A new attitude toward managing fish

BY TED WILLIAMS
“Donald J. Trump believes there needs to be a Roosevelt Reboot … President Trump will instruct USFWS policy to use good science … Our Public Lands and water … will always remain public and open.”
The above is from the still active website http://www.sportsmenfortrump.com.
Now for some fact checking. Let’s limit it to what Trump has done for anglers in just his first year in office: revocation of the “stream protection rule” that prevented mining companies from using streams for waste disposal; revocation of the rule requiring mining companies to set aside money to clean up their toxic messes; revocation of the “Clean Water Rule” (all major streams will remain protected, but it will be perfectly fine to foul some of their tributaries); and revocation of the ban on oil drilling in ecologically sensitive offshore habitats.
Next up is the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Congress established a 200-mile limit, kicked out most of the foreign fishing fleet and gave commercial fishermen a “stake in their own future” with the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. It sounded so progressive, so Jeffersonian, so flexible. But somehow, assigning the job of regulating to those who required regulation didn’t work. It was as if Congress recruited grade schoolers to write their own curriculum. The result was day-long cookies and milk. So in 1996, Congress strengthened the act, outlawing overfishing.
A mantra from fishermen, both commercial and recreational, has been: “Don’t listen to the scientists; we see lots of fish in areas they claim are depleted. We depend on fish, so let us kill more now.”
That is precisely what recreational red snapper fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico told Trump’s Department of Commerce Director Wilbur Ross.
Accordingly, Ross directed the National Marine Fisheries Service to extend the federal recreational red snapper season, thereby delaying rebuilding the depleted stock by as much as six years and allowing Gulf anglers to exceed their annual catch limit by as much as 50 percent.
In internal memos — obtained during litigation by the Environmental Defense Fund and Ocean Conservancy — Commerce’s policy and planning director, Earl Comstock, advised Ross that not extending the season would be “devastating” to the sport-fishing industry and that, while the agency would take flak for unlawfully allowing overfishing, he shouldn’t fret because opponents couldn’t do much about it. Magnuson, Comstock noted, prevents temporary restraining orders “so your action would remain in effect for at least 45 days before a court could act.”
Fisheries activist Charles Witek, former chair of the Coastal Conservation Association’s Atlantic States Committee and former member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, responded: “It was a patently illegal action. … What it tells you is that you have an administration that places short-term economic gains over the long-term health of fish stocks, with really no regard for the science.”
Meanwhile, the summer flounder stock was in a seven-year nosedive. Accordingly the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council followed its legal mandate by cutting recreational and commercial catch limits, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission allocated the smaller recreational catch limit among the states. This meant that anglers in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut would have to live with a daily bag limit reduced from five to three fish and a size limit increased from 18 to 19 inches. This, said New Jersey anglers, would be impossible. And besides, the scientists had it all “wrong;” there were “lots of fish.”
The loudest opposition to scientific fisheries management invariably issues from New Jersey. And no voice there is shriller than that of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. While the alliance claims to represent anglers, there’s scarcely anyone involved who doesn’t profit from killing fish. The mandated catch reduction “will be a death blow to an industry already struggling under the burden of overregulation,” declared its director James Donofrio.
Claiming the needed reduction in summer flounder kill could be rendered merely by asking fishermen to voluntarily use bigger hooks and practice catch and release, the alliance and its allies prevailed on senators and representatives from New Jersey, who demanded Ross overrule the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Ross readily complied. Never before had one of the commission’s science-based decisions been nixed by a lay bureaucrat in Commerce. It was another gross violation of federal law.
“New Jersey essentially gave ASMFC the middle finger,” said John McMurray of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
Currently there’s a big push by dozens of me-first fishing interests to infuse Magnuson with “flexibility,” a euphemism for more dead fish on the dock. The Recreational Fishing Alliance, for example, defines Magnuson’s catch limits and accountability measures to prevent overfishing as the dirty work of “anti-fishing environmental groups who have lobbied against our efforts” and who control the minds of anglers “still drinking the KoolAid of the anti-fishing environmental groups.”
But the alliance has found new hope. In a recent press release it proclaims that “the days of the environmental zealots running the show are, for the most part, over,” and that it is “excited” about the Trump administration’s “new attitude towards fishery management.” ♦
Circle of Chiefs articles are written by those who have received the Jade of Chiefs Award for conservation reporting and coverage. The Jade of Chiefs honorees are considered OWAA’s conservation council. The article reflects the opinion of the author. If you’d like to add to the discussion, please send a letter to the editor.

Ted Williams serves as national chair of the Native Fish Coalition and writes the monthly “Recovery” column for The Nature Conservancy’s online magazine Cool Green Science.

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