A National Policy for Saltwater Recreational Fishing

Last week, I was honored to attend the 2014 Saltwater Recreational Fishing Summit along with roughly one hundred leaders in the saltwater recreational fishing community. This two day meeting was an opportunity to meet with leadership at NOAA Fisheries to assess recent progress in saltwater recreational fisheries management, identify future goals and strengthen ties between NOAA Fisheries and the recreational fishing community.

Having also attended the last Summit in 2010, it was fascinating to see the change in tenor between that meeting and this one. Back then, the most common sentiments among participants were skepticism and distrust.

While most anglers consider state fisheries management agencies to be partners with shared goals, NOAA Fisheries has often been viewed like the indifferent older sibling who treats you as an inconvenience and every now and then gives you a pummeling.

I’m not trying to suggest that NOAA Fisheries is now viewed as the loving older sibling who takes you fishing and taught you how to ride a bike. But significant progress has been made over the last several years to improve communication and collaboration between NOAA Fisheries and the recreational fishing community, and that was clear in the positive and constructive dialogue that carried through the 2014 Summit.

One prime example of the improved relationship is the FishSmart program, where industry, anglers, researchers and NOAA Fisheries have come together to identify tools and techniques to improve the survivability of caught-and-released fish. Over the last few years, NOAA Fisheries has been a key partner in this effort, which ultimately is about ensuring we have healthy fish populations so anglers have more opportunities to go after them.

Most everyone at the 2014 Summit agreed that NOAA Fisheries has improved in its outreach and communication efforts. Where progress is lacking, however, is in improvements on-the-water. One needs to look no further than the current Gulf of Mexico red snapper fiasco. Only under NOAA Fisheries management could a rebuilding fish stock (i.e., a good thing) result in lawsuits, ever shortening fishing seasons and increasing clashes between the states and the federal government (i.e., a lot of bad things).

The problems with red snapper and many other federally managed fisheries is that NOAA Fisheries has historically been focused almost exclusively on commercial fisheries. I covered this topic in greater depth in my last column, but it suffices to say, if we want to see improvements on the water NOAA Fisheries needs to stop trying to manage the nation’s 11 million saltwater anglers the same as it does industrial commercial fisheries.

I think many within NOAA Fisheries are beginning to recognize that, but it’s going to take some significant and fundamental changes within the agency – as well as to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law that governs federal fisheries management – to make it happen. Many of the problems within federal fisheries management are a result of inconsistent or non-existent policies within NOAA Fisheries for how to treat recreational fishing. Fortunately, those of us at the Summit came away feeling like NOAA Fisheries is committed to taking the needed steps to improve how it manages saltwater recreational fisheries.

Recently named administrator of NOAA Fisheries, Eileen Sobeck, concluded the Summit with a commitment from her agency to establish a national policy for saltwater recreational fisheries management. This policy should define and coordinate efforts not only within NOAA Fisheries, but throughout the federal government, to advance saltwater recreational fishing. Aside from demonstrating that NOAA Fisheries is truly ready to recognize the important economic, social and conservation benefits of recreational fishing, establishing this national policy will set the foundation that is needed to enact changes in management that will meet the goals and motivations of anglers.

Will the establishment of a national policy for recreational fishing be the silver bullet that solves all of the challenges with federal fisheries management? Of course not. But I view trying to enact such a fundamental change within a large federal agency like NOAA Fisheries like trying to change direction of a cruise ship.

The ship has tremendous momentum behind its current direction and it takes a lot of time and effort to change course.

This national policy will represent charting a new course for NOAA Fisheries. In the process of moving toward this new direction, sometimes change will be imperceptible, and it might not happen as quickly as we’d all like, but eventually some landmarks will come up that makes us realize that we are in fact on a new and better course.

It might be a choppy ride to get there, but if anglers are engaged in a united and constructive manner, and we have willing partners within NOAA Fisheries, sooner or later we’ll get there.

Mike Leonard is the Ocean Resource Policy Director at the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), based in Alexandria, Virginia. ASA is the sportfishing industry's trade association, providing the industry with a unified voice when emerging laws and policies could significantly affect sportfishing ...