heinrich is an avid saltwater recreational fisherman as well as a diver and spearfisherman. Heinrich is a friend to marine conservation efforts on all the coasts. As a lifelong hunter, Heinrich has seen the benefits of science-based terrestrial wildlife management, observing elk, mule deer and wild sheep in the mountains of New Mexico. Recognizing the need to put the same weight on science in federal fisheries management, Heinrich was an original co-sponsor of the Fishery Science Improvement Act. He’s also an important member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus and a co-sponsor of the Billfish Conservation Act. Heinrich, a mechanical engineer by training, was first elected to Congress in 2008. Note: Heinrich is now a candidate for U.S. Senate from New Mexico, and not actually up for re-election to the House.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

(Small Business — chair, Homeland Security, Energy)

Both Mary Landrieu and her Republican colleague from the Bayou State, Sen. David Vitter, are anglers. So it’s natural for them to stand together for recreational fishing. Landrieu chairs the Small Business Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. A member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, Landrieu was an ­original co-sponsor of the Fishery Science Improvement Act. A leading voice for Gulf Coast recovery, she championed the RESTORE Act (Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast), allocating 80 percent of any Clean Water Act fines for the 2010 BP oil spill to the five Gulf states. The Gulf of Mexico is facing some of the biggest fishery-management challenges in the country, and anglers can take heart in knowing that Louisiana’s members of Congress are joining Landrieu in working with sport-fishing interests to break management logjams and seize new opportunities, such as Rigs to Reefs efforts to save ­decommissioned oil rigs from federal removal.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska

(Energy — ranking member, Appropriations, Health, Pensions, Indian Affairs)

Her office filled with photographs of family fishing trips, Lisa Murkowski is a natural: She’s a natural advocate for recreational fishing and a natural supporter of her commercial-fishing ­constituents, as well as a consensus builder on Capitol Hill, with a focus on effective fisheries management. She and fellow Alaska senator Mark Begich are both supporters of responsible stewardship and sound science-based fishery management. As such, she was also an original co-sponsor of the Fishery Science Improvement Act. She serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, and is co-chair of the Senate Oceans Caucus. Sen. Murkowski is an active participant on the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, and understands the need to maintain healthy and productive recreational fisheries nationwide.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

(Commerce, Finance, Budget, Aging, Intelligence)

A key member of the important Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Nelson has stood tall for fishermen for many years. That’s with good reason: Roughly a quarter of the nation’s saltwater anglers reside in Florida. He is the Senate’s lead author of the Fishery Science Improvement Act and is working actively to ensure passage of this important legislation in this Congress. Nelson is also an original co-sponsor of the Billfish Conservation Act. He and fellow Florida senator Marco Rubio have stood shoulder to shoulder on sport-fishing issues. A native Floridian, Bill Nelson was a key negotiator in this Congress for the passage of the RESTORE Act (explained in text for Sen. Mary Landrieu, left).

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

(Commerce, Foreign Relations, Small Business, Intelligence)

In terms of economic impact of recreational fishing, no state comes close to Florida: Overall it’s a $17 billion-a-year industry for the Sunshine State. Marco Rubio understands fishing, and he understands the fishing and boating business. He stepped up early to lead on the Fishery Science Improvement Act and is a co-author of the Billfish Conservation Act. He and fellow Florida senator Bill Nelson have spoken with one voice on recreational-fishing matters. Rubio is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Global Narcotics Affairs. Anglers have a sympathetic ear and strong leader in Marco Rubio.

Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla.

(Agriculture, Natural Resources, Transportation)

Steve Southerland feels at home in his native Panama City captaining the family boat with his wife and four daughters. While Washington’s talking heads discuss fishing in theory, Southerland explains fishing in real life — with recent family photos as proof. He caused a stir on the House floor this spring with an amendment to the Commerce Appropriations Bill to prohibit expansion of catch-share programs in fisheries along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. His amendment passed 220-191 with bipartisan support. Southerland is small-business owner serving his first term in office, but he’s already a leader on his three committees. An active member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, Southerland was original co-author of both the Fishery Science Improvement Act and the Billfish Conservation Act.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

(Banking, Appropriations, Indian Affairs, Homeland Security, Veterans’ Affairs)

A humble leader for anglers and hunters, Jon Tester co-chairs the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus. Tester is a rancher and outspoken leader for rural America. Many of the accomplishments in this Congress for anglers are a direct result of Tester standing tall. In the closing months of this Congress, he spearheaded the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012, which addressed the needs of sportsmen all across the country. Tester addressed several anglers’ top ­legislative priorities in one fell swoop. In the Sportsmen’s Act, with chief co-sponsor Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), he included: Rigs to Reefs language compelling the federal government to re-examine the removal of artificial reefs from the ocean; a bill blocking ongoing attempts to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to ban lead tackle; the Billfish Conservation Act; plus language to establish the National Fish Habitat Partnership, the most comprehensive effort ever attempted to voluntarily conserve freshwater, estuarine and marine habitats nationwide. Sen. Tester is also the chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Policy.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

(Banking, Armed Services, Environment and Public Works, Small Business)

Named 2012 Conservationist of the Year by the Center for Coastal Conservation, David Vitter has long been a leader for recreational fishing. He’s been a champion for anglers on issue after issue. Vitter is lead author of the Rigs to Reefs Protection Act and of the Billfish Conservation Act, and he was an original co-sponsor of the Fishery Science Improvement Act. He has also been a leader on the RESTORE Act. He and Sen. Landrieu work well together for Louisiana’s fishermen. Vitter is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Economic Policy and a strong supporter of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.

(Natural Resources, Armed Services)

When anglers enter Rob Wittman’s office on Capitol Hill, they are taken aback by the 300-pound yellowfin on his wall. “Stand-up tackle,” explains the congressman. It is then you know that you are visiting a real fisherman. He probably wields a gaff better than any other member of Congress. Wittman represents recreational and commercial fishermen in Virginia’s First District. He identified the problems with MSA implementation early in his service in Congress and quickly stepped up to lead the charge in the House to pass the Fishery Science Improvement Act.

A co-sponsor of the Billfish Conservation Act, Wittman has been a ­stalwart supporter of conservation. He will be vice chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus in 2013. Wittman has been a champion for the Chesapeake Bay, as well as a strong advocate for our men and women in uniform. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 from the Center for Coastal Conservation.


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