Light at the end of the tunnel

Here in the northeast, there has been a ton of talk about fisheries management and the repercussions we all face as recreational anglers.

Saltwater fishermen are frustrated and feeling left out in the cold. Long time charter boat and party boat operators are tired of fighting and ready to pack it all in. Tackle shops owners are fearful of shutting their doors forever after the black sea bass season was closed.

All of this not because of tough economic times but because of fisheries policy written in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with fatally flawed data on fish stocks; ultimately keeping fishing boats tied to the dock and anglers looking for other things to do.

Earlier this week, I attended a fisheries town hall meeting held by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). The RFA brought a couple of dozen stakeholders of the recreational angling community here in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states together to discuss and tackle the issues affecting our community.

In attendance was a very good cross section of folks concerned about our fishery, our futures and the community as a whole. It included a handful of local sportswriters, tackle shop owners and recreational fishing captains.

New Jersey tackle shops such as Scott's Bait & Tackle and Barnegat Light Bait and Tackle spoke their peace in a constructive manner, echoing concerns held by the owners of Old Inlet Bait and Tackle in Delaware and saltwater anglers from the Maryland Saltwater Sportfisherman's Association.

A party boat captain from the South Shore of Long Island represented the views shared by a charter boat association there. Another licensed captain from the DELMARVA coast crossed state lines, in the spirit of unity and the protection of the Mid-Atlantic coastal communities.

Also in attendance were people that you would not think of representing us (everyday anglers and fishing business owners). A gentleman who volunteers his time to interpret MRFFS data shed light on his findings.
The RFA found the meat and potatoes of our recreational fishing community from Maryland to Montauk and these concerned anglers came out to talk.

Coming up from the Washington area was Andy Winer, Director of External Affairs for NOAA. He informed us that President Obama's Ocean Policy Task Force will likely address recreational fishing issues and that NOAA would work closely with everyday anglers, tackle shops, and coastal community members to make sure that they had input on the direction of ocean policy under the Obama Administration.

"Andy appears to be a shining light at NOAA listening to the challenges that each one of us face as a result of fisheries management and policies," said Jim Hutchinson, Managing Director for the RFA.

Hutchinson added that it was the hope of the RFA that an intimate discussion such as this might put a face on the body of the recreational fishing community for the national decision makers to reconsider in the future.

"We're hoping that after listening to the real stakeholders who live and breathe within these vibrant coastal communities every single day, that perhaps Mr. Winer can help us shake a little sense into these Beltway insiders who think they understand recreational fishermen," Hutchinson said.

Winer was not asked why he took this job with NOAA, but he told those assembled.

"I was pleased to accept Dr. (Jane) Lubchenco's request that I serve as a liaison to the recreation fishing community because I saw a lack of outreach and communication between NOAA and the recreational angling public," he said, "and I wanted to take her vision of improved communications and make it reality."

As this fall fishing season progresses, the financial trickledown effect on our coastal communities may be insurmountable. With Winer, everyday anglers, tackle shop and other fishing business owners seem to perhaps have an ally, a voice in Washington.

"If the recreational angling community can put their differences aside and bond together rather than remain divided, we can fix our issues," said Basil Shehady of Barnegat Light Bait & Tackle. "United we stand — divided we fall, bro. The billions of dollars lost to coastal communities will be nothing compared to the cost of rebuilding a collapsed community."

Moving forward, there is a lot of work to do on everyone's behalf. When asked for some sort of reprieve on this current sea bass issue, no answers could be given at that time.

I am not a betting man, but I truly believe that Winer will take our concerns back to NMFS, NOAA and Dr. Lubchenco. Upon leaving, he fully understood that the sea bass fishery comprises roughly a third of everyone's business here in the northeast. He also learned that shutting a season down just prior to a major holiday weekend is a death sentence for the local economy and recreational angling community as a whole.

Hopefully, as fisheries management policies are written, government agencies will think of the financial ramifications as they lay out quotas and seasons. This meeting exposed the severity of the black sea bass issue (among others) and put it in a way Washington will hopefully understand, in dollars and sense.

Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).