United we fish!

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.

United we fish.

That will be the rallying cry for both recreational and commercial fishermen as they gather Feb. 24, from noon to 3 p.m., on the steps of the Capitol. They will be there to protest fisheries closures prompted by revision of Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act (MSCCA).

"The closures keep coming and it's good to see the collective fishing communities and industries, both recreational and commercial, calling for science-based Magnuson reform," said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), who cited the shutdown of amberjack, red snapper, and black sea bass fisheries as examples.

The protestors and their elected representatives want to drive home the impact that "non-scientific, arbitrary deadlines" have on anglers, their families, and coastal communities.

"We fully support real science-based management and the conservation of our marine resources, while also being able to sustain recreational and commercial fishing activities," said Bob Zales of the Conservation Cooperative of Gulf Fishermen (CCGF).

Thus far, other organizations joining RFA and CCGF include United Boatmen of New York, United Boatmen of New Jersey, New York Sportfishing Federation, Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, and Fishing Rights Alliance.

Theyhave some Congressional support as well.

"New York's Senator (Charles) Schumer is as concerned about his fishing constituents as he is about the fish, just as are Congressmen (Frank) Pallone, (Barney) Frank, (Walter B.) Jones, (Frank) LoBiondo, (Patrick) Kennedy, (John) Adler and others in the House of Representatives," said Nils Stolpe, a consultant to the commercial fishing industry.

Stolpe added, "The act has been turned into a weapon that is now being used against fishermen and fishing communities."

In hopes of stemming the tide of closures mandated by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), New Jersey's Pallone introduced the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act in 2008. Lost among the wreckage of a crashing economy, it now has been re-introduced.

"We need to let Congress and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) know that we are the collective voice of the recreational fishing community and the collective voice does not accept the current broken management system, which wreaks such havoc on all of us and our businesses," said Donofrio.

Those within the recreational fishing industry point out that a big part of the problem exists now because the NMFS, with oversight from NOAA and the Department of Commerce, did little to properly manage ocean fisheries before revision of the MSCCA. Now, in the face of legislation that requires cessation of overfishing by 2011, the federal agency is overreacting. In other words, the law is a good one because of its intent, but past and present mismanagement is resulting in hardship and chaos.

Additionally, sports anglers are worried that NOAA and NMFS seem to be moving toward a "catch share" system for fisheries shared by recreational and commercial fishermen. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator and a key player in the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, is a proponent of the allotment strategy.

Until now, catch share has been used mostly for commercial species, such as Atlantic surf clams and Pacific pollock, with other management tools used for "mixed" fisheries, which contain both a commercial and recreational component.

As explained by the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), catch share programs "set a biologically based annual catch limit for each fish stock and allocate a specific portion of that catch limit to entities, such as commercial fishermen and cooperative or communities. When designed correctly, catch share programs help eliminate the commercial race to fish, reduce overcapacity and by-catch, and improve economic efficiency."

But a catch share system also is intractable. Incorporating it as part of management for a mixed fishery would force a growing number of recreational anglers into a static quota, inevitably leading to greater restrictions such as shorter seasons and tighter bag limits.

That concern prompted Governors Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Bob Riley of Alabama, and Haley Barbour of Mississippi to express their opposition in a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.

"We are concerned that in the desire to adopt and implement catch share systems, NOAA has forgotten its most fundamental responsibility under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — to maximize the net economic value from the use of a public resource," they said. "Recreational fishing is an important activity in all of our states, and one that we would like to see continue to grow as a healthy activity for the public. However, we are concerned that NOAA policies could frustrate our ability to do that."

ASA's Gordon Robertson said that the fishing industry is "trying to find constructive solutions" to these problems of closures and sharing fisheries. But for that, he added, much better data is needed, especially on the recreational side.