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ON “ABUNDANCE” AND “ACCESS”

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To the saltwater flyfishing community, both are critical… but decision-makers aren’t hearing from us

Although arguments for “reasonable access” have clouded things lately, it is still true that, in general, the angling public wants abundant and widely distributed marine fish populations.

While there is something intrinsically “right” about conserving marine resources, conservation-minded anglers don’t advocate for such simply for the sake of marine resources on their own.

Anglers become conservationists and/or environmentalists because of what noted fly-tier/flyfisher/Norcross Wildlife Foundation President, Richard Reagan, used to call “enlightened self-interest”. To put it simply, we are compelled to act if conservation benefits us.

In that context, the majority of anglers want fish in the water – a lot of them (plus plentiful forage fish, and intact habitat) – so they can have the opportunity to catch them, and in many cases take a few home. While that certainly doesn’t make us “tree huggers”, it does indeed make us conservationists.

Managing for “a lot of fish in the water” or more succinctly put, “abundance”, in the end, benefits everyone, but especially the saltwater flyfishing community.

Yet currently, reasonable voices advocating for such are being drowned out by the pro-harvest part of the angling community.

Flyfishers are the worst anglers…

Taken as a whole, saltwater anglers, in general, are not particularly good fishermen. That’s because recreational fishermen are, as the term suggests, recreational.

Most are “weekend warriors” who can’t put in enough time on the water to learn what they need to know to catch fish on a regular basis. Most of those who do have enough time don’t want to turn what is supposed to be an enjoyable pastime into something resembling a second job, and so fail to put in the effort needed to become truly proficient.

Moreover, anglers don’t use nets, longlines, fixed traps etc.; we use rod and reel. That may be the most “sporting” and enjoyable method, but it is also the least efficient one. That becomes more true with saltwater flyfishing and light-tackle angling, where the basic inefficiency of hook and line is compounded by the use of more challenging equipment.

Saltwater flyfishers are the “canaries in the coal mine”. We are the first to see a decline in a fish stock and are certainly the first be affected. In most cases, the science catches up several years later (i.e. striped bass).   And so, it is no coincidence that this part of the recreational fishing community tends to be the most conservation-minded.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, commercial fishermen employ large-scale steel-hulled boats, capable of traveling long distances in search of fish in most weather conditions. They fish year-around, and spend days, weeks, often months at sea. While fixed and mobile gear varies, the majority of commercial fishermen employ large efficient nets, traps or longlines, capable of extracting large quantities of fish. And they are generally more experienced and knowledgeable than the average, or even the advanced angler.

Thus, commercial fishermen, because they are equipped to do so, can generally find, catch and kill fish in large quantities, even when a stock is a depleted state.

A bit further down the spectrum, there are some charter/party boat operations who fish every day and are good at finding/catching fish on a regular basis, even when stocks are at low levels.

However, to be successful, the great majority of anglers, and specifically saltwater fly-fishers, HAVE to have “abundance”. In other words, a lot of fish in the water, spanning a wide geographical range.

Without such abundance and a reasonable chance of encountering fish, it’s not worth the time and expense. When fish are scarce, most anglers won’t even try to catch them. In turn, fewer people go fishing, less tackle is sold, fewer boats are purchased etc… It is far less likely that an angler would buy a new $800 flyrod if there are no striped bass or bluefish in the flats or false albacore in the rips.

In the end, liberalizing regulations, in an attempt to provide more “access” on stocks that are depleted, or overfishing may be occurring, results in a greater number of fish harvested, and in most cases, a less abundant stock, aka fewer fish in the water for us to target.

The commercial fleet, of course, retains access because they are equipped to fish on a depleted stock.   Arguably, even those charter/party operations as well as anglers with big boats that can travel farther to isolated but fragmented concentrations of fish stocks, baitfish, troll wire line etc, retain some access also.

The great majority of the fishing public, those with small boats, those restricted to fishing from shore and of course saltwater flyfishermen lose access.

Effort and abundance…

Certainly, there are some who don’t seem to grasp connection between abundance and effort, and the connection between abundant stocks and the amount of gear and boats that anglers are willing to buy. This is difficult to explain, as NOAA Fisheries’ effort data shows a clear correlation between an abundance of fish and increased angler activity, which in turn leads to more business for the angling and boatbuilding industries.

Indeed “reasonable access” is important, yet in most cases, such access comes with managing for abundance/having more fish in the water. Yes, having a “reasonable” opportunity to catch a “keeper” is a good thing, and management, at least in the Mid Atlantic provides for that, but fishing for the great majority is about the experience, more so than filling a cooler.

Having a greater opportunity to catch fish, but not being able to kill as many, appears far more important to rank-and-file anglers. Certainly, this is the case for fly fishers.

Yes, there are tradeoffs. Precautionary management with its constraining measures, and the sort of “abundance” that it brings doesn’t benefit the commercial fleet, at least not in the short term. Managing for abundance constrains catch, and to some extent, hurts commercial harvesters’ bottom lines, although in the long term one could argue that they benefit from well managed/abundant fish stocks.

Precautionary management also may not be optimal for some charter/party boat operations who fish every day, and are pretty good at finding fish on a regular basis, even when stocks are at low levels of abundance. Such operations often choose to market their trips as a chance to fill coolers instead of simply enjoying the “experience” of fishing.

But for the rest of us?   The light-tackle guide, the weekend angler, the guy who fishes from shore, and of course, saltwater flyfishers, precautionary management and abundance is a good thing. Because it provides access and opportunity.

A public resource.

It’s important to keep in mind that marine fish are a public resource, and as such, should be managed for the public trust. In other words, there should be enough around so that the greatest number of people can access them (commercial fishermen, charter/party boats, AND the general fishing public).

In that context managing for abundance would seem to make sense, and when explained, most anglers understand that it benefits them. Currently, however, such anglers are a “silent majority”. These are the people who fish for fun, and don’t want to get involved in the often contentious, and always difficult to understand management process.

Because this is the case, those angler’s voice get hijacked by the “professional” crowd. The commercial fleet spokesmen, the charter/party boat fleet, the paid lobbyists. All the people whose financial success depends on killing as many fish as they can now, and not necessarily on “abundance”, opportunity and experience.

Certainly, the fly fishing community, with few exceptions, wants fisheries managed for abundance, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that the average angler, the “silent majority” wants the same.

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Federal Fishery Management Law

The Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law governing marine fisheries management in U.S. federal waters, was amended 1996 and again in 2007. While it took an awful long time to get to where we are now, the law now requires that Regional Councils enact regulations that prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks (in 10 years or the shortest amount of time possible). As such, there are requirements for annual catch limits that must take into account both scientific and management uncertainty. This is done through precautionary buffers when setting management measures.

Such requirements have, in effect, created a situation where Councils have been forced to rebuild depleted fish stocks, despite political pressure to allow overfishing. Furthermore, it has resulted in precautionary management that has allowed for, in many cases, abundance.

To the flyfishing community, this is absolutely a good thing.

Yes, most popular species targeted by saltwater flyfishers are managed by the states not bound by Magnuson requirements, and we continue to struggle with state managers, some of which still don’t understand the angling community’s need for abundance/opportunity… But precautionary management has bleed over, particularly with those jointly managed species, like bluefish, one of the most important flyrod targets in the Mid Atlantic and Northeast. And currently the Feds are looking to manage things like false albacore under a federal fishery management plan. So if you think federal law doesn’t affect the fly fishing community, you’re wrong.

However, this is bigger than us. “Abundance” means Joe-Angler can take his kids out at noon, and can actually find and catch things like scup, black seabass, fluke, bluefish. He can’t keep most of them, and that’s fine. Because it’s the “experience,” that’s important on those family trips. It IS NOT about filling coolers.

During the last few years, there’s been a ground swell effort to weaken the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act through various bills offering “flexibility” in preventing overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks. The loopholes being suggested would undoubtedly result in overfishing and a return to the days where overfished stocks were widely accepted.

Opening the door to such management flexibility would, in the end, harm us directly.

Current law isn’t perfect. In fact, it may stand to be “tweaked” in a few places. Reasonable people are beginning to work together on a compromise reauthorization bill. Yet, alternative bills introduced in Congress will most certainly allow folks to kill more now, but the result will be fewer fish left in the water for us to access.

The flyfishing community should not be okay with that…

It’s time we start speaking up… Because if marine resources aren’t managed with precaution, we will be the first to suffer.

Capt. John McMurray is an outdoor writer/blogger, and the owner and primary operator of One More Cast Charters, based in Oceanside, NY (nycflyfishing.com).  He currently serves as New York’s Legislative Proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and recently completed his third term on the Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management Council.  John is also a member of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. 

Author: tackletradeworld

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