Lesson for NOAA

Editor's note: Chris Horton, conservation director for BASS and ESPN Outdoors, was one of about 170 from the recreational fisheries community invited to participate in a special Marine Recreational Fishing Summit hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) April 16-17.

I finally did it. For the last couple of years, every morning I've been telling myself, "It's not that bad," when I've tried to compensate for my thinning hair. Though I was a long way from a comb-over, I don't like sitting around and waiting for the inevitable. So, with the encouragement of my wife and a Scotch (or two), I confronted the signs of aging and shaved my head. It was a way for me to take charge of the situation and make it better.

It wasn't easy.

As I sat in the recent Marine Recreational Fishing Summit hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), I couldn't help but think that they could learn something from a head shave.

NOAA Fisheries doesn't have a very good reputation with the recreational fishing community. From our perspective, they've utterly failed to do their job in carrying out the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Reauthorized in 2006, it's the law of the land when it comes to marine fisheries management. The agency's focus has always seemed biased toward the commercial fishing sector, while recreational anglers get the crumbs.

Eric Schwaab, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, started the meeting by acknowledging and sharing our frustration for the lack of commitment and follow-through from the agency after similar such summits in the past. Schwaab is an honest guy. He didn't try to sugarcoat the opening, and he knows all too well the challenges marine recreational anglers face, having recently come to NOAA from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But he also acknowledged that NOAA is a big ship and not likely to turn on a dime.

It's hard to get excited about sitting through two long days of meetings when we've been down this road before, and despite some good recommendations during past efforts, there hasn't been much to show for it. Will this time be any different? Will the apparent frustrations and sincere recommendations to the agency result in positive actions? That remains to be seen, but personally, I'm optimistic for a number of reasons.

Schwaab's boss, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator and undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, dropped in after lunch on the first day and spoke to the assembly of desperate, but hopeful, representatives of recreational interests. She had just come from a White House conference on the outdoors, where President Obama -- well-aware of our summit -- passed along his encouragement and willingness for the administration to work with recreational anglers. Her talk led off with the assurance that "NOAA is committed to working with the recreational fishing community." Also recognizing the agency's past failures, she said it will no longer make "hollow promises" and will follow up on commitments. She went on to say the right things, and her presentation ended with a standing ovation.

We were encouraged by her words. With renewed vigor that this could actually be a meaningful gathering, we got back to work. With over 170 people in attendance, you can imagine the number of opinions and ideas that evolved on how to fix an apparently broken agency. Yet several consistent themes rose to the top.

More data, more data, more data. We need better fish stock assessments, but we also need better socioeconomic data. What's the real value of a family trailering a boat to the coast, staying in a hotel, going out to dinner, buying tackle, lunch, ice, etc., just to try to catch a snapper? NOAA Fisheries doesn't have a clue, even though MSA insists that it must.

Catch shares. This is a complicated subject that will be explored in more detail later, but suffice it to say that, as currently designed, they're good for commercial fisheries and bad for recreational anglers. NMFS has a considerable amount of money in the next budget set aside for catch shares, and based on the comments of Schwaab and Lubchenco, they are probably going to happen. Question is -- will NOAA Fisheries be willing to ensure that catch-share allocations are fair and equitable, giving recreational anglers an opportunity to secure a significant portion of the allotted catch, or will they solely benefit the seafood industry?

Invest more in the recreational fisheries. Lubchenco, to her credit, has already fulfilled one promise to recreational anglers. She created the new position of national policy advisor for recreational fisheries, which has been filled by Russell Dunn. That position effectively doubles the agency's staff dedicated to recreational fisheries. However, two ain't going to cut it. We need an Office of Recreational Fisheries, sufficiently staffed and adequately funded within the NOAA Fisheries. After all, recreational fisheries are every bit as profitable and important for the country as commercial fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries needs to be an advocate for recreational angling. It needs to be the voice for recreational anglers during the Marine Spatial Planning process and when the National Oceans Service is considering marine protected areas or sanctuaries. It needs to take a page from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's playbook: ensuring the public's use of public resources, unless the science dictates otherwise, and then allowing public use when the problem is solved.

Better representation on the management bodies. The councils and commissions that make the ultimate decisions regarding the management of marine fish stocks are terribly lacking in recreational angler representation. That has to change.

Quite a number of other themes and ideas were expressed, but the ones above were most prevalent and popular. Amending Magnuson-Stevens to allow for common-sense conservation management was widely discussed, but that's an action for Congress, not NOAA Fisheries.

I suspect that the summit will result in a few short-term, immediate actions that NOAA Fisheries will take to appease recreational anglers. However, it will be the long-term initiatives that will determine if the ship is really turning. Will NOAA make the hard decisions to change course?

It will take a complete change in mindset, a paradigm shift. It's a big step for an agency that's reluctant to veer very far from the status quo. That first step is never easy, but it gets better once you acknowledge that it's time for a change -- kind of like shaving your head.

Hopefully, the summit gave NOAA Fisheries the encouragement it needs to do the right thing for 15 million saltwater recreational anglers. We'll be watching closely to see if they do.