A national recreational fishing policy

Rod and reel courtesy NMFS/NOAA

Photo courtesy of NMFS/NOAA.gov.

Well, it looks like the recreational fishing industry got an April Fools present. No, really, we did. It’s not a joke.

NOAA Fisheries has committed to establishing a national recreational fishing policy. What does that mean? The real answer is in the future, but the door that some like to say was “rusted shut” has been opened.

During the first days of April and what finally felt like real spring, I attended the Recreational Fishing Summit organized by NOAA Fisheries in the Washington, D.C., area. This summit was the fourth time the recreational fishing industry has come together to try to influence federal policies on fishing in general and specifically the policies that directly impact the recreational fishing industry and the 11 million saltwater anglers.

The first summit was held on the West Coast. Then came St. Petersburg, Fla., in the early 2000s. The last was in the D.C. area four years ago and started the ball rolling to change how the recreational fishing industry has been and is viewed by federal policy makers. This summit produced a fairly long list of changes that attendees wanted implemented. To his credit, Eric Schwab, then head of NOAA Fisheries, committed to getting that list checked off as soon as possible. While 100 percent of the items were not completed, most of did get done. One of the outstanding and frankly most important items is to get the “new” Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, completed and functional. Time after time, at the summits and just about everywhere else, the recreational industry has questioned the data being used to manage the recreational users. There are substantial fluctuations in some of the catch number that just do not make any sense. If bad data are being used to set seasons, bag limits or assess catch, then folks’ suspicion is warranted. MRIP needs to be fully functional and completely trusted.

Marine Visioning Report for America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries

Image courtesy of Trcp.org.

This year’s summit was a follow-up to the previous one. The output was a list of things to be addressed by NOAA Fisheries. The list was not as long, but it has some fairly complicated issues to address. To a great extent the list is directly reflective of the Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries and the report presented by the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, Recreational Working Group. The “vision report” had a short list of important items, but several rise to the top in my mind. They did also at the summit. First, establish a national recreational fishing policy. Next was allocating marine fisheries for the greatest economic benefit to the nation. Also managing for the forage base. All of these were high up on the short list from the summit. All of these would change management policy and finally recognize the value of the recreational fishing industry.

I am happy to report that Eileen Sobeck, the newly appointed head of NOAA Fisheries, concluded the summit with the commitment to move ahead with establishing the national recreational fishing policy. Great stuff! But from the recreational industry standpoint, the real work now begins. We need to make sure that what goes into this policy is the right stuff. John Brownlee, editorial director of Salt Water Sportsman, Sport Fishing and Marlin magazine and keynote summit speaker, put it correctly when he said that the real work begins after we get NOAA Fisheries to say yes!

Yes, I do think that we are making headway. Rather than looking back and saying, “It’s about time,” I look forward and say, “We need to make sure we get it right this time!”

Bigger than bighorns

Big horn sheep

If politics and special agendas trump science-based wildlife management we all lose. Photo by Neil Thagard.

Most sportsmen agree that although fish and wildlife biology is complex, the decision to use the best available science in the management of valuable natural resources should not be. Unfortunately, the management objectives developed by fish and wildlife professionals too often are trumped by policymakers who undermine the science with special interest agendas. When this happens hunters and anglers inevitably lose.

We do not have to look far for examples, including the politically charged legal challenge to a decision made for bighorn sheep in the Payette National Forest of Idaho, which recently was settled after a lengthy court battle.

At the time of European settlement in the West, bighorn sheep were one of the most prominent large mammals on the landscape. Paleontological data indicates that there may have been as many as 2 million of these regal animals in America. But by the mid-1950s bighorn sheep had plummeted to only about 10,000 individuals. This decline was primarily due to unregulated hunting, forage competition from livestock grazing and the introduction of diseases transmitted by domestic sheep and goats. Today, we have regulated hunting and livestock grazing, but the disease transmission from domestic sheep and goats still occurs and is considered the No. 1 limiting factor to bighorn sheep recovery in the West.

According to Dr. Subramaniam Srikumaran, D.V.M., chair of the wild sheep disease research facility at Washington State University, large scale pneumonic die-offs have “decimated bighorn sheep populations time and time again.” These die offs are “unequivocally” the result of wild sheep being forced to share their native range with domestic sheep and goats.

Over the last 30 years bighorn advocates have worked with the domestic sheep industry on the only viable course of action currently available: separation of the two species. Mutually beneficial solutions such as buying out public land domestic sheep grazing allotments, converting them to another livestock type (such as cattle) or moving domestic sheep to alternative allotments outside of suitable historic bighorn sheep habitat all have been proposed. In a number of cases progress was made, yet in others, agreements could not be reached.

Then in March of 2005, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service announced a groundbreaking decision on an environmental impact study conducted in the Hells Canyon area of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. He determined that the forest had a responsibility to ensure there was habitat available to support a viable population of bighorn sheep and that allowing continued domestic sheep grazing in or near occupied bighorn sheep habitat would have adverse impacts on bighorn sheep populations. The final forest plan, completed in 2010, used the best available science to identify suitable rangelands for domestic sheep and goat grazing, while identifying other allotments on the Payette National Forest requiring closure.

This decision was a win for wildlife, wildlife managers, sportsmen and the economies that benefit from sustainable wildlife populations. However, it still came under fire as recently as this year when an appeal, challenging the science behind the transmission of disease from domestic sheep and goats to bighorns, was filed in federal court by the American Sheep Industry and several state woolgrower organizations. They asserted that the analysis performed by the U.S. Forest Service using best science was flawed. The federal judge in Boise, Idaho, denied their appeal and stood with the science and the analysis it supported, declaring that the victory for the bighorns decided in 2010 remained.

Big horn lambs

The successful recruitment of bighorn lambs is the future of any wild sheep population. Photo by Neil Thagard.

When you take a step back and look at all of the pressures our fish and wildlife face due to human induced factors, it is easy to see that this decision is not just a victory for the 500 or so bighorns that  now inhabit Hells Canyon or even for single species. From a conservation perspective, the case  is much bigger than bighorns.

This verdict set the precedent that science, not politics or special interests, should be the determining factor in wildlife management decisions. A different verdict would have opened the door to challenges of decisions that conserve everything from sage grouse to marine fisheries – and potentially by much more influential industries than the woolgrowers. This decision represents hope for the future of fish, wildlife and ultimately all life.

Neil Thagard is the Western outreach director for the TRCP and has been closely involved with wild sheep conservation throughout North America for the past 20 years, including his direct involvement with the Payette National Forest decision. He was the first U.S. citizen to receive the Lex Ross Wild Sheep Conservation Award presented by the conservation community in British Columbia, Canada, for his efforts.

For us humans to digest, first we must swallow

Red snapper on ice. Photo courtesy of Jeff Dute/www.al.com.

Red snapper on ice. Photo courtesy of Jeff Dute/www.al.com.

For recreational fishermen along the Gulf of Mexico, swallowing was a difficult task last week.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council set out what is sure to be an unpalatable menu for recreational fishermen last Thursday at its meeting in Baton Rouge, La., when it voted a shortest-ever 11-day recreational red snapper season for 2014.

Just three hours later, the Louisiana Department of  Wildlife and Fisheries found the decision so distasteful the agency’s top man, Secretary Robert Barham, announced that come Monday, April 14, his state will open state waters to a year-round recreational red snapper take.

“After reviewing what our biologists expect Louisiana’s recreational red snapper landings to be this year, and the recent action taken by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to have a very short federal season, I have decided to support our anglers and the associated fishing industry by opening state waters 365 days until further notice,” Barham said in a prepared statement.

“The Gulf Council’s action is clear evidence that their process is broken and they give no consideration to the needs of individual states. For two years, I have been trying to persuade the Gulf Council to move forward with regional management, allowing the states flexibility in management by empowering our anglers and fishing industry to decide how they want red snapper managed. That hasn’t happened.”

The move aligns Louisiana with its neighbor Texas in having 365-day seasons in state waters. Louisiana will continue its two-fish-per day limit, while Texas allows a four-per- day take. Florida has elected to not comply with federal regulations in state waters as well, citing similar frustration and distrust of federal management.

It was clear the 17-member Gulf council was running in fear of an early April ruling by a Washington, D.C., district court that told the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Gulf Council that its recreational red snapper management schemes allowed recreationals to exceed their sector’s quota during five of the six years between 2007 and 2012.

A group of commercial fishermen brought the lawsuit and used NMFS data to show the recreational overages, numbers some on the recreational side believe are drawn from the upper end of a built-in “fudge factor” in the federal formula. Numbers on the factor’s low side show recreationals are within, or very close to, their sector’s annual quota.

Louisiana’s reaction came after NOAA Southeast Region Administrator Roy Crabtree announced a 40-day recreational red snapper season late last year, a welcomed addition of nearly two weeks from 2013’s 27-day season.

Last year’s season came after Crabtree, (who has a Gulf Council vote) was forced to recommend a Gulf-wide 27-day season after he issued a directive for respective nine-day and 14-day seasons in federal waters off the Louisiana and Texas coasts. A Texas-based federal judge ruled the directive was punitive towards individual states, which is prohibited by federal fisheries-management law, and forced a more equitable number of season days across the five Gulf states last season.

Presumably, and only if 2014’s 11 days follows precedent, this year’s season will begin at 12:01 a.m. June 1 and run through 12:01 a.m. June 12.

A more complete picture of what ultimately happened began last Tuesday when the council’s Reef Fish Committee debated 14-day, five-day and no season. That’s right: NO DAYS for 2014 despite recent stock assessments showing the largest ever stock of red snapper recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s when the recreational fishing world got a primer on “buffers,” especially a 20-percent buffer, an addition to the formula to restrict a season to try to ensure red snapper harvest comes as close as the federal managers can estimate in keeping the recreational take under its current quota.

A 14-day season with a 20-percent buffer is an 11-day season when the buffer removes its 20 percent, or 2.8 days.

Another suggestion last week was for an eight-day season with a 30-percent buffer, but that proposal had so little traction it slid by with minimal debate.

The short explanation of it all is that the Gulf council will forward its decision to NMFS showing the council’s willingness to make sure recreational fishermen stay under their 5.39 million-pound allowable catch (49 percent of an 11-million-pound quota for 2014). Plugged into the formula, the 20-percent buffer produces a 4.312-million-pound “annual catch target” when the daily creel limit is two-per-angler per day.

There was more, much more, and without sharing the fatigue of listening to nearly 20 hours of the back-and-forth of the council meeting in Baton Rouge, here are other items of interest:

–The Gulf Council approved an exempted fishing permit for Alabama’s near 100-vessel charter boat fleet.

The proposal came from Alabama charter boat operators who want to extract what was outlined as an 8-percent total catch by charter operators from Alabama’s historic recreational red snapper catch. That 8 percent would be doled out to charter operators with a 10-per-day take for “six-pack” charters and 20 per day for larger charter boats, effectively making charter boat operators, who are taking recreational anglers fishing, exempt from following the same rules and regulations private recreational anglers have to follow. Six-pack boats are those vessels on which the captain is only licensed to take six customers.

What happened this week in Baton Rouge certainly will give us more to chew on in the coming weeks and months. Whether recreational fishermen can or should swallow any or all of it is another story.

Red snapper battle lines in the “Sportsman’s Paradise”

Louisiana-Sportsmans-Paradise

Photo courtesy of rongcheek.com.

You’d think that somebody living in Louisiana, the self-proclaimed “‘Sportsman’s Paradise,” would learn through the years that the word “sportsman” didn’t arrive in a dictionary because man was spearing fish or entrapping them with any ancient or modern device.

Yet, every time there’s a chance to comment publicly about the ongoing battle between recreational and commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, especially when it comes to red snapper, the Louisiana Restaurant Association lines up squarely against recreational fishermen – the sportsmen living, working and spending money, sometimes in the restaurants that open their doors daily in the Sportsman’s Paradise.

The LRA is a powerful organization in Louisiana. It should be. Some of Louisiana’s restaurants are renowned worldwide: Chefs working in them produce culinary masterpieces mostly because of the rich blending that brought together so many unique ethnic cultures in one place – and also because our waters yield such a variety of marine creatures those ethnic groups could adapt for their tables.

How odd that, given Louisiana’s freshwater, brackish-water and saltwater bounty, battle lines have been drawn over one species – red snapper.

Yet that’s where the lines are drawn today.

Louisiana Sportsman Logo

Photo courtesy of shopsportsmanstore.com.

And it’s why I, someone who has for more than 60 years breathed our humid air, lived through dozens of hurricanes, watched millions of gallons of oil gush from an underwater well, and witnessed the greatest wetlands loss in our nation’s history, despise the more than 20-year fight over this one species, the red snapper.

I grew up during the years when recreational and commercial fishermen drew on our bountiful waters with a certain respect for each other.

That’s not the case today – not with the recent attacks on the allocation and re-allocation of Gulf of Mexico red snapper.

Most years the annual Gulf red snapper quota is 9.12 million pounds, divided 51 percent for commercial anglers and 49 percent for the tens of thousands of recreational anglers living in the five Gulf states.

For the last five or six years, the commercials and the LRA decried data that show the recreational take has exceeded its 49 percent.

But the question today is “How factual is that data?” The question arises because, by its own admission, National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, cannot accurately count the recreational take.

You don’t have to be a theoretical mathematician to look at the statistical model used to quantify the recreational take to know it’s flawed.

For instance, Louisiana’s estimated annual recreational catch is somewhere in the 600,000-pound neighborhood, according to the NMFS, but the model used to produce that number has a wide variation – one that would result in the recreational estimate being as low as 300,000 pounds or closer to 900,000 pounds.

You see the problem. This is why recreationals here, especially with more and more red snapper showing up off the Louisiana coast, don’t understand why the LRA’s comments in Gulf Council hearings call for more recreational restrictions, that any increase in recreational catch puts severe limitations on members’ ability to make money in their establishments.

In those meetings, I’ve heard on three occasions that as much as 80 percent of the commercial red snapper harvest is shipped out of the country. Those comments, too, leave the recreational side scratching its head over the LRA claim that more fish would help their bottom line and provide fish to Midwest markets.

Sportsman Paradise Sign

Photo courtesy of John L.H./Yelp.com.

There is some truth in the LRA protest: Red snapper is a wonderful fish to eat, but in Louisiana there’s so much more than red snapper, and because there is so much more, we don’t have to worry about the downward spiral of blue crabs closing the doors of diners in Maryland or the collapse of the cod stocks shutting down Northeast fish-n-chips shops.

Our state’s epicurean history has drawn on so much more that we don’t need to fight about one species, not when it’s selling in our local fish markets for more than $20 a pound, a price that’s too rich for my blood.

As marine fisheries legislation heats up, it’s time to revamp the federal management system

Congress is moving forward quickly to revise the federal act that governs our nation’s marine resources. The sportfishing and boating industries, along with recreational saltwater anglers, are stepping up efforts to ensure that their economic, social and conservation priorities are well represented.

As the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act reauthorization advances on Capitol Hill, Bass Pro Shops Founder Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats President Scott Deal, leaders in the recreational angling industry and co-chairmen of the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, will present A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries at the National Press Club on March 26, 2014, from 9:30–10:30 a.m.

The report, introduced to fishing and boating industry stakeholders on Feb. 13, 2014, at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show, is receiving critical acclaim as an important step toward commonsense saltwater fisheries management. Now, with strong support from the boating and fishing community, the commission is taking the report to the Hill to work with Congress as the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization proceeds.

The Morris-Deal Commission assembled an expert panel of state and federal agency administrators, researchers, industry representatives and economists to promote a proactive vision for saltwater fisheries management. The current Magnuson-Stevens Act does not sufficiently address this important use of our nation’s public fishery resources. The commission’s report addresses recreational fishing specifically and differentiates the economic, social and conservation needs from those of commercial fishing.

According to NOAA Fisheries, 11 million Americans recreationally fish in saltwater each year. These sportsmen and -women contribute more than $70 billion to the nation’s economy and $1.5 billion for on-the-ground conservation of aquatic resources and habitats.

Who:     Johnny Morris, founder and CEO, Bass Pro Shops
Scott Deal, president, Maverick Boats

When:   Wednesday, March 26, 9:30–10:30 a.m. EDT

Where:  Fourth Estate Room, The National Press Club
529 14th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20045

RSVP to Lauren Dunn, National Marine Manufacturers Association, at ldunn@nmma.org; or Mary Jane Williamson, American Sportfishing Association, at mjwilliamson@asafishing.org.

Conservation leaders meet to learn about responsible energy development

TRCP High Lonesome Ranch Reception

Attendees at the 79th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference enjoyed food and beverages as they learned about the TRCP-High Lonesome Ranch model energy project at a TRCP-sponsored reception on March 13 in Denver, Colo. Photo by Ed Arnett.

Every year, professionals from state wildlife agencies, federal agencies, NGOs, industry and elsewhere gather to attend the Wildlife Management Institute’s North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. These dedicated leaders come together to discuss policy, conservation and management of North America’s wildlife and other natural resources. The North American Conference hosts sessions on conservation topics, workshops and receptions enabling professionals to interact and learn.

As part of the event, the TRCP hosted its 3rd annual reception highlighting our energy work in western Colorado. In 2011, the TRCP and The High Lonesome Ranch, a working ranch that encompasses close to 400 square miles near the small town of DeBeque, launched a pilot project to demonstrate responsible energy development at the landscape scale. Paul Vahldiek, HLR president and CEO and a TRCP board member, generously offered the TRCP the opportunity to develop a project that focuses on partnerships, practices and policy. The project aims to demonstrate how a working landscape can be restored, conserved and managed for multiple-use values. By demonstrating energy development that is balanced with other resource values, we can help improve federal energy policy and establish a model for others to follow.

This demonstration energy project will implement the recommendations and principles that have been developed and championed by the TRCP and its conservation partners.  It will provide a real world example of how development can be done differently and therefore prevent the major loss of habitat and biodiversity and employing scientific approaches to wildlife management and mitigation.

Part of the TRCP mission focuses on developing partnerships for conservation success. To that end, the TRCP and HLR established a regional stakeholders group that includes sportsmen; local, state and federal government representatives; industry leaders; NGOs and local business owners to help guide the project. The group has met numerous times over the past year and a half to develop objectives and best practices and coordinate conservation activities for the project. This stakeholder process helps reduce conflict, increases investment in the project and builds local partnerships to help change policy and export our success.

The project was submitted to the Grand Junction Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management and is currently under review and consideration within the range of alternatives for the revision of its resource management plan, the final version of which is scheduled for release this fall. Field Manager Katie Stevens told attendees at the TRCP reception that “BLM is open to creative ideas that help the agency manage and balance multiple resource values.”

High Lonesome Ranch, undeveloped ridges, mule deer habitat.

Undeveloped ridges providing important habitat for mule deer, sage grouse and other wildlife would be protected as part of The High Lonesome Ranch project. Photo by Steve Belinda.

In his remarks at reception, Chad Bishop, assistant director, wildlife and natural resources, for Colorado Parks and Wildlife said, “The future of the West depends on finding ways to manage lands in economically viable ways while successfully conserving and enhancing our treasured wildlife resources. The multi-partner collaborative project on High Lonesome Ranch provides a model for the West and provides hope for the future. In that spirit, Colorado Parks and Wildlife considers The High Lonesome Ranch to be an exemplary private land partner.”

Scott Stewart, general manager of the HLR, said, “There’s something in this project for every stakeholder. This project has the opportunity to leave behind a legacy and a landscape that demonstrates how multiple uses can be managed and sustained for future generations.”

Energy development, fish and wildlife, and other resource values can co-exist. That’s the underlying philosophy of the HLR demonstration energy project.

Find out more about the project.

Read about the energy and stakeholder’s values of the project.

Read more about the project’s impact on sage grouse conservation.

Find out more about the TRCP-HLR demonstration energy project here or contact Ed Arnett, director of TRCP’s Center for Responsible Energy Development (earnett@trcp.org).

Washington, D.C., goes to the Bassmaster Classic

Arkansas bass.

An Arkansas bass. Photo by Geoff Mullins.

Every other year B.A.S.S., that’s the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, hosts a conservation summit in conjunction with the Bassmaster Classic. While the Classic is the nation’s premier bass fishing competition, the summit is the premier gathering of conservation leaders from the bass fishing community. This year was no exception.

Nearly 100 state fisheries chiefs and state-based volunteer B.A.S.S. Nation conservation directors convened in Birmingham, Ala., last month to discuss conservation topics including invasive species, state and federal legislation affecting fishery resources and grant opportunities for conservation projects.

The TRCP was there as well, sponsoring a special discussion during the summit on the importance of water quality to successful bass fishing. The topic was especially relevant because the federal government is poised to release an administrative rule any day now clarifying where the unique safeguards provided by the Clean Water Act apply to important bass fisheries.

B.A.S.S. has been a great champion of this issue, because without quality water supplies we can’t have successful bass fishing, and the Clean Water Act is the most successful and powerful tool we have to keep pollutants out of our water.

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is one of the two agencies proposing the Clean Water Act rule (the other is the Army Corps of Engineers), delivered recorded remarks at the conservation summit.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy addresses the 2014 B.A.S.S. Conservation Summit at the Bassmaster Classic about the need to protect wetlands, streams and rivers so we can sustain our nation’s hunting and angling heritage.

In addition, Ken Kopocis, policy advisor in EPA’s Office of Water, spoke to the group about the importance of clean water and the need for a rule that makes the Clean Water Act work effectively.

Mr. Kopocis’s most important message to summit participants? The draft rule won’t be perfect when it is released for public input. Bass fishermen – and sportsmen of all stripes – will have valuable advice for how to improve the rule, and the EPA will want to hear it – and needs to hear it!

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to restore Clean Water Act protections to waters sportsmen care about the most. As such, the TRCP will be facilitating sportsmen comments on the rule after it is released.

In the meantime, sign up to receive important updates about the development of the rule and notices about how to participate in the public comment process.

Toxin talk

Mercury in seafood food chain

Mercury in seafood food chain. Image courtesy of Bretwood Higman, Ground Truth Trekking/Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday morning, I happened to be talking with another avid recreational fisherman about the presence of toxic elements and chemicals in some of the fish that anglers like to catch and a lot of people like to eat. The discussion centered on striped bass and the health warning posted in just about every Atlantic coastal state, with the exception of Massachusetts, where migratory striped bass and bluefish are caught.

Then, out of the blue, comes an email press release that the Food & Drug Administration is being sued because it has failed to respond to a petition filed in 2011 that requested (1) informational labeling on packaged seafood that reflects the joint recommendations of the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency in their online advisory; (2) consumption recommendations at the point of sale of unpackaged, fresh seafood, presented in a user friendly format; and (3) informational mercury level and consumption limit labeling on packaging or at the point of sale for seafood species with moderate or high mercury content that are not otherwise listed in the online advisory. 

Bingo! So the two of us having the discussion are not the only ones wondering why there is not more public awareness of this problem and why there are not more comprehensive requirements for making the public aware.

In my case, it is probably too late to worry about this problem. But I have four grandchildren, and they are likely to be impacted by their consumption of some fish. My children should be given the information that will allow them to make the right decisions for their children. Studies have shown that methylmercury, which occurs when airborne mercury is saturated in water, is a neurotoxin that leads to learning disabilities, lowered IQ, and impaired cognitive and nervous system functioning. Studies also have shown that PCBs have a known neuropsychological effect in children and can cause an elevated risk of cancer. Both of these contaminants bio-accumulate, primarily in fatty tissue. A copy of the study can be found here and Maine’s recommendations for stripped bass and bluefish consumption from the Atlantic coastal states are found below.

Striped bass and bluefish consumption advisory, Atlantic states

Figure from the Interstate Workgroup report indicating recommendations for striped bass and bluefish consumption. Figure courtesy of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, here we have a fairly comprehensive study of contaminants in fish and the potential hazards to the sensitive group, which consists of women of child-bearing age as well as young women and children. That group is advised by this study to consume from one meal a month to zero consumption. Others are advised to consume no more than one meal a month – not exactly an endorsement for eating seafood.

Virtually every state from the Mid-Atlantic to Maine has posted these warnings except for the state of Massachusetts. Why, I cannot find out. It may have to do as much with the workings of state bureaucracy as any other possibility. Some think that this has been done to protect the commercial striped bass fishery. I don’t know, but I do know is that it is not protecting the general public. There may be some reasoning by state health officials that they do not post the health warning. That has to do with the testing methodology. Methylmercury bio-accumulates in the fatty tissue. In some testing methods the entire fish is ground up, and the testing is done on that. This gives a lower reading of the toxic contaminants than if the test had been done solely on the part of the fish normally consumed.

It still seems strange to me that almost all the coastal Atlantic states have some level of warning about consumption of bluefish and striped bass. Most of the states in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took part in the study workgroup, in which Massachusetts had three participants. All of the New England states except Massachusetts since have posted health warnings about consumption of these fish. It seems odd to me that when fish cross the imaginary state line into Massachusetts waters they somehow become cleansed. Could be, ya know! There have been other Massachusetts Miracles. And if you believe that…!

Rules clarified for Florida snapper and tilefish take

Vermillion snapper

Vermillion snapper. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

You gotta love it when fishery managers admit they messed up and go back to doing the right thing.

That’s why, as of March 13, charter captains and crews in Florida will be allowed to keep their recreational bag limits of vermilion snapper, groupers and golden tilefish in state waters of the Atlantic, including all of the Florida Keys.

Here’s the back story: In 2009, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council wanted to reduce the number of gag groupers and vermilion snappers kept by recreational anglers in federal and state waters of the Atlantic Ocean to help increase those fish populations. In addition to closed seasons, the council prohibited captains and crews of charter boats from keeping their recreational limits of vermilions. They also weren’t allowed to keep any groupers and tilefish, in the hopes of preventing bycatch of gag groupers. But captains and crew could keep their recreational limits of fish such as dolphin and other snappers, which led to confusion.

A year ago, the council voted to get rid of the rule. As of this past Jan. 27, captains and crew could keep their limits of vermilion snappers, groupers and tilefish in Atlantic federal waters. At its meeting last month in Tampa, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to eliminate the rule in Atlantic state waters, which means captains and crew can keep the recreational bag limit of all species of reef fish caught in those waters.

The reason for the change? The council said the decrease in the harvest of those species because of the rule was minimal. Plus, doing away with the rule eliminates confusion and will have a negligible effect on the populations of those species. More helpful was a five-month closed season for vermilion snapper. And there continues to be a four-month closed season for shallow water groupers, including gags, reds and blacks, the three most popular grouper species in Florida.

The vermilion snapper closure in Atlantic state and federal waters was Nov. 1-March 31. That closed season was eliminated because the closure worked and vermilion snapper populations had significantly increased. Lately, fishing for vermilion snappers and tilefish has been the best bet for South Florida anglers seeking to bring home fish for dinner. Fishing for sought-after species such as kingfish, cobia, wahoo, dolphin and tuna has been inconsistent at best.

Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

Golden tilefish. Photo courtesy of Steve Waters.

Being deepwater fish, golden tilefish are quite tasty, and they are fairly easy to catch. They are typically targeted in 600-700 feet of water by dropping bait to the bottom using an electric fishing reel. When you get a bite, you flip the reel’s switch, and up comes the tilefish. Captains I know regretted not being able to provide their customers with more golden tilefish than their allotted one per person. Now they can make additional drops and provide one or two more fish to take home.

The vermilion snapper change definitely won’t make much of a difference, as the fish are almost exclusively caught by drift boats in 160-300 feet of water. The limit on vermilions is five per person, and allowing the captain and the mate to keep their 10 fish on a drift boat with 15 or more anglers would not be significant except, perhaps, to those anglers who didn’t catch anything and would like to go home with a couple of snapper fillets.

 

A Louisiana duck hunt: How sportsmen and conservation have restored a tradition

Louisiana duck hunters

The author and his father duck hunting in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

I love to duck hunt. If I was forced to pick the things I enjoy most about being a sportsman in Sportsman’s Paradise, they would be catching speckled trout on topwater baits, battling big mangrove snapper on the reefs and rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, pitching jigs and soft plastics against the cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin for largemouths – and hunting ducks in the marshes and swamps across South Louisiana.

This past season, my dad and I were invited to join a group of longtime, passionate, Bayou State outdoorsmen in Pecan Island. The community, which is not really an island, consists of a handful  of mostly elevated homes, hunting camps and a few businesses stuck smack-dab between the seemingly endless expanse of rice and crawfish farms of Southwest Louisiana’s “Cajun Prairie” and the fresh and brackish marshes to the south that eventually give way to the Gulf.

Hunters venturing to Pecan Island enjoy the best of the habitat provided both by agriculture and Mother Nature, with ducks and geese by the hundreds of thousands piling into fields and marshes to feed on a variety of flora and fauna. While I had hunted many times in flooded fields to the north and west, it was my first venture to Pecan Island, one of North America’s true “duck meccas.”

My dad and I were assigned a marsh hunt for the morning. After a short and chilly pre-dawn boat ride, we arrived at the pit blind, camouflaged with native Roseau cane and wax myrtle on the northern edge of a shallow pond loaded with submerged aquatic vegetation and teeming with bird activity.

The sunrise was spectacular. The decoys soon were buzzing with bluewing and greenwing teal. Our guide’s dog worked without a hiccup, and we shot just badly enough to allow us to hunt past 7:30 when the mallards and gadwalls started to work. It’s a day that my dad and I will long remember. However, without the aggressive work to restore that marsh over the last decade-plus, that day never would have happened.

As is the case with most hunts or fishing trips, half the enjoyment comes from the story swapping and talk of the good ol’ days with fellow sportsmen, though my “good ol’ days” don’t stretch near as deep into the past as many. The night before our hunt, Pecan Island hunter-historians recounted the 1980s and ’90s when they wondered if they were going to lose their precious marsh forever.

Habitat changes precipitated by efforts to drain nearby wetlands for agriculture, construction of canals to facilitate oil and gas exploration, and saltwater intrusion were limiting sediment distribution, killing grasses and making marshes more vulnerable to subsidence and hurricane storm surges.

Open water led to increased wave action, causing more open water. Without grass to filter sediment and break up waves, the water became increasingly turbid, further inhibiting grass growth and creating an environment far less fecund and hospitable for both the migrating waterfowl and the fish and crustaceans seeking nursery grounds and protection.

The salvation for the marsh, the reason ducks descended into that shallow grassy pond all morning, came from a state and federal effort paid for by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act to build coastal habitat projects across Louisiana’s coast over the last 25 years. Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as part of that larger effort, to build a series of marsh terraces and introduce more freshwater to keep the salt at bay, or more specifically, in the bay. The terraces, best described as a series of low, linear sediment piles, quickly reduced insidious wave action, helped sediments fall out of the water column and encouraged the return of native grasses. The project was a bargain as well, with more than 3,500 acres of terraces built with less than $3 million.

Marsh terraces certainly aren’t a wide-spread, long-term answer to the ever-present and drastic coastal land loss in Louisiana. A variety of projects and initiatives have been prescribed and must be utilized simply to sustain what remains of Louisiana’s coast, much less reverse the habitat loss and actually see new wetlands. But, in the case of Pecan Island, one project helped extend the life of a productive habitat for several decades in an area where few other options existed.

Last year, as I worked with the Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Coastal Conservation and American Sportfishing Association to host workshops with fellow anglers, charter captains, scientists and researchers and other conservation groups across the five Gulf States to identify habitat restoration projects to restore, enhance and sustain Gulf fisheries, I quietly celebrated that many of the habitat projects discussed for fish, especially the effort to comprehensively restore the Mississippi River Delta, also benefit a host of other wildlife like ducks. After all, how could I go on a “cast and blast” trip to hunt ducks in the morning and fish for redfish and speckled trout in the afternoon in Buras if there isn’t quality habitat to do both?

The projects identified in the workshops are the basis for a report released by the TRCP last fall titled: “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability.” Proudly, I can say that my fellow sportsmen used the workshops and the report to champion a host of efforts that should lead to better science, management and habitat for saltwater fish using oil spill recovery penalties. We are taking their recommendations back to federal and state decision makers who are determining how to spend the money.

Quality habitat is the tie that binds all sportsmen to each other and to the land, no matter where they fish or hunt. Without a concerted effort to conserve, protect, enhance and expand that habitat, like many of the projects recommended by Gulf anglers aim to do, the bind is certain to break.

Learn more about sportsmen’s recommendations for rehabilitating recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.