Can Congress Finally Get It Right For Recreational Fishing?

By Ryck Lydecker

New policy opens the door to better saltwater fisheries.

Photo of saltwater recreational fishingToday, saltwater recreational fishing is a $70 billion industry that accounts for 455,000 jobs. (Photo: Scott Sommerlatte)

When President Gerald Ford signed the Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976, known as the Magnuson Act, it put the United States firmly in control of the fish in our coastal waters and sent packing the foreign fishing fleets that for years had been scooping them up with impunity for dinner tables back home, and even exporting them back to the U.S. market. It also put NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in charge of managing those fish and shellfish species out to 200 miles, with the goal of protecting U.S. commercial fishermen and the domestic seafood industry. Bluewater sportfishing, in many respects in its infancy 40 years ago, at best became a management afterthought for NMFS and, critics would add, has largely remained in the policy backwaters since. That may be about to change.

In February, NMFS announced a new National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy, that for the first time directs the agency to focus on recreational saltwater fishing, including promoting the sport as well as managing it for the economic benefit of the nation. "This policy represents a milestone in NOAA Fisheries' relationship with the recreational fishing community," said Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association, who was present for the announcement. But getting to this point has taken extensive work both behind the scenes and through public outcry.

Laying The Groundwork

Just over a year prior, at the February 2014 Miami International Boat Show, an alliance of 10 fishing, boating, and conservation organizations delivered to NMFS and members of Congress a carefully researched situation analysis. It included a set of recommendations the organizations hope will give saltwater angling the consideration it's due as this keystone law undergoes another reauthorization in the next Congress. The alliance, called the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, was chaired by Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris and the president of Maverick Boats, Scott Deal. This commission then assembled a seven-member panel of experts that spent several months "envisioning a new future for saltwater fisheries management." For the past year the report has been gaining traction in official Washington and now is landing adherents in the new Congress.

"What we're saying in this report," says the panel chairman, saltwater fishery biologist Dr. Larry McKinney, "is that the country needs to manage all its saltwater fishery resources in ways that maximize the economic benefit of recreational fishing. And we need to do that while at the same time we continue to recover and sustain all of our fisheries as we're now doing. It's possible to achieve both today."

Third Time's The Charm

Eliminating foreign fleets and boosting the domestic industry were the twin goals of the 1976 Magnuson Act, named after its principal architect, Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington. But chronic overfishing — that is, taking more fish out of the water than are reproduced naturally — proved an unintended consequence. Thus, in 1996, Congress added provisions dealing with how catch levels are set, with reducing the catch of non-target species (bycatch), and with management measures to rebuild overfished stocks in a timely fashion while also protecting "essential fish habitat."

Still, overfishing continued, and in 2006, Congress turned the focus from economic development of the commercial fishing industry to conservation of the fish commercial fishermen catch. The act, which then became known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), in honor of its then-champion, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, mandated ending overfishing and called for rebuilding stocks on strict timelines, among other measures. One of those new provisions called for allocating catch of certain species to the recreational fishing sector, a victory of sorts for sportfishing. Since then, overfishing has been on the decline, with NMFS declaring stock after stock "rebuilt." Today 83 percent of the 181 stocks the agency is responsible for are deemed "not overfished," and 34 stocks are considered "rebuilt" to sustainable levels.

"Everyone on our commission is agreed that the Magnuson-Stevens Act has done exactly what it was supposed to do, and it's progressed in the most logical evolution you could want," says panel chairman McKinney, who is executive director of the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University, in Corpus Christi. "Our point this time around is that the only part of fisheries left to manage properly is the recreational side. The fact is, the recreational fishing industry has reached a level [of participation and economic benefit] where it requires management, just like the commercial sector once did. MSA as written has done what it was supposed to do," he says, "and now's the time to take the next step with the law."

Photo of an angler showing off his big catchThe Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management claims
commercial anglers harvest 98 percent of the fish caught, while recreational angling only accounts for two to three percent. (Photo: Scott Sommerlatte)

Step By Step

The agency has taken the first of the commission's six primary recommendations (see sidebar), and made it reality with the introduction of the new policy, which McKinney says, "hits the mark," but still leaves a lot to be done. Any such policy should be written into MSA to "set goals for effectively managing recreational fishing as a distinct and valuable asset to the nation."

Many people, policy makers and members of Congress alike, would have no argument with that statement. Today, saltwater recreational fishing is a $70 billion industry — a far cry from where it stood in 1976 — that accounts for 455,000 jobs in everything from the tackle industry and boatbuilding to motels, bait shops, and charter fishing fleets. Saltwater angling requires new management prescriptions, because the food fleets harvest 98 percent of the fish, while recreational anglers only catch 2 percent to 3 percent. Thus, effective management calls for fundamentally different tools, the commission asserts.

Under MSA currently, the eight regional federal fishery-management councils it established in 1976 continue to set quotas for the amount of fish that can be caught in a given fish stock. While the process is complicated and often contentious, as a general rule this Total Allowable Catch (TAC), expressed in pounds of fish, is divvied up between the commercial and recreational sectors. But the problem is that the two sectors don't fish the same way or even for the same reasons.

"You can set a 100,000-pound TAC for a commercial fishery, and those guys bring it all back to the dock, and you know exactly how many pounds you had, relative to the quota," says Ted Venker, communications director for the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the 10 organizations behind the commission's work and the report. "But setting a 100,000-pound TAC on the recreational sector doesn't work because you don't know how many boats are fishing, how many people are catching how many fish, and how much those fish weigh. It's just a guess upon a guess, multiplied by a guess. "On the other hand, states manage the recreational fishery in their waters, usually within three miles, on the mortality rate," he adds. "They use fishing seasons and set bag limits of so many fish per angler, and that means managers pay much closer attention to the condition of the stock. It's more labor intensive and costly, but it's the way offshore fish should be managed for recreation."

A case in point — a real sore point for Gulf Coast anglers — is the fishery for red snapper, a fish some anglers call the "filet mignon of the sea." It's a complicated story, compounded by lawsuits and judges' rulings, but by all accounts the red snapper population is the healthiest it's been in years. Yet the dearth of NMFS data, and the agency's focus on managing for the commercial industry by Total Allowable Catch poundage formulas, has worked against anglers. In a nutshell, as the once-overfished and now-rebounding red snapper population increases, both in numbers of fish as well as in the size of the fish landed, the recreational sector hits its poundage-based quota at an ever-faster rate.

In fact, last year, to keep the recreational sector within its poundage limit, NMFS had to set the shortest recreational red snapper season in history: all of nine consecutive days.

Reinvention Not Needed

But is it really feasible to manage recreational fishing under a totally different scheme? "In a word, yes," McKinney says. "States have been managing without these weight quotas by using seasons and bag limits, and we've done it successfully for years. So it's a matter of having the feds look at those examples, which is where we hope our recommendations will lead, and applying this method on a larger scale to the stocks they manage in federal waters."

"This new NMFS policy presents an outstanding opportunity to put recreational fishing on equal footing, but policies can change," McKinney adds. "We have an opportunity now to enshrine that policy in federal law, that is, in a reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act that can benefit the recreational fishery." 

Ryck Lydecker, an avid fisherman, recently retired from the magazine's editorial staff and our BoatUS Government Affairs team.

— Published: April/May 2015

Six Big Fixes For Fishery Management

The Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management assembled a panel of state and federal agency administrators, researchers, industry representatives, and economists to promote a "proactive vision for saltwater fisheries management." Its report, "A Vision for Managing America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries," differentiates the economic, social, and conservation needs of recreational fishing from those of commercial fishing, and it puts forth six recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service and Congress:

  • Establish a national policy for recreational fishing that identifies goals and strategies for recreational fisheries management at local, state, and national levels.
  • Adopt a revised approach to saltwater recreational fisheries management based on long-term harvest rates, not strictly on poundage quotas.
  • Allocate marine fisheries for the greatest benefit to the nation with criteria in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that consider conservation and socioeconomic output, and including procedures for allocation review and adjustment at regular intervals.
  • Create reasonable latitude in stock-rebuilding timelines — greater latitude than in current law — to rebuild in a timely manner while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.
  • Codify a process for cooperative management to determine on a stock-by-stock basis which entities (state, regional, federal) are most appropriate and capable of successfully managing the stock.
  • Manage the forage base (bait fish) to provide optimal health, reproduction, and growth in important stocks that sustain predator fish.


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