Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report





On this the final day of February, the woman in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator (NOAA) is expected to officially step away from her appointed post. Based on promises and performance, that can't be bad news for any coastal fishermen in America today.


At a meeting with the New York fishing industry just 2-1/2 years ago for example, Dr. Jane Lubchenco heard first-hand about ongoing problems experienced by coastal fishermen - the 'regulated community' as NOAA calls us. Brokered by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the personal sit-down was meant to provide a forum for members of the both the recreational and commercial fishing community whom together shares allocation of important food fish species like black sea bass, porgy and summer flounder.


Regrettably, the take-home tasks and follow-up items promised by Dr. Lubchenco following the meeting never materialized. Whether or not a new NOAA Administrator - expected to be appointed by President Obama any day now - will address these concerns remains unknown. What is known and has been openly expressed by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) years prior to that 2010 meeting is that recreational fishermen cannot be managed by the same rigid methodology as the commercial sector.


"The way our recreational fishery is managed is wrong in terms of pounds of fish," RFA managing director Jim Hutchinson told Dr. Lubchenco at the open forum, pointing out one of the most critical items for the NOAA administration to address in terms of the methodologies used for representing recreational harvest. "It's unfair to manage recreational fishermen the same way as commercial," Hutchinson added.


This criticism by RFA of the federal fisheries service on behalf of its mission as a political action organization has often been misconstrued and vilified by preservationists as nothing but a call for less government restriction and more allowable harvest by anglers. In truth, RFA has long contended that this particular absurdity of fisheries management has not only led to more restrictive access against anglers, it is also counter-intuitive to the overall health of the resource. The elite preservationists can criticize the messenger all they want, but it was Samuel Adams who said "For true patriots to be silent is dangerous."



For more than a decade, the recreational industry has asked for fishery management plans to be changed to recognize the number of fish caught by anglers as opposed to just pounds of fish, which RFA says leads to an inflated quota based on statistical modeling. "Every time we increase the size limit to curb overall harvest when setting a fishing season, we are actually increasing the size of the harvested fish and the release mortality, and in turn the weight of the fish caught in pounds," Hutchinson said at the 2010 meeting, explaining "it's the quintessential Catch 22 and it's destroying the recreational fishing community's ability to properly manage fisheries."


As RFA has frequently pointed out, commercial landings of fish in pounds is pretty straight-forward; when commercial boats return to port to sell their catch, every pound of fish offloaded and sold is accounted for by way of paper trail for both harvest and tax purposes. When state and federal records show an annual catch limit (ACL) has officially been met dockside, that commercial fishery is officially closed to avoid overage. Because every fish harvested is bought and sold, in-season accountability measures (closures) make perfect sense for the commercial industry.


In the recreational sector on the other hand, pounds of fish can never be 100% accountable - when you consider that anglers fish from docks, bridges, beaches, private marinas or even upon boats kept in their own backyards, compiling a pound-for-pound accounting of recreational harvest is an impossibility. To monitor ACL's in the recreational sector, the initial poundage of harvest is converted to numbers of fish, which allows state fisheries managers to devise a season, size and bag limit which places a limit on the amount of fish caught during a year. The numbers of fish harvested, in turn, is measured by random sampling through a series of (A) phone calls to coastal households, coupled with (B) random dockside intercepts at certain public locations where anglers might be found.


To keep this theoretical limit on angler quotas, NOAA Fisheries converts 'pounds' of fish to 'numbers' of fish, and then uses an average weight of each fish to estimate the numbers of pounds harvested within the recreational community. To provide maximum opportunity for anglers to fish during a given season, the sliding scale of season, size and bag is adjusted accordingly. To provide more days on the water, statistics require the size of a legal fish to increase in order to reduce the overall numbers of fish harvested; conversely, to lower the size limit of a given fish to provide anglers with better opportunity to 'bag' a keeper, the number of available days must be reduced and the seasons shortened.


"To meet the rigid ACL's with this random recreational data collection and provide more days on the water, we're forcing anglers to harvest bigger fish which in turns hits the quota even faster than the statisticians could've comprehended," said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio. "We may catch fewer numbers of fish, but the actual poundage of fish caught coupled with increased discard mortality by anglers throwing back undersized fish is contributing to this complete absurdity."


Donofrio noted that the recreational data collection methodology applies a mortality figure to released fish, which also adds up in total poundage. "For Mid-Atlantic summer flounder for example, there's a 10% mortality rate for throwbacks, meaning that every time you raise the size limit by an inch or two, you're focusing harvest on bigger breeders and statistically forcing anglers to kill one more fish for every 10 they throwback," he added. "If you were to raise the allowable size limit on fluke to something crazy like 24 inches, theoretically, you would register more harvest through discard mortality than anglers would ever be able to put in the box."


In the Gulf of Mexico, ongoing efforts to rebuild the red snapper population has resulted in bigger fish at the offshore rigs, reefs and rockpiles, which in turn has led to anglers reaching their annual limit of fish even faster. "Two big fish in the box, a bunch of undersized discards, next thing you know we're looking at a shorter season next year as the stock becomes more robust," Donofrio added. "It's not that NOAA hasn't heard of this issue before, it's just that the administration refuses to work with our community on finding answers to address the problem."


In relation to the ACL requirements contained in Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act (MSRA) of 2007, none of this should come as a surprise to anyone involved in fisheries management. In an April 17, 2007 letter to NOAAregarding annual catch limits, Donofrio said "consistent with our position in the final discussion of MSRA, we believe these management tools, though easily applied to commercial fisheries, are inappropriate for the recreational sector," while referring to the error value in pounds to numbers as part of "a system destined to fail."


"The 'catch and release' principle embraced by some conservationists is quite noble, but it's literally killing many of our most important food fish and leading to fewer available days on the water for recreational anglers," Donofrio added. "RFA's ongoing criticism of this reckless conversion is not just about our right to fish, it's also about the responsible management of fish as a sustainable resource."


Or as Adams himself noted, "The people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government and to reform, alter, or totally change the same when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it."


RFA members aren't happy. Are you?


Next Thursday, March 7, don't miss part 6 in the continuing series on the Absurdity of Fisheries Management as RFA looks to the recreational fishing industry in support of their customers.


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