Q&A with Eric Schwaab

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This Q&A is part of ESPNOutdoors.com's continued full coverage of the Ocean Policy Task Force and its potential impact on recreational fishing.)

Eric Schwaab was recently appointed as the Assistant Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Mr. Schwaab is no stranger to the recreational fishing community, having spent most of his career with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

However, he assumes the helm of NMFS at a time when saltwater anglers are facing several immediate and pending closures on fishing for recreationally important species. BASS Conservation Director, Chris Horton, recently had the opportunity to catch up with Eric and get his perspective on NMFS, its responsibilities and the future direction of the agency.

Chris Horton: Given some of the recent controversy surrounding the Ocean Policy Task Force, can you tell us about the role of NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the National Marine Fisheries Services in the Ocean Policy Task Force?

Eric Schwaab: NOAA has a couple of major responsibilities with respect to oceans. One is our broad mission of understanding and predicting changes in the earth's environment, and using that understanding to help manage coastal and marine resources. From a fisheries perspective, we focus particularly on living marine resources, fish stocks, the fisheries that depend upon them, as well as protected resources like endangered species and marine mammals.

Horton: NOAA is just one member on that task force; there are 23 or 24 other federal agencies represented, correct?

Schwaab: That is exactly right. Of course one of the things we see in this day and age is increasing interest in using our coasts and oceans for a variety of activities. The task force is really intended to help bring together some national policy recommendations related to those many uses.

Horton: I want to ask you about programs at NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Department of Interior has historically worked really well with the outdoor community to actively encourage folks to get outdoors and enjoy our national resources like hunting, fishing, and camping on the various federal lands within the bureaus of Interior. [Interior] Secretary Salazar recently expanded those efforts to reach more youth and get them outdoors. Are there any similar types of educational programs that NMFS or NOAA offers to try to encourage folks to get out and enjoy the marine resources?

Schwaab: Most of our work to date has been on understanding those uses and managing those uses to ensure their long term sustainability. We do partner with Interior -- with the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service, and with local groups around the country, primarily through our regional offices -- to support youth fishing and veterans-related activities alike. But it is probably an area that we need to invest in more heavily in the future.

Horton: In your agency's fact sheet, you acknowledge that saltwater anglers are important to conservation because they practice catch-and-release, advocate for better science, engage in the policy process and participate in NOAA data collection. Yet there is a significant component that isn't recognized in the fact sheet: the fact that anglers fund fisheries conservation through their excise taxes on fishing tackle that go into the Wallop-Breaux fund.

Schwaab: If that's not prominent in [the fact sheet], that's something we need to address, because as you know, I inherently understand that.

Horton: You recently stated that NOAA is committed to adopting policies that will ensure that current and future generations have the opportunity to enjoy the great traditions of recreational fishing. Can you give me examples of recent policies specifically aimed at benefitting recreational angling?

Schwaab: Well, at the core of this mission of protecting and enhancing these fishery resources, the re-authorized Magnuson-Stevens Act sets the stage for much clearer timelines with respect to ending overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks. From my perspective, as a recreational angler myself, some of the things that are most important are adequate resources and sustainable resources in the oceans and intercoastal waters. Another big part of that from a recreational angler's perspective is having a better handle on catch and effort data and a better understanding of the economics of recreational fisheries. We recognize the important economic contribution not only through things we've already talked about, like sportfish restoration dollars, but also the importance of recreational angling to [the economies of] local fish communities.

The data question is one that has plagued us for a long time. As you might know, we are working on this Marine Recreational Information Program [MRIP], which is a successor to the MRFSS [Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey], which has been criticized as not providing sufficient accuracy or timeliness of data to effectively characterize recreational catch and effort and allow that to be factored appropriately into the management system.

Horton: MRIP is going to be a more thorough system [than MRFSS] for saltwater anglers, but there are still some concerns about timing. Will this information be available soon enough to make management decisions that might prevent overfishing, or [exceeding] the stock harvest limit for that particular year?

Schwaab: With respect to the basic framework, 2010 is the first year when we will have the new National Angler Registry to depend upon. And 2010 is also the year when a number of the states are finalizing their state level programs to become recognized as an acceptable substitute for the National Registry. But the next step, and it's one we are already beginning to work on, is to move from the three month delay between the time when the data is collected to the time it's available for management decisions, to something that is more real time.

Horton: As you know, Magnuson-Stevens was re-authorized in 2006, and it mandated that the new system be in place by January 1, 2009. What was the hold up in getting to where we are now?

Schwaab: I know there were some technical and procedural glitches including putting the system into place. But a big part of that was trying to work more actively with the states so they would take on the kind of role that frankly they are taking on [now] with respect to creating this national registry database. So we recognized that it is most convenient for the anglers and probably most economical for the anglers to be able to take advantage of existing state licensing systems to meet this requirement. The states are full partners in this improved data gathering process, and they're fully invested in a better outcome with us. I think in part that delay was for the purposes of allowing the state level participation the opportunities to mature.

Horton: Let's talk a minute about red snapper and specifically the recent closure of that fishery in the South Atlantic. How did that come about?

Schwaab: There is a clear understanding in the South Atlantic that the red snapper population is not what it should be. It has been subject to overfishing and is overfished in a sense that the population is not at sustainable levels. So from a Magnuson Act perspective for species undergoing overfishing, we are required to put in place measures to end overfishing during 2010. We have a rebuilding schedule designed to get us back to target stock levels over a period that accommodates the life cycle and life history of the fish. One of the things that was enacted at the request of the council [South Atlantic Fishery Management Council] late last year was a recreational fishery closure in the South Atlantic as the first step to end overfishing and begin the process of rebuilding that stock. Ending the red snapper fishery alone, because of the mixed stocks available and the snapper-grouper complex in the South Atlantic reef fishery, would still leave red snapper vulnerable to substantial catch and release mortality. That is why the council is considering a broader area closure to the snapper-grouper complex off the South Atlantic. And that is something that is out for discussion and comment right now.

Horton: I'd heard some talk of that but didn't know they were still looking at potentially closing large sections of reef complexes to bottom fishing in general. I would think that would have a tremendous impact on the local economy.

Schwaab: We are extremely sensitive to that concern. The council is considering a couple of options: One is a smaller closure than was originally discussed. At the same time we are expediting a new stock assessment to allow us to get a more timely handle on exactly what is happening with the stock so that if a closure is enacted it can be for a smaller area and as short a duration as possible. The bigger part of that is that we are working closely with the council already to look at alternative measures to large area closures as a long term means to effectively manage that stock. Recognizing the economic circumstances that we face, and how important it is to continue to provide opportunities for anglers to get out on the water, we are working closely with the council to seek some creative alternatives to these large area closures.

Horton: As one of the former leaders in Maryland DNR, your state assumed the lead role in the successful recovery efforts of striped bass, which are now one of the most popular fisheries in the United States. What was the key difference that allowed the Maryland DNR and other states to successfully manage striped bass while the National Marine Fisheries Service has been pretty much unsuccessful in implementing the Magnuson-Stevens Act mandate to manage red snapper at sustainable levels?

Schwaab: I would offer a couple of observations: One, the life history of the striped bass provides for a much shorter rebuilding time frame than you see in a long lived species like red snapper. The second thing is that we had a pretty good understanding of the in-shore spawning and nursery needs associated with striped bass so that some quick action could, in a much more targeted fashion, allow that stock in a relatively short period of time, to turn itself around. Finally, the fact that striped bass are a shallow water species does not leave them vulnerable to the kind of catch and release mortality you see in that deep water reef fishery. We were able to very quickly and more surgically protect a particular cohort of fish in the striped bass population than is possible with the longer lived, deep water mixed reef fisheries that exist off of the South Atlantic Coast over a much larger area.

Horton: What can NOAA do to improve its management of recreational fisheries so we can avoid closure of other stocks of recreationally significant species in the future?

Schwaab: We are always looking to improve the data and our stock assessment capabilities, both in accuracy and in timeliness. Right now, we are making significant investments, particularly in the Southeast and in the Gulf, to do a better job with the many species that we are responsible for managing down there. The second thing is to get a better handle on this recreational catch and effort. That is where the new MRIP comes into play. It is all about improving the accuracy and timeliness of data relating to recreational angling activity. We're working aggressively with the council and the commercial sector to do a better job with a variety of tools, one of which is increased use of catch shares. With better data we can also ensure that recreational anglers are doing their part to meet recreational catch shares as well.

Horton: NOAA is hosting a Recreational Fishing Summit in April. There's a lot of anticipation for this much needed conference. What do you hope the outcome of the summit will be?

Schwaab: I think it will be successful if we have a broad cross section of the recreational angling community represented, and if we can identify issues of concern regionally and across the country, in a way that we can prioritize those concerns. Most importantly, we must identify some pretty specific actions that we can all begin to follow up on. I think the criticism of past interaction with the recreational community was that there was not sufficient focus on follow-up actions nor was there sufficient discipline directed to ensuring the follow through on important tasks that were identified.

Horton: It is obviously important to the recreational fishing community that the National Marine Fishery Service play a stronger role when it comes to managing for recreational fishing. Historically, it has been perceived as commercial fishing oriented -- in fact it used to be called the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. We [in the sportfishing community] hope there is a stronger emphasis on recreational fishing and balancing that with the commercial harvest.

Schwaab: We have a great opportunity to do that. My boss, Dr. [Jane] Lubchenco, set all this into motion before I arrived on the scene, and she committed to the summit by the appointment of a senior advisor position on my staff. We are excited to following through on these commitments.