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.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — One storm had just passed and yet another was on its way to a city that has been slammed by snow this winter.

But those who planned the United We Fish rally on the Capitol steps were granted a brief reprieve mid-day on Wednesday, Feb. 24, with a previously elusive sun possibly promising a brighter future for those who fish our oceans.

"God opened up the sky and it was a beautiful day in D.C.," said Jim Hutchinson, managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), a primary sponsor of the rally. "We started at noon, but buses still were arriving at 1:30.

"We had people from Alaska, from California, from the Gulf Coast. We had one bus come all the way from Jacksonville, Fla."

There were recreational and commercial fishermen, charter captains, marina owners, fish packers. And their elected representatives in the U.S. House and Senate. More than 3,000 strong, they gathered to protest what they view as unnecessary and oppressive management of saltwater fisheries by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its affiliates.

Signed into law in 2007, the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation Management Act was supposed to right the wrongs of decades of poor management, while helping to restore and sustain fisheries prized by both commercial and recreational anglers.

But then the recreational amberjack fishery was closed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. It followed with a shutdown of black sea bass in federal waters, and, more recently, the prohibition of all bottom fishing in more than 1,000 square miles of coastal waters, from North Carolina to Florida, to protect red snapper.

"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," said Jim Donofrio, RFA's executive director.

With RFA leading the way, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, and others associated with both industries united to push back via the rally and introduction into Congress of a "flexibility" bill that would amend Magnuson-Stevens so that stocks could be protected without the catastrophic collapse of businesses and communities tied to commercial and recreational fishing.

The Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act (HR 1584 and S 1255) was introduced into both houses of Congress with bipartisan support, and that across-the-aisle teamwork was abundantly on display at the rally.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.-D) "gave an impassioned speech and led us into a great day," Hutchinson said of the three-hour gathering that included Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.-D) and Rep. Henry Brown (S.C.-R) among others.

Steve Chaconas, a fishing guide and correspondent for the World Fishing Network, added, "When you have Rep. Peter King from New York, a staunch Republican, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, working together, you know that they are listening to their constituents."

Pallone told his New Jersey constituents and attendees from many other states that the Magnuson-Stevens regulations are overly restrictive and unfair.

"Fishermen have the same rights as all Americans to access our country's natural resources," he said. "We will work so that our children can continue to enjoy fishing as a pastime and our fishermen may continue to hold these jobs that have served our communities so well."

Schumer, meanwhile, said that better science and more data-based flexibility are needed to properly manage fisheries.

"Keeping our fishing stocks healthy is absolutely critical, and to accomplish this we can't base decisions on outdated science and poor methods," he said. "The current system not only falls short of achieving this goal, but it could take the Long Island fishing community down with it in 2010.

"The fishing community has made many sacrifices and stocks are improving, so restricting families and others from fishing for them, based on bad data, in 2010 is just plain wrong."

But the campaign has not been limited to introduction of a bill and a subsequent rally with passionate speeches.

"We've had more than 100 meetings on the Hill these last few days," Donofrio said. "All these groups here today were working to get their legislators to sign onto a bill that's about sustainability and conservation, and then they (legislators) saw the turnout today. It was great."

According to RFA, the bill also is about "opposition to 'time-specific' deadlines and arbitrary, non-scientific provisions contained within our federal fisheries law.

"The inflexibility of the fisheries law to respond to an ever-changing marine ecosystem, coupled with grossly inadequate management information systems within our federal fisheries service, is contributing to a major industry collapse that has been felt throughout our coastal communities."

During the rally, fear of that collapse "showed on the faces of grown men in tears, who are afraid that they won't be able to do a job that they love and support their families," Chaconas said. "And what I realized from attending this rally is that this is not just a saltwater fishing issue.

"If these guys can't fish, even people in Middle America are affected. They won't be able to buy and eat American-caught fish. They'll have to get it from someplace else. That's yet another threat to our economy."

But tears were outweighed by enthusiasm and applause on this rare day of moderate weather in the nation's capital. And it ended on a decidedly upbeat note, according to Hutchinson.

"Scott Brown, the new senator from Massachusetts, showed up and it was like having a rock star," he said. "He's going to sign onto the bill.

"And when the rally was over, he told his constituency to follow him back to his office."

Later, Donofrio added, "Based on what we saw today, I think we're going get this bill passed. People say that we should have waited for nicer weather, but this needs to get done right now. We need relief before Congress recesses for the summer."

And based on this winter's performance thus far, a day without rain or snow is about as good as it gets for a rally.