Recreational fishing is a cornerstone of American life. It’s more than just a way to get dinner on the table. Families have bonded and formed relationships over a rod and reel for decades, cementing the sport’s place in America’s cultural consciousness. But now, our collective love of fishing is under attack — not from overfishing, but over-regulation.
Forty-one federally managed fish stocks are overfished; however this number has declined consistently over the last decade and, in fact, the number of stocks on the “overfishing list” is at an all-time low.
This progress hasn’t been achieved without a cost to anglers and the businesses that depend on access to the nation’s fisheries, as overly strict regulations have hampered the economic value of fisheries. Sustainability and economic efficiency are not mutually exclusive concepts, but managers have focused almost entirely on the biological aspects of fisheries, with socioeconomics remaining an afterthought.
Originally enacted as the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, the federal government has attempted to address these issues through legislation. Over the past four decades, there have been two major amendments — the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 2006 (commonly referred to as Magnuson-Stevens).
Magnuson-Stevens addresses many of the problems associated with commercial fishing by establishing Regional Fishery Management Councils charged with restoring depleted fish populations and managing healthy ones. While an effective way to manage commercial fisheries, Magnuson-Stevens does not adequately distinguish between commercial and sport fishermen. A father taking his son to fish in the Gulf of Mexico will be put to the same strict standards that regulate commercial fishermen.
On top of that, there are major financial implications for small, recreational fishing operations. These overly strict regulations are essentially putting a noose around the neck of local charter fishing operations, tackle stores and boat sales. MSA requires catch limits to be established for all species — even if there are no data to support that a fish population is depleted. The result is that recreational anglers are hampered by shortened fishing seasons and catch limits on fish that appear in great abundance — hurting not only our hearts but our wallets.
Next year, federal lawmakers are scheduled to re-authorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and it is an opportunity to address some of these issues.
I propose four changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Separate language for recreational fishing. There is no need for recreational fishermen to be lumped in with commercial fishing operations. Creating separate language to regulate commercial and recreational fishermen allows lawmakers the freedom to put regulations in place that make sense for everyone.
Sensible allocation between commercial and recreational users. Formal guidelines must be established and regularly revisited that allocate fishery resources between recreational anglers and commercial harvesters by using data based on modern economic, social and conservation criteria.
Catch limits based on actual science, rather than non-existent data. Currently, catch limits are established for every fish population under management, even if there is no reason for concern about the health of a population. Science should lead the process of fishery management. A one-size-fits-all strategy is a recipe for disaster.
Fisheries management transferred to the states where appropriate. In many cases, federal agencies are not the best organizations to manage fisheries. Where appropriate, states or fishery management commissions should take control of managing fish populations. That will allow organizations to manage fisheries with a greater attention to detail and a focus on enriching the lives of those most affected by fish population management.
Now is the time for action. With the support of federal lawmakers, in particular the U.S. Senate, we can take back recreational fishing and ensure that it remains a vital piece of our heritage and a consistent revenue-generating operation for local communities.
Recreational fishermen and commercial fishing operations should not be put in the same boat.
John Brownlee is the Upper Keys Representative of the International Game Fish Association. He testified before Congress in November on the need for reform of the Magnuson-Stevenson Act. He lives in Islamorada.