RFA pushes for flexibility bill

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.

While some in the fishing industry advocate a more measured and diplomatic approach to a federal management strategy that is closing ocean fisheries to both sports anglers and commercials, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) is coming out with both guns blazing.

"Management has been a mix of policy based on emotions and agendas based on politics, with a little science," said Jim Donofrio, RFA's executive director. "This needs to be fixed."

Ostensibly, the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act (MSA), signed into law by President Bush in 2007, was meant to right the wrongs of decades of poor management while helping to restore and sustain fisheries.

Instead, said Donofrio, it has been used to bludgeon recreational anglers and the economies of coastal communities dependent on sport fishing. Two of the most damaging blows were delivered by closing black sea bass and red snapper fisheries.

"Black sea bass was at 200 percent over its projected biomass, and yet NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) closed it down because we may overfish it," Donofrio said. "Some in NOAA are career people and there's some balance there, but these actions (fishery closures) are being driven by the administration, which is carrying out the Pew agenda and that is to close the oceans down."

The Pew Oceans Commission is a private, independently funded, organization. Jane Lubchenco, who served on that commission, now is head of NOAA.

(In November, Lubchenco spoke at the American Sportfishing Association's Sportfishing Summit and said she will consider recreational fishing. It's reported here.)

To combat what it perceives as an assault against both recreational and commercial angling, RFA is leading a Feb. 24 "United We Fish" rally on the steps of the Capitol.

Some in the industry question RFA's alliance with commercials for this rally, since the latter, along with habitat degradation, are primarily responsible for depleted stocks.

"Everyone deserves equal access under the law. That's why we are partnering," Donofrio said. "We are opposed to use of nonsustainable (commercial) gears, but that's a regulatory issue."

And along with the rally, RFA is working with members of Congress to pass the Flexibility in Rebuilding America Fisheries Act (H.R. 1584 and S. 1255) to amend MSA and soften its impact on recreational angling and those dependent on the sport for their livelihood.

In short, the bill would extend the time for rebuilding of overfished fisheries.

"Right now, it's 10 years to rebuild fisheries, with one year to end all overfishing," Donofrio said. "But that's statutory overfishing, not biological.

"Also, Pew basically wrote the overfishing definition, making it sound like cancer or child abuse. As a result, the bill (MSA) passed with not much debate. They outgunned us."

Before MSA's passage, Pew pushed for the creation of ocean preserves, with no public access, the executive director continued.

"But they couldn't get anywhere with that on a federal level, so they went to the states," he said. "California is the perfect example. Then they got involved in reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens in 1996 and again in 2005."

Now, anglers are fighting back.

"We're going to win this one," Donofrio said.

And just what would winning (passage of the flexibility bill) achieve?

"It would allow limited access instead of closures," he said. "Also, the bill would get us a marker. Then we could have a hearing and debates. We want the Pew people there, too.

"Right now, NOAA science is not enough, even though it is considered the 'best available' and has to be followed. We say that all science should be considered. Right now, there are statutory definitions that make no common sense."

While agreeing that MSA is heavy-handed, some in the fishing industry, however, don't believe that adding "flexibility" is a good management strategy.

The Center for Coastal Conservation said, "Optimum yield cannot be achieved if the fishery is not allowed to be rebuilt to sustainable levels, and we do not believe a legislative 'fix' that permits continued overfishing indefinitely is the way to go ...

"Rather than unwinding the hard-won victories in conservation and management standards and rebuilding plans in MSA, efforts would be better focused on creating free markets for catch shares, leveraged buyouts to right-size overcapitalized fleets, and implementing economic and science-supported fisheries management decisions that put the resource first, for the benefit of all user groups."

In a letter to Lubchenco, several fishery, conservation, and environmental groups recommended that NOAA "develop and fund a data collection system adequate to provide the timely and accurate catch data necessary to properly manage this (recreational) sector in compliance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act."

Additionally, the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), which signed that letter, intends to announce a "multi-step campaign that seeks to protect both the fishery resource and recreational fishing opportunity."

RFA, though, believes that more assertive action is needed. "It's a shame that some of our friends want nothing to do with fixing the Magnuson-Stevens Act and continue to look for 'constructive solutions' when the real answer is right there in the Senate and House," said Jim Hutchinson, Jr., RFA's managing director.

"The use of non-scientific, arbitrary 'time-specific' deadlines is destroying our coastal communities by removing recreational access to fisheries."