Making progress

This is a column from Robert Montgomery for ESPN Outdoors. As a Senior Writer for BASS Publications, Montgomery has written about conservation, environment, and access issues for more than two decades. It's part of a series of articles from Montgomery on the issue.

Reviews are mixed for the most recent step in a federal management strategy that could potentially close some recreational fisheries in our oceans, coastal waters, rivers, and lakes within three years.

On the positive side, the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (OPTF) did acknowledge "recreational fishing" in the "Interim Framework for Effective Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning" document released in mid-December. In its earlier "Interim Report," it referred only to "overfishing" and "unsustainable fishing" as if recreational and commercial fishing were identical in terms of impact to the resource, as well as social and economic importance.

"I'm grateful that the administration recognized the disappointment of the angling community in the September interim report and is trying to make amends by including more references to recreational angling in the spatial planning framework," said Chris Horton, national conservation director for BASS. "I was also glad to see that they reference plan development in accordance with applicable executive orders, for which there are two relative to federal agencies maintaining recreational fishing as a sustainable use of U.S. waters."

Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation, added, "There seems to be marked improvement over what we saw in September. They seem to make recreation a priority here. But the devil is in the details."

And Phil Morlock, director of environmental affairs for Shimano, said, "This is a positive first step. How sport fishing and related economies are addressed in the final policy document will be key."

That document lies farther down the road in a process that began with a memorandum issued by President Barack Obama in June. It created the OPTF from high-level administration officials and charged it with creating "a clear national policy, including a comprehensive, ecosystem-based framework for the long-term conservation and use" of our oceans, coastal waters and Great Lakes.

This move immediately rang alarm bells for anglers and the recreational fishing industry for several reasons. Of most concern was the possibility that preservationists within the environmental community would use this structure as a means to close recreational fisheries for philosophical rather than scientific reasons, ignoring the fact that sports anglers are among the nation's most ardent conservationists.

Anglers and their allies also worried that including the Great Lakes in this process opened the door for federal intervention in the management of inland waters. And they feared what might evolve from the President's insistence on making the management "consistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea." The United States did not sign that treaty.

At the same time, the recreational community acknowledged its support for protection of aquatic resources and improved management of the nation's blue water. "There is a need for better coordination in ocean management and uses," said Gordon Robertson of the American Sportfishing Association.

"But in this latest document we saw no discussion of what we think is a real need, a definitive data base for such a project, an inventory of what the (fishery) resources are."

What industry leaders did see in the 32-page document is creation of another huge bureaucracy with a "top down" approach to management. That's in contrast to assertions by the OPTF that the strategy would be from the bottom up, with states, tribes and regional entities playing key roles in development of Coastal and Marine Spatial (CMS) plans for their areas.

"The farther you read into the document, the bigger it (National Ocean Council) gets and the more responsibilities it has," Robertson said. "It's like a snowball rolling downhill. We wonder if this is the right way to go, creating a big bureaucracy with a big budget. The states seem to get short schrift and the states are responsible for most of the fish management today."

Angers added, "It clearly implies top-down management although the report says it is not. And the language gets really terse and not positive at all toward the end."

On page 20, the document states, "The NOC would review each regional CMS Plan to ensure it is consistent with the National Policy, CMSP goals and principles as provided in this framework, any national objectives, performance measures, or guidance the NOC has articulated, as described below, and any other relevant national priorities."

In other words, each regional planning body can make decisions -- as long as they are the right ones.

"The document as a whole is ambiguous and appears to create one of the largest bureaucracies in Washington, D.C., which is hard to do," Horton said. "The National Ocean Council, which will consist of more than 20 federal agencies -- and as of yet there is no clear lead agency -- will apparently oversee plan development, prioritization of objectives, and ultimate plan approval. How much autonomy the regional bodies will have to develop specific plans to meet their local needs isn't clear.

"Another concerning aspect of the Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning process is that public input opportunities aren't well defined," he said. "It seems as though regional government bodies will develop the plans in accordance with NOC, and one would assume that public input would be a part of that process.

"However, for a process with such far-reaching implications on the American economy, jobs, and public use of our waters, there should be a substantial, well-defined public input effort throughout the planning and implementation phase. That doesn't appear to exist in the current report."

Additionally, this document seems to substantiate concerns that recreational anglers have about the long arm of the federal government reaching in to meddle in management of interior rivers, lakes, and reservoirs -- and bringing the United Nations along with it. Page nine of the document says:

"The geographic scope would include inland bays and estuaries in both coastal and Great Lakes settings. Inclusion of inland bays and estuaries is essential because of the significant ecological, social, and economic linkages between these areas with offshore areas.

"Additional inland areas may be included in the planning area as the regional planning bodies, described in Section IX below, deem appropriate. Regardless, consideration of inland activities would be necessary to account for the significant interaction between upstream activities and ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes uses and ecosystem health …"

In response, Morlock asserted that the American model of science-based fish and wildlife management, habitat restoration, and sustainable public use of these resources is a 20th century success story that has no equal.

"Of course, challenges remain and there is always room for improvement, but the basics are time tested and sound," he said. "We remain baffled why the administration would place this unprecedented American model at risk by force fitting less than optimal United Nations guidelines for management of U.S. coastal and inland waters. The world's oceans would have a much brighter future if the administration were to instead recommend that the U.N. should adopt the American natural resource management model."

Still, with this framework document, the OPTF at least has acknowledged that the recreational fishing community exists.

And there's another plus in all of this, according to Angers.

"Generally, fresh and salt water advocacy has been down separate paths. Issues are different," he said. "But this has united us. That's a good thing, and I see continued good things coming out of our unanimity of voice. Anglers, the first conservationists, are stepping up to be heard."