Putting a price tag on our federal public lands

Image by Joel Webster.

In 1961, my grandfather and a friend hired a public lands outfitter who took them on the hunting trip of their lives.

On this trip, my grandfather traveled into the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming where he harvested a bull elk, a buck mule deer and a bear. He wasn’t a rich man, but between all the goods and services his trip required, he spent a significant amount of his hard-earned money.

Years later, my father would allocate his discretionary income to fund his own public lands hunting and fishing adventures. Fortunately, I became the lucky recipient of a long-standing and sustainable hunting and fishing tradition. I’ve been able to spend the past thirty years of my life hunting with my father, friends and colleagues.

Last year, for a two month hunting season, I spent about $3,500 on fuel, licenses, food and hunting gear. When you look at the big picture, the recreational activity of 37 million individual hunters and anglers adds up quickly.

Today, Joel testified before the U.S. Senate on the value of America’s natural resources and the economic impact of hunting and angling. Read what he had to say to our elected officials in Congress…and learn more about the TRCP’s efforts to guarantee you a place to hunt and fish. 

Congress Is Ignoring You

I just finished a sportsmen’s D.C. fly-in, and, boy, are my arms tired (ba-dum-chhh).

But seriously, folks.

More than a dozen sportsmen just wrapped up three days in Washington, D.C., last week talking to their elected officials about the importance of clean water to hunting and fishing. It was just in time, too. There’s a disturbing trend in Congress of members ignoring the views of sportsmen who rely on clean water to enjoy quality days in the field. For instance, on July 16, 2014, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved three pieces of legislation that undermine our bedrock water quality safeguards. TRCP partner Trout Unlimited rightly took them to task:

Image by Walker Conyngham.

“Forty years ago the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee played a leadership role in enacting one of the nation’s most vital natural resource conservation laws, the Clean Water Act,” said Steve Moyer, Trout Unlimited’s vice president of government affairs. “Today, the Committee hammered the law with some of the most ill-conceived attacks in the history of the act.”

One of the bills would derail a Clean Water Act rulemaking that will clarify protections for headwater streams and wetlands and better define which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act and – just as importantly – which ones are not.

Sportsmen in D.C. last week told lawmakers from several states that this rulemaking is the best chance in a generation to definitively restore some protections to valuable fisheries and waterfowl habitats – protections that existed for nearly 30 years prior to 2001 – and Congress should not interfere with the process.

“Protecting America’s waters is important to anglers all across this country,” said Bob Rees, executive director, Association of Northwest Steelheaders, one of the fly-in participants. “Whether you fish for trout in North Carolina, bass in Missouri or salmon in Oregon, this is an issue that directly impacts us all.”

Signed into law in 1972, the Clean Water Act is one of our most successful environmental statutes. It has transformed rivers that once literally caught on fire into productive fisheries and vibrant aquatic ecosystems. And it slowed a rate of wetland loss that, in 1972, exceeded a half-million acres per year.

What’s been unclear at least since 2001 is to which waters the law applies. In 2001 and again in 2006 the Supreme Court issued decisions concerning Clean Water Act jurisdiction that, combined with subsequent agency guidance, actually confused the issue. What we’re left with is an administrative mess slowing down permit applications and water bodies at increased risk of pollution and destruction. The rate of wetlands loss – one of the great metrics of the success of the Clean Water Act – actually increased by 140 percent during the years immediately following the Supreme Court decisions. This is the first documented acceleration of wetland loss in the history of the Clean Water Act.

Since the Supreme Court decisions, a broad cross section of stakeholders has called for a rulemaking to clarify where the Clean Water Act applies. Many sportsmen’s groups have been asking for a rulemaking for years. So have state agencies, local elected officials, industry associations and farming and ranching groups, as well as Supreme Court justices.

Image by Walker Conyngham.

After nearly 15 years of confusion, the agencies responsible finally obliged. On March 25, 2014, a proposed draft rule was published that is open for public comment through mid-October.

“Approximately two-thirds of the 13 million Pennsylvanians get drinking water from headwater streams that would benefit from this proposal,” said Jeff Ripple, chairman of the Environmental Committee for Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited and another fly-in participant. “This is not just about fishing; the status quo is putting the economy and our way of life at risk for the benefit of a few.”

Since the draft was published, we have heard a lot from groups opposing the proposed rule and congressmen intent on derailing the rulemaking even while it is still in the public comment phase. What’s been getting short shrift in this debate are the potential benefits of a rulemaking for America’s 47 million hunters and anglers. Sportsmen, who generate $200 billion in total economic activity each year and support 1.5 million jobs, rely on clean water to pursue their sporting traditions.

To be clear, the rulemaking must be done in a way that works for our partners in agriculture. We rely on them in many of our conservation efforts and for access to places to hunt and fish.

But efforts to stop the rulemaking before the public has had a chance to review and comment on the proposal are misguided and ignore the wishes of sportsmen. Now is not the time to throw the proposed rule away and lock in the current jurisdictional confusion indefinitely. It is time to improve it through broad public involvement.

Playing politics with sportsmen

There is a great frustration in working hard on something for months and having it come up just short of success.

On days like this one, hours after the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act failed on the Senate floor, I think of other, more obviously rewarding lines of work. Chesapeake Bay waterfowl hunting guide, perhaps?

Ten years ago, when I came to Washington, D.C., seeking to create a career that combined my loves of politics and hunting, this was still a town where things could get done, a town where you could still have fun at work. Things have changed. This is now a town sick with partisanship, where even good ideas often can count on inglorious defeat.

The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2014, or S. 2363, was the result of a lot of work by Sens. Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) over the course of more than a year. After learning lessons from an unsuccessful attempt to pass a sportsmen’s legislative package late in 2012, Hagan and Murkowski assembled a package that addressed many sportsmen’s priorities but avoided some of the more controversial measures from 2012. As a result, they achieved something almost unheard of in Washington: They crafted a bill that had virtually no credible opposition.

S. 2363 has 46 cosponsors, split almost evenly among Republicans and Democrats. Conservatives and progressives cosponsored the legislation, realizing the economic and political importance of America’s hunters and anglers. But in Washington, even the best made plans are subject to crashing on the rocks of short-sighted partisanship.

The probable end of the Sportsmen’s Act of 2014 resulted not from the content of the legislation, and it certainly should not be taken as a measure of the value of sportsmen. No, the end of S.2363 came about because many in the Senate would rather haggle for political victories than pass meaningful legislation with strong public support. Amendments that had nothing to do with the bill’s original intent were offered by both sides of the aisle, and in a gridlocked Senate, the process predictably broke down amidst calls of foul play and obstruction from the leaders of both parties.

Floor time in the United States Senate is not a trifling thing. Literally thousands of pieces of legislation and the champions who support those bills vie for a shot at the Senate floor. But in today’s Washington, getting floor time is no guarantee of safe passage; indeed, advancing a bill to the Senate floor doesn’t even guarantee an up or down vote on the legislation. But those of us who advocate on behalf of America’s hunters and anglers will dust ourselves off this morning, survey the playing field in the days, weeks, and months ahead, and chart a course forward. Working with our congressional champions and our partners – and with the support of sportsmen like you – we pledge to get this legislation over the finish line. A slim possibility for the bill’s advancement exists before the 113th Congress ends. And the prospect of a new version of the bill being introduced in the future is not outside the realm of possibility. Better late than never.

A Spring Turkey Hunt with the TRCP

TRCP Western Outreach Director Neil Thagard, a Minox Optics Adventure Team member, recently got the opportunity to chase Merriam’s turkeys in Wyoming in an area where he has arrowed numerous birds. This spring, Neil (along with his wife Catherine behind the camera) experienced cold weather with high winds and snow. On the few days he was able to hunt, he found birds, though he never connected.

However, this opportunity would not have been possible without access to public lands. The cooperation of private landowners and the Wyoming Game & Fish Department through the Access Yes program provides hunters and anglers access to otherwise inaccessible lands. For every dollar donated to the program, nearly 4.6 acres of access is provided to all hunters and anglers who hunt and fish in Wyoming – residents and non-residents alike. Many other states have similar access programs.

Watch a video of Neil’s hunt below. How important is access to you? Let us know on the TRCP Facebook page.

Background on the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2014

With the clock ticking down on the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act, take the opportunity to learn more about the legislation. Then, give your Senators a call to voice your support for the package. 

Image by Dusan Smetana.

The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act (S. 2363) is an historic piece of legislation that features some of the most important measures to benefit America’s 40 million sportsmen in years. The bill includes a number of provisions to expand public access and conserve fish and wildlife habitat for generations. S.2363 enjoys the support of many major hunting and angling organizations across the country. That support has been matched by a bipartisan cosponsor list of 45 Senators.

America’s hunters and anglers, who annually contribute $200 billion to the national economy and continue to play a vital role in the promotion of sustainable land use, deserve equal footing with other multiple uses on federal lands.

The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act includes the following 14 provisions:

  • Permanent Electronic Duck Stamp Act of 2013 (S.738), authorizing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow any state to provide federal duck stamps electronically.
  • Hunting, Fishing and Recreational Shooting Protection Act (S.1505), exempts lead fishing tackle from being regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act
  • Target Practice and Marksmanship Training Support Act (S.1212), enabling states to allocate a greater proportion of federal funding to create and maintain shooting ranges on federal and non-federal lands
  • Duck Stamp Subsistence Waiver, granting the Secretary of the Interior the authority to make limited waivers of Duck Stamp requirements for certain subsistence users
  • Polar Bear Conservation and Fairness Act (S.847), permitting the Secretary of the Interior to authorize permits for re-importation of previously legally harvested Polar Bears from approved populations in Canada before the 2008 ban
  • Farmer and Hunter Protection Act, authorizing USDA extension offices to determine normal agricultural practices rather than the Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage Opportunities Act (S.170), requiring federal land managers to consider how management plans affect opportunities to engage in hunting, fishing and recreational shooting and requiring the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to keep BLM lands open to these activities.
  • Permits for Film Crews of Five People or Less, directing the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to require annual permits and assess annual fees for filming on federal lands
  • Making Public Lands Public, requires that 1.5 percent of annual Land and Water Conservation Fund monies be made available to secure public access to existing federal lands that have restricted access to hunting, fishing and other recreational activities.

    Image by Dusan Smetana.

  • North American Wetlands Conservation Act Reauthorization (S.741), provides matching grants to organizations, state and local governments, and private landowners for the acquisition, restoration, and enhancement of wetlands habitat critical to migratory birds.
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Reauthorization, reauthorizing NFWF, a nonprofit that conserves and restores native wildlife species and habitats.
  • Target Practice and Marksmanship Training Support Act, enabling states to allocate a greater proportion of federal funding to create and maintain shooting ranges.
  • Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act Reauthorization, enabling the Bureau of Land Management to disburse public lands to private entities, county governments, and others for the purposes of ranching, public works, and related projects and invest the revenue received to obtain additional conservation  lands.

The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act is at a critical crossroads. Pick up the phone and let your Senators know that you support the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act today!

Report from the Gulf

The fourth anniversary of the start of the BP Gulf oil spill passed in April with relatively little fanfare.

Satellite image of the Gulf oil spill on June 7, 2010.
Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Flight Center.

Certainly there were some very important reports circulated in the media regarding the detrimental impacts of oil on larval fish, especially tuna, in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And the Coast Guard recently announced it was ending the active cleanup phase of the recovery effort and responding to oiling on a case-by-case basis, despite regular reports of oil showing up on Louisiana’s barrier island beaches. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that more and more workers are commuting to jobs in coastal parishes in Louisiana rather than living in coastal communities, which are growing increasingly vulnerable to flooding from wetland loss, sea level rise and the fact that the land is sinking, something most in South Louisiana have surely noticed on area roads during rush-hour traffic.

Despite these reports ringing alarms along the Gulf Coast, where post-oil spill and post-hurricane realities are ever present, the national spotlight will likely not focus on the oil spill again until next year when its fifth anniversary coincides with the 10th anniversary of the landfalls of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

While many of the larger national news outlets passed on the in-depth examinations of the health of the Gulf and its residents this year, Smithsonian.com published an article that examined the impacts of the spill, attempting to distill fact from rumor and portray as accurate a picture possible of the Gulf of Mexico in April 2014 versus the Gulf of four years ago.

The article illustrated the impacts of hydrocarbons on larval fish such as bluefin and blackfin tuna, though it did not report that scientists and researchers know for certain that those impacts will have long-term detrimental effects on the populations of those fish. Scientists simply don’t know that yet and will need more time to ascertain that information. The article further explained key forage species, especially menhaden, had gone through enough life cycles for scientists to reasonably conclude that their collapse was unlikely, though not out of the realm of possibilities.

The article also quoted oil-spill experts who attested the oil released into the Gulf was a lighter, more volatile hydrocarbon than what was spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 – and it was released into a warmer environment with more micro-organisms in it to help dissipate and consume it. However, despite the ability of the Gulf’s warmer, highly-oxygenated climate to consume oil, once it reached the irregular, marshy shorelines of Louisiana’s coast, the oil was trapped in vegetation and mud – and likely will stay there for generations.

All of these findings, for the most part, had been reported before the piece in Smithsonian.com was published, though it was very helpful to have them all summed up in one tidy, well-researched article, especially as news of the spill’s aftermath has been pushed farther to the back of newspapers and magazines and off the home pages of most news websites.

Of all the points made in the article, one that stood out the most is the fact that the spill did not happen in a pristine environment. The Gulf, like many other coastal ecosystems across the world, has experienced more than its share of habitat loss, poor water quality and man-made and natural disasters.

Efforts to contain rivers from flooding and maintain them for navigation have disrupted vital sediment deposits needed to maintain wetlands that serve as fish nursery grounds and filters for nutrients from agriculture and urban runoff. Over-harvest and poor water quality, including nutrient loading and saltwater intrusion, have limited oyster and scallop production.

Poor water quality also can be blamed for the loss of historic sea grass beds, especially in Florida and Texas. Some places are getting too much freshwater and at the wrong times of the year, while others are simply not getting enough freshwater due to upstream diversions. Since scientists did not have a wealth of knowledge about Gulf fisheries before the spill, it’s difficult for them to draw specific conclusions about what the impacts of the spill are and could be.

None of this is intended to suggest that people do not have their place in the Gulf’s ecosystems. Rather, it is meant to point out that policymakers, lawmakers, scientists and Gulf residents must seize the opportunity to address the impacts and make the Gulf a better, more sustainable ecosystem. That opportunity comes in the form of the penalties that have been and will be paid to help repair the damages caused and exacerbated by the spill.

Efforts to restore coastal wetlands, oyster and sea grass beds; repair damages to coral reefs; return sediment flows back into the Mississippi River Delta and improve water quality across the Gulf are not just “feel good” stories. They are essential to making the Gulf’s fisheries and coastal communities sustainable.

More than 3.5 million anglers hold recreational fishing licenses from Florida through Texas (including the author).

More than 3.5 million anglers hold recreational fishing licenses from Florida through Texas. That number swells by as much as a million when those are included who take charter trips out of states that include the license as part of the charter fee. That fishing activity annually generates more than $10 billion throughout the Gulf. Without efforts to make the ecosystems on which the fish depend more sustainable, those recreational fishing dollars gradually go away, as do the fishing opportunities.

As Gulf-area law and policymakers devise ways to spend oil-spill recovery dollars on “economic development” as the money continues to trickle in, it’s important for the recreational fishing community to remind them the wisest investment is in the ecosystems that already make up a huge part of the area’s economy.

Anglers, it’s time to show up

Photo courtesy of NOAA.gov.

OK, OK, I did this before, but it bears repeating: Those of us who like sportfishing have been given an opportunity. So let’s not waste it. Not too long ago, I wrote about the new NOAA administrator, Eileen Sobeck, committing the agency to crafting a national saltwater recreational fishing policy. Will this policy instantly fix all the problems that many see with management of recreational fisheries at the federal or state level? Not likely, but this effort should get into writing those things that anglers think will improve sportfishing in the long run. This will take time, but it should not be the result of a small number of stakeholders influencing the system. It needs to have broad input if it is going to be a real national policy.

As this is being written, NOAA Fisheries is holding the third of its town halls to gather input from the recreational community and industry. This is being held in conjunction with the New England Fishery Management Council meeting in Portland, Maine. The turnout at the council venue is likely to be fairly weak. Recreational interests are not accustomed to coming to NEFMC meetings to input their thoughts on management. The first town hall was held in Florida at the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council meeting, where an overwhelming three recreational participants showed up to give input. C’mon, man! We gotta do better than that. At the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the turnout was a little stronger but still pathetic with 15 participants at the meeting. At the NEFMC meeting there were five participants.

While this poor showing makes NOAA Fisheries’ efforts to fulfill this mandate look like a waste of their time, another commercial fishing organization showed up in force in Washington, D.C., during Capitol Hill Ocean Week. Called the Seafood Harvesters of America, one of its main efforts is accountability where fish are landed and where policies are made. I’m all in, but I suspect that accountability will cut across all users. Not a bad thing. Soooo, how is it that the recreational stakeholders and industry have that vast majority of users but cannot even muster more than a few participants at regional meetings, while the commercial industry creates another association to try to influence fishing policies? Answer me that question.

Photo courtesy of NOAA.gov.

All is not lost yet. NOAA Fisheries, the folks we love to hate, are trying hard to make input into this effort easy. But if you are reading this, you will have to make some effort. Don’t just think the other guy will do it, because he will think the same. Then a small group of Washington insiders will be left to influence the process. Just yesterday at the NEFMC meeting another recreational representative agreed with my thinking that council meetings are not the best place to get recreational input. Recs are just not focused at the council level. So, he indicated that he was not happy that the same old D.C. players would get what they wanted in the policy effort. I couldn’t agree more, so get up off the couch and get into the conversation!

NOAA Fisheries is turning handstands to push this effort along, and by mid summer, you’ll be running out of opportunities to comment. There will be a couple of national webinars to inform folks about the policy and straw man ideas that have been put out there to get the discussion going. There is also the opportunity to comment online at any time that is convenient for you. They want your thoughts and have made it relatively easy for you. But in the end they cannot force you to comment, and that is why I am going to be a nudge on this. It is important. If you belong to a saltwater fishing club, make sure that it is aware of this and that its members are informed.

NOAA Fisheries has put up a website with all the information on how to respond to this request for information. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/management/recreational/policy/index.html

So, what’s the excuse? Go to the site, check out the discussion guide and the documents to inform the policy development, and make a comment. Once again, let me state that we have been given an opportunity to shape our future. If we fail to take the opportunity, someone else will shape it for us, and we may not like what we get.

The Sportsmen’s Water Budget

The “Sportsmen’s Water Budget” helps sportsmen see how the government is investing in water conservation.

American sportsmen have been leading the conservation movement since its beginning, and for more than three quarters of a century, we have been putting our money where our mouths are. We voluntarily instituted fees on guns, ammo, fishing tackle, boats and other sporting equipment on the condition that the money collected would be put back into species restoration, resource protection and access. Sportsmen contribute over $750 million each year to conservation through these self-imposed fees. (This doesn’t include the nearly $1.5 billion sportsmen spend on license and permit sales each year – money that goes to support state fish and wildlife agencies.) The benefits of these conservation efforts are enjoyed far beyond the sportsmen’s community, but hunters and anglers have embraced the “user pays-public benefits” model because it has been so successful at enhancing our sporting traditions.

Likewise, the federal government – because of its responsibility to manage public lands, comply with various statutory requirements and operate federal facilities – invests in a wide variety of conservation efforts that benefit sportsmen. Fiscal austerity in recent years has put these investments in jeopardy, leading many sportsmen to redouble their efforts to advocate for programs that support our enjoyment of the outdoors.

Hooked trout. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

Photo by Dusan Smetana.

For example, on April 22, 2014, more than 100 prominent sportsmen’s groups urged Congress to strongly fund the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which directs a portion of revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing to conserve fish and wildlife habitat and increase access and recreational opportunities for sportsmen on public lands.

However, in lieu of comprehensive data about federal spending on conservation, our advocacy is limited to a piecemeal approach, often focused on a few high profile programs, like LWCF.

Following in the tradition of the North American model of wildlife conservation that prioritizes scientific, data-driven management of wildlife and habitats, the TRCP Center for Water Resources has produced a database of federal programs – referred to as the “Sportsmen’s Water Budget” – impacting a specific type of conservation – that of our water resources. By knowing where and how much the federal government is investing in water conservation, we can better determine which programs are lacking – or perhaps in excess – and target our advocacy.

(In this context, water conservation refers to federal programs that have improvement of freshwater aquatic habitat, including aquatic species restoration, as a primary goal, or the ability to increase flows or wetland acres. There are other important federal actions that influence water conservation, such as research or data collection, but the “Sportsmen’s Water Budget” focuses on programs that have the ability to directly and immediately enhance freshwater resources.)

The “Sportsmen’s Water Budget” will be updated at least twice a year to illustrate how presidential and congressional budgets affect sportsmen.

This database captures a snapshot of what the federal government is doing to improve aquatic habitat for hunting and fishing. The TRCP Center for Water Resources will update the data at least twice each year: once when the president proposes a budget to Congress, usually in late February or March, and again when Congress completes its annual appropriations process, usually in late fall. The TRCP Center for Water Resources also will add periodic analyses to explain what the data mean for sportsmen.

The “Sportsmen’s Water Budget” comes at an important time. Several years of slow but steady economic recovery are finally easing some of the fiscal constraints of the Great Recession. And after seemingly endless omnibus spending bills, continuing resolutions and other budgetary standoffs driven by hyper-partisanship that ultimately culminated in a shutdown of the federal government, Congress is showing signs of a return to a normal appropriations process. Sportsmen now have a window of opportunity to influence federal spending decisions and make our voices heard above the din. The “Sportsmen’s Water Budget” will help inform and target our efforts.

Also, it is a tool that will help our community hold elected officials accountable. We can see in hard data the priority they place on those programs that support our hunting and fishing traditions and the $200 billion a year economy that goes with them. We embrace the “user pays-public benefits” model because we see a positive return on our investment; the “Sportsmen’s Water Budget” will help us get the same from those we send to Washington, DC, to represent us.

If you have feedback, please share it with us by contacting Jimmy Hague, Director of the Center for Water Resources, at jhague@trcp.org.

Little Fish, Big Impact

River herring. Photo courtesy of Jerry Prezioso/NOAA.gov.

There has been a lot of news on the fishing-related websites and blogs recently about forage fish, primarily herring and menhaden. Truthfully, a complete discussion on forage would encompass a much wider range of species, but I think that I’ll at least narrow it down to the major ones.

Herring, specifically river herring, should be a hot topic. It is that time of year when town Herring Wardens get to see what has come back to rivers in towns all along the New England coast. Word has it that a bunch of rivers are looking good. They’re not where they should be but a heck of a lot better than they have been in the last few years. Some of this is due to in-stream restoration projects that now are paying off, and some is due to efforts to minimize the high seas interaction with sea herring caught by so-called mid-water trawling, both single vessel and pair trawling.

The in-stream work is fairly easy to measure. Restore the habitat in the watershed or rebuild or create fish ladder access to spawning grounds, wait a couple of years, and count the increase. These are very prolific spawners that grow relatively quickly, so gratification, while not instant, is pretty darn quick.

The at-sea interaction is a lot harder to measure for a number of reasons, but the main one is the sheer volume of fish caught in the sea herring fishery. It is fairly normal to have 200,000 pounds of herring and whatever else in a net. The volume is so great as to require that the contents are vacuumed out into the boat’s fish hold. An onboard observer may pull samples of a tote at certain points in the transfer process. If they pull a total of 100 pounds, there is a one in 2,000 chance that they will see any bycatch such as river herring. Those are not good odds. In some cases, even if they do get some in the sample, only a trained eye can distinguish the difference in herring species. In sum: it is likely that managers still do not have a good handle on the actual catch of river herring on the high seas. If the truth be told, there probably is not a good handle on bycatch in general in the northeast sea herring fishery. The New England Fishery Management Council has been working on it, but it has been a hard slog.

A lot of in-stream work still needs to be accomplished, but that will be a function of funding and some hardworking local folks to pull it all together. As mentioned above, that work can be very satisfying as the results are relatively quick and easily visible. In the spring, herring runs usually attract a lot of excited visitors, so positive feedback and PR help the process.

River herring

Image courtesy of NOAA.gov.

Sea herring seem to be managed fairly well, and their spawning success is predicated upon the environmental conditions at spawning time and the ability of managers to control access to spawning aggregations of sea herring. No matter how well managers do, there will always be fluctuations in the population. The major consideration of scientists that advise the managers on setting catch levels should be leaving enough resource for predators such as tuna, striped bass, whales, cod fish, etc. to feed on.

When I was on the NEFMC, there was an effort to put in place a measure to weigh all sea herring so that managers could get a realistic handle on what amount was being caught. Managers were using guesstimations, and in my opinion that is not good enough. NOAA’s regional office rejected that effort as being too onerous. Funny that 125 million pounds of lobster all get weighed in the state of Maine, and that is not considered onerous. It is considered smart business. In any case, a recent action may put in place at least a volumetric measure requirement.

As for menhaden, most of the catch of this forage species is in the Mid Atlantic. There have not been any major migrations of menhaden, like we used to see in the 1980s, north of Cape Cod for a number of years. I keep hoping that there will be, as they bring a whole host of predators that like to feed on them.

Some steps have been implemented by the ASMFC to control the harvest of menhaden. For 2013 there was a 20-percent reduction over the average catch for 2009-2011. The biggest issue has been how this has been enforced, or not enforced, by different states. Rhode Island was 7 percent over. New York was 421 percent over. Delaware was 234 percent over. Maryland 34 percent over. The Potomac River Fisheries Commission was 41 percent over. Florida was 152 percent over. Because some states with decent sized quotas were under, the total quota was just about on target at 2 percent under. A long list of folks will be pushing for a fair and equitable enforcement policy to be put in place. There also should be measures that do not allow states like Maryland to have a bycatch fishery after the quota is taken.

What I am not aware of is whether the catch is weighed or volumetric conversion to weight. That may vary state to state. We will have to see what the reduction does for overall populations in the next couple of years. It would certainly be great to get back to the 80s when massive schools moved all the way up into mid coast Maine. There were a lot of happy predators and a lot of happy anglers.

It should be obvious, but sustainably managing forage species has implications far beyond the fish themselves. If managers allow forage stocks to collapse, many other species will follow. Luckily, folks are paying attention, and it seems like things are moving in a positive direction.

Conservation Dollars Are Being Burned

Wildfire in the Pacific Northwest
Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

Wildfires are becoming an escalating threat in the Western United States. With each passing year, wildfires are increasing in frequency, burning more acres and proving more costly to suppress. Despite the escalation of wildfires and wildfire-associated damage, however, very little has been done to assist the Forest Service in its efforts to pay for wildfire suppression and prevention. Suppression costs are responsible for more of the Forest Service budget each year, forcing cuts to programs vital to conservation, forestry management and sportsmen.

Why is this happening?

A combination of factors is responsible for the increase in frequency and severity of wildfires, the most important of which is climate change. Higher temperatures across the United States make America’s forests drier through increased evaporation rates, decreased precipitation and subsequent drought. As a result, the fire season is two-and-a-half months longer now than in the 1970s. It’s very simple: drier forests are simply more likely to catch on fire.

A decrease in proper forestry management practices plays a role, as well. Ironically enough, this in part results from the increasing costs associated with wildfire suppression. Because suppression and prevention dollars come from the same budget, money used to suppress wildfires means fewer dollars available to prevent them. Suppression costs accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1991 but have risen to 47 percent in 2012, leaving very little left to engage in programs vital to fire prevention.

>>Check out The TRCP’s infographic on the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act here.<<

What needs to change?

Before suppression costs consumed nearly half of the Forest Service budget, the agency could afford to implement a variety of forestry management programs proven to mitigate the risk of wildfires, such as hazardous fuels reduction. A healthy, properly managed forest is far less likely to burn catastrophically.

Another important factor in the increased costs of firefighting has to do with the “Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).” This refers to development along areas prone to wildfires. The proximity between manmade structures and such areas has increased as development increases along national parks and other wild areas, forcing the Forest Service to prioritize property protection in its fire suppression and prevention activities.

How are conservation dollars being burned?
Click the image for the full infographic

But in recent years, the increase in wildfire frequency and longer fire seasons, combined with the higher costs associated with fighting fire in the WUI, has forced the Forest Service to annually engage in “fire borrowing” to pay for suppression – meaning it must take dollars from other forestry management programs to pay for the debilitating costs associated with putting out wildfires.

Why should this matter to sportsmen?

Without budgetary reform, the Forest Service cannot afford to put out wildfires and effectively engage in forestry management at an appropriate scale. This means that forests across the United States will become less healthy and more prone to catastrophic fire. As a result, forests and habitat will suffer, affecting people and wildlife throughout the United States.

How can sportsmen help fix this problem?

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 3992 and S. 1875), a bill introduced in both the House and Senate, would put an end to the problem of fire borrowing – and do it without increasing federal spending. For budgetary purposes, the legislation would classify the most extreme wildfires as natural disasters, a designation previously reserved for tornadoes, hurricanes and flash floods. This would allow the suppression costs for America’s largest and most expensive wildfires to be paid using federal emergency dollars. While the Forest Service still would be responsible for suppressing wildfires, the money to do so would be drawn from another, more appropriate source.

This simple yet effective measure would permit hundreds of millions of dollars in the Forest Service budget to be used as Congress intended, allowing the agency to resume forestry management and fire prevention programs. If passed, this legislation would make America’s forests and wildlife habitat healthier while simultaneously mitigating the risk of future wildfires.

While the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, more congressional support is needed to ensure its passage. If you care about the future of American hunting and fishing and your representatives are not signed onto this legislation please TAKE ACTION here and help make a difference.