Sportsmen Should Be Optimistic in 2014

No one will remember 2013 as a great year in federal conservation policy. Every day we lost more grasslands and wetlands in the prairies to agricultural development. Congress could not pass a Farm Bill and the administration would not use its powers to reverse or even slow the losses.

Sequestration indiscriminately cut more funds from already strapped federal agencies as Congress failed to pass normal spending bills. In fact, Congress’s political posturing led to a 16-day government shutdown, which happened to coincide with the beginning of hunting season in many states. While federal workers got back pay once the government reopened, the same cannot be said of the guides and local businesses impacted by the shutdown. Billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money was wasted as most government activity came to a halt.

And comprehensive sportsmen’s legislation, once poised to pass Congress, was delayed in early 2013 when partisan politics again trumped good policy.

With this backdrop, it is remarkable that I look to 2014 with optimism. Why? Because the adults appear to be back in charge of Congress, and the administration seems to realize that it has less than three years to leave a conservation legacy. Some examples:

House and Senate conferees appear to be close to finalizing a Farm Bill that may prove to be one of the best pieces of private lands conservation legislation ever passed. If all goes well, it will come before Congress for a final vote by February.

Maybe we had to hit rock bottom before we could move forward. Few of us expect the next year to be free of acrimony and election year politics but, if events fall the right way, 2014 could prove to be a great year for sportsmen. It will take a strong commitment from all in our community to work together and make it happen.

As always, the TRCP and our partners will continue to advocate for legislation that strongly funds responsive fish and wildlife management, conserves important lands and waters and increases access for American hunters and anglers. Join us.

The Great Conspiracy

In last week’s blog, as well as previous blogs, I have mentioned “The Great Conspiracy.” What finally dawned on me is that I have not really addressed what I am referring to in any of these blogs. I have done so in other writings.

We’ll have to start back a few years according to the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” a term popularized by then Vice President Spiro Agnew but actually written by New York Times columnist William Safire. According to the proponents of this conspiracy theory before President Obama was elected, the environmental community led by the Pew Environment Group, the Environmental Defense Fund and maybe the Walton Foundation was infiltrating the fisheries management system and positioning the likes of Dr. Jane Lubchenco to become the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Somehow they knew the outcome of the election, but we’ll put that aside. Pretty amazing stuff! They couldn’t have simply guessed right, it had to be some sort of backroom deal. Actually, isn’t there a lot of that in politics no matter which side one is on. Yeah!!!

Well, OK, I’m getting a little sarcastic, but it does take a fairly vivid imagination to pull all the pieces of The Great Conspiracy together. So the environmental nongovernmental organizations ended up on the right side of the election, which should not be too surprising to anyone, as they tend to be more liberal than conservative in politics. According to the believers, Phase 2 was put in place with the confirmation of Dr. Lubchenco, and now EDF was running all the Regional Fishery Management Council activities. I must have been on an anomalous RFMC.

Yes, we had a council member who worked for EDF, but I’d be hard pressed to find a major or, for that matter, minor, council action that had EDF’s fingerprints all over it. Too bad, actually, as some of the ideas proposed by the council member made a lot of management sense. Oh, yeah, catch shares. Well, we have to rewind the clock on that one as well.

The New England Fishery Management Council began the catch shares discussion in 2001, well before any NGO infiltration, and the rollout of more extensive catch shares was just an extension of that discussion. What happened at the NEFMC may not be typical of what happened at other councils, but I am familiar enough with other council actions to know that the NGO community was not railroading a lot of new council actions through the system. Was the environmental community part of the council process? Yes, of course it was. It is one of the three constituent groups represented on the council.

If we look at inside the Beltway (Washington, D.C., for those not familiar with the world of politics), the story is different. The NGO community has been very active in the political process. In fact, it has been extremely influential in the legislative process. Environmental NGOs were able to get much of what they wanted in the Magnuson- Stevens Act reauthorization passed in 2006 that included annual catch limits, accountability measures and the continuation of mandated rebuilding periods.

This is not meant to be a debate about the merits of those measures but a discussion about our political system. Let’s face it: the environmental NGO community has deep pockets to use in pushing for the issues it wants enacted. From my standpoint the community has been very effective at using that influence to get what it believes in. It also has been effective at working collaboratively. Is that a conspiracy? If it is then organizations like the National Rifle Association, the farm lobby and for that matter all of K Street are involved in serial conspiracies. I am not saying that I agree with all the outcomes. Unless we change the system, the environmental community is simply using it to the best advantage. Money talks and BS walks. Do we need to change the system? I tend to think so, but that is a discussion for another time.

I always have wondered what the response would be from those who think that the environmental NGO community is hell bent on eliminating extractive uses of the ocean environment, if these NGOs used all their clout to do what the conspiracy theorists want. Would there still be a hue and cry of conspiracy then? I doubt it. Folks would happily say that is just the way the system works.

Call me crazy, oblivious or naïve. I do not believe that all environmental NGOs are out to end fishing. Nor do I support all of their proposed measures. I do believe that most are interested in having sustainable resources for the future. They have some very substantial economic clout and are not afraid to use it. What the recreational fishing industry should do is to find a way to partner with them … or would some see that as conspiratorial?

Government Shutdown Hits Fishing in Everglades and Biscayne National Park

 With stupidity running rampant in DC, closing Florida Parks to fishing is going too far…

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has been leading the way in calling for Congressional leaders to end the federal government shutdown, which is keeping millions of sportsmen from hunting and fishing on national wildlife refuges and costing businesses that rely on outdoor recreation millions of dollars.

National parks also are closed, and in South Florida, that is hurting plenty of recreational anglers, divers and boaters who visit Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. What makes so little sense about those closures is that even boaters who access the parks by water are being told to get out.

On the federal bureaucrat stupidity scale, this ranks right up there with the closure of the open-air World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., where barricades were installed to prevent people from walking through the memorial.

That didn’t stop WW II veterans, most of whom are in their 90s, from seeing the memorial. Just as they swarmed the beaches at Normandy nearly 70 years ago, they removed the barricades and enjoyed the memorial, and the bureaucrats didn’t dare stop them.

At most national refuges and parks, a locked gate at the entrance is all that’s needed to keep out hunters and fishermen. And the gates are locked at the entrances to Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park in Homestead. But both parks can be accessed by water from the Florida Keys and, in the case of Biscayne National Park, from Miami. In addition, boaters can get to the western waters of Everglades National Park from Everglades City, where there are no gates and no park entrance requiring an entry fee.

Yet since 6 p.m. on Oct. 1, park rangers have been running around telling boaters that they can’t enjoy the park. In the event of a storm or an emergency, boaters can stop in the park. Stopping to cast to a school of tailing redfish does not qualify.

Unfortunately, the hands of federal employees who actually have some common sense, such as Everglades superintendent Dan Kimball, are tied.

“Due to the federal government shutdown, Everglades National Park is closed to all recreational and commercial uses,” Kimball wrote in an email. “We’re hopeful that the federal budget impasse will soon be resolved and that the park will be reopened as soon as possible.”

So far, park rangers that have stopped boaters within park boundaries have told them they can’t be there and why and have not issued any tickets. What rankles some fishermen is that the enforcement to keep people out is much more than they’ve ever seen when the park was open.

Capt. Brian Sanders, who fishes out of Chokoloskee Island on the northwest border of Everglades National Park, said a plane has been flying over park waters noting the location of boats and providing those locations to three different ranger boats.

“That’s our taxpayer dollars at work,” Sanders said.

He added that some of his fellow guides who catch fish outside of the park and then return to the private boat ramps in Chokoloskee and Everglades City have been stopped in the park by rangers and questioned about their catches.

Sanders has dealt with the closure by running his 24-foot bay boat 30-35 miles into the Gulf of Mexico to fish for grouper and snapper instead of fishing the beaches and river mouths in the park for snook and redfish.

“My customers have been catching the most beautiful red groupers and mangrove snappers,” said Sanders, who has not been stopped on his return to the ramp, “but I’ve been burning 50 gallons of gas to do it.”

What’s Up With All These Weakfish?

Weakfish appear to be abundant again, and we should be protecting them…

 

 

I’m back from Montauk today, which was, I have to admit, a little disappointing.  I’ve been going there for the same two weeks for 12 years now, and this was without-a-doubt the worst two weeks I’ve ever experienced there.   The albies were virtually absent.  There were very few to no bass boils.  Seems like when they did start to come up, it was in small pods that didn’t stay up for longer than 10 seconds or so before an entire fleet of boats descended.  There were indeed stripers down deep on sand eels, some of which were quite large.  In fact we caught a handful of fish over 40-pounds, but it was, for the most part, jigging, down deep.  It certainly wasn’t the kind of fishing that makes Montauk, well… Montauk.

Why, who the H knows…  But the purpose of this blog is not to talk about Montauk, but to discuss weakfish.  Because, believe it or not, a bit west of the Point in 40 to 50’ depths, the bottom was often absolutely covered with them.  Not the 7’ to 10” spike fish that seemed to be abundant every Oct and haven’t yet recruited into the fishery, and likely wouldn’t recruit. These were nice fish in the 7 to 10-pound range.  We caught a bunch before the gillnets showed up anyway.

This sort of weakfish abundance isn’t restricted to Eastern Long Island.  I’ve actually got good numbers of weakfish minutes from my house in Oceanside.  Jamaica Bay has been full of them this summer.  And Cape Cod got a good slug of fish this spring and early summer.  In fact, if you look at the coastal fishing reports, it appears that weakfish catches were pretty good all over.  So…  What the hell?

I guess I should provide a little background here before moving forward.  Weakfish are really interesting to me.  When I first started guiding in 2000, in the spring we would catch just as many weakfish as we did stripers.  And if you recall, the bass fishing was pretty darn good back then, even though we didn’t have the extra-large fish we have now.  Still, in a 4-hour trip we’d consistently catch a dozen to two dozen schoolies with a few larger fish mixed in, and of course, every once in a while a really big fish.  And the weakfish were mixed in, in the same sort of numbers.  It was solid fishing on both fronts (note: remember this for a later point).  2001 to 2003 were just as good, but the weakfish just got larger.  Once we got into 2004 there were definitely fewer fish, but again, larger ones.

Then, in 2005 we saw a precipitous decline.  We caught a handful of very large fish, but certainly not in good numbers.  We couldn’t really target them, you’d just have to be lucky to come across one.  In 2006 we caught 4 weakfish the entire spring.  Every single one would have likely blown the IGFA weakfish fly category out of the water had I had a chance to take a girth measurement, but there was always an urgency to get those fish back in the water as soon as possible as we all knew we were witnessing a crash.  In 2007, we caught one fish, a fat 39-incher, probably close to the 20 pound mark.  I should also note here that the all-tackle record (a 19-pounder) was caught from the Jersey Shore in the spring of 2008.  The presence of small numbers of such large fish and no small or medium fish is a classic sign of an impending collapse, and, well, they collapsed.  Weakfish were in trouble then and, unsurprisingly, it got even worse before the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) acted.

 

 

A 2009 stock assessment found that weakfish were badly depleted.  The stock had reached an all-time low of 2.9 million pounds, far below the “biomass threshold” of 22.4 million pounds, which is what scientists would consider a healthy stock.  This is an astonishing drop, since the East Coast harvest in 1980 was 80 million pounds.

One would think ASMFC would have shut the fishery down, but of course they didn’t.  Instead they gave anglers 1 fish per person and a 100 pound trip limit for commercial fishermen.  The argument was that this would allow for some data collection and some dead discards to be converted to catch.  Of course, this was one of the usual ASMFC excuses to allow people to continue to kill a badly depleted species.  Once you have such a “bycatch allowance” inevitably it results in a directed fishery, especially on the commercial side.

Moving on…  According to ASMFC biologists, the decline wasn’t due to fishing pressure.   Natural mortality had increased to a level between two to four times that of fishing mortality in recent years.  Surveys showed that juvenile weakfish populations continued to be strong (remember I mentioned all the spike weakfish we were catching in the fall) but that they were not making it to maturity.

Why?  There were all kinds of theories.  Perhaps the most irritating of which was that stripers were eating them all, or that stripers were eating all the forage.  Of course the people who wanted to be able to kill more stripers were pushing that argument.  But remember that I mentioned how abundant both striped bass and weakfish were from 2000 to 2004.  So in my mind the two species could most certainly coexist together in large numbers.  Sure, that’s just my anecdotal observation based on a very limited frame of reference, but here’s a hard example, dating farther back.  The explosion of weakfish in the early 1970s coincided with what was at the time the largest year class of striped bass ever recorded.  And since we’re on the issue of predation, the same sort of thing can be said in regards to bluefish.  Anglers harvested 95 million pounds of bluefish in 1981, and just 19 million pounds in 2008.  So weakfish were abundant when there were lots of bluefish around, and the stock crashed when bluefish numbers were low.  Explain that one to me. The point is, it’s very unlikely that stripers, or bluefish had anything to do with the weakfish crash.

A more palatable theory was that estuaries, which provide not only productive feeding areas, but spawning grounds for adult weakfish and important nursery areas for juveniles, were/are suffering from all sorts of negative influences, such as coastal development, point and nonpoint source pollution, dredging and filling, alteration of natural freshwater flow, treatment plants, power plant intakes… The list goes on.  Certainly, some if not all of these things likely contributed to the decline (along with fishing mortality of course) but given the fact that they are coming back now, I don’t believe that such degradation is the sole reason for the crash.

I think the species is just naturally cyclical.  When you look at the history, weakfish have experienced extreme highs and lows.  They virtually disappeared in the early 50s and showed no sign of recovery until 1972. The early 70s began a period of tremendous growth in the fishery, which peaked in 1980. Then the fishery declined steadily throughout the 1980s, dropping to a low in 1994.  Then the stock grew slowly through 2000. Then they began decline again, and by 2008, were reduced to historic lows.  And that’s pretty much where we’ve been ever since.

Such highs and lows are precisely why I think weakfish are very vulnerable.  During what appears to be a natural ebb, or perhaps more accurately, during a series of years where conditions are not favorable for recruitment (BTW, if you didn’t know already, “recruitment” is just a fancy word for young-fish-growing-up), we shouldn’t be pounding on them, if we want them to come back.  But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Circling back to the gillnets out in Montauk.  I can’t imagine they aren’t going through their 100-pounds of weakfish a day.  And without a doubt, given the concentration of fish there before the gillnetters I witnessed set their nets, I am pretty damn certain that way more than 100-pounds were caught in said gill net, which were either discarded dead – weakfish are not a resilient species, and are unlikely to survive being entangled in a gillnet – or taken illegally.  And since we’re on the subject of  gillnets, there were a bunch of gillnets in the water every single day I was out there, which were of course targeting striped bass.  Given all the stripers that converge on Montauk this time of the year, I can’t for the life of me understand how such fishermen don’t go through their allotted tags in a matter of days…  I could imagine they could burn through all of those tags in only one!  Even with tags traded/obtained by/from other commercial fishermen.  But I’m gonna resist the urge to get on that tangent.

So getting back to weakfish.  Yes, there appear to be a slug of fish around.  Good ones too.  It would have been great if ASMFC had done the right thing and simply stopped fishing on them when they were at historic lows.  Frankly, we still shouldn’t be fishing on them, even with a one fish bag limit.  And certainly we shouldn’t allow a 100-pound limit for commercial fishermen.  Weakfish are a tight schooling fish, very susceptible to large bycatch events, not just in gillnets but trawlers as well.  Instead of a 100-pound trip limit, a total bycatch cap would serve the stock much better.  In other words the gillnet fishery should be shut down when it’s been determined that a certain number of weakfish are caught/killed.  I mean for Christ’s sake, give this fish a chance to come back.  They could be a boon to the fishing industry, both recreational and commercial, if we gave them a chance to fully fill in.  Unfortunately, that’s not really how things work at ASMFC.

So…  Will we see this big body of weakfish next year, or in the subsequent years?  That’s of course anyone’s guess.  But given ASMFC management history, and what I’m seeing on the water, I’m not very confident we will.  I do hope I’m wrong.  These are some of the most beautiful fish in the sea, with so many shades of purple and pink.  And they eagerly take both flies and small jigs fished on light tackle.  Not to mention, it would be a boon to my business, particularly in light of the striped bass decline.  I’m keeping my figures cross, but experience has made me cynical.

CCA MC Has It Right on Stripers

Photo courtesy of John McMurray

I’m in Montauk this week and next.  So being that I’ll be writing blogs in-between 8-plus-hour stints of chasing unusually sparse pods of albies and stripers, expect uncharacteristically brief pieces for these two weeks (unfortunately, as regular readers of this column have likely noticed, I don’t really have the gift of saying something meaningful in under 1000 words).

But, here goes…  Earlier this week, Tony Friedrich, CCA MD’s Executive Director, sent me their comments on the 2012 Benchmark Striped Bass Stock Assessment.  Yes, the benchmark was released a few weeks ago, but I’ve avoided writing about it because the 2012 numbers still need to be added (presumably that will happen in Oct), and because, well, I’ve been too darn busy fishing to read and digest the whole thing.  But getting back on point, Tony forced me to give it a look this week.   I think CCA MD pretty much has it right.  CCA MD Comments on 2013 Striped Bass Stock Assessment.

I will note here that it’s good to see that at least one CCA state still believes in one of the founding principles of that organization…  That is, the needs of the fish must come before the needs of any user group (I’m paraphrasing of course).  That doesn’t appear to apply to any of the CCA chapters down south right now, but that’s an entirely different blog.  I suspect this is an indication that the Mid Atlantic and New England CCA states will take a solid conservation position on striped bass.  Indeed that’s a good thing.

As I understand it, the old striped bass stock assessment was kind of a mishmash.  In assessing the appropriate fishing mortality and spawning stock biomass levels, it averaged out two “Ricker models” and two “statistical catch-at-age models”, and it came to a conclusion that was neither fish nor fowl (all pun intended).  The Ricker model for striped bass probably wasn’t appropriate in the first place.  I’m told that such models are generally used for species such as salmon, where overcrowding in limited nursery habitat actually reduces recruitment (not the case with a species like striped bass where there appears to be plenty of spawning habitat), and where a reduction in the population, within reason, leads to higher recruitment.  The Ricker Model is one of those things that gets hauled out every time someone wants to kill more fish (e.g. RFA was pushing it for fluke back around 2004 or 2005).Getting back to the stock assessment itself, as expected, it shows that stripers are not overfished, and overfishing still isn’t occurring.  Before you throw your hands up, let me explain.  This does not necessarily mean more of the same.  Clearly the stock is in trouble, and there is some acknowledgement of that in the assessment itself.  And I think even those managers prone to avoid any tough decisions are beginning to see the writing on the wall.

The new assessment is strictly “statistical catch-at-age”, and comes to the conclusion that you’d expect once the less appropriate model is off the table.  That is, the fishing mortality reference points are too high. The stock assessment concluded that we need to reduce fishing mortality pretty significantly if we are to avoid big problems in the future.  As mentioned, the final 2012 numbers will be added to the assessment at the October ASMFC meeting.  Until then, it is difficult to put a number on the percentage of reduction recommended.  But it will probably somewhere around 40 or 50%.  Which is entirely reasonable, and a worthwhile sacrifice if it will stop the decline and get the stock back to abundant levels.

Without any change in fishing mortality, overfishing is a virtual certainty in 2014, and there is an increased chance of an overfished stock by 2015/2016, although that begins to decline thereafter when that anomalous strong 2011 year class (amongst 8 years of average to below-average year classes) begins to recruit into the fishery.  That’s of course assuming that a significant number of 2011 fish do indeed recruit into the fishery.   Given the lack of much before or behind them, and the pressure they will likely face, I have my doubts.

As the CCA comments point out, there’s no doubt that reductions are needed.  Where the real doubt lies is whether ASMFC has sufficient guts or integrity to make such real and likely painful reductions.  If I had to make a guess, given the rumblings I’ve heard, I’d have to say that ASMFC will approve some sort of reduction in fishing mortality.  Yet, given the management body’s reluctance to make the real hard choices, and its constant proclivity to “meet half-way” (e.g. invoking half-measures), I’m not confident it will be the 50% reduction in F we really need.  Yet, as mentioned in other blogs.  I’m perpetually cynical, which is likely the result of being around this stuff too long.

Now might be a good time to contact your commissioners and ask them to reduce fishing mortality significantly, and to do it now!  So that we can stop what is so obviously a decline in what has become perhaps the most important fish to the Mid-Atlantic and New England recreational fishing community. Here’s the link to your Commissioner’s contact info:  ASMFC Commissioners.

The F-word Again

Signing the reauthorization of the Magnusson Stevens Act in 2006 — Compliments of NatGeo

 

The penalty for using the F-word when growing up was worse than having to wash one’s mouth out with soap. It usually meant getting grounded for some period of time and that meant no fishing expeditions to local ponds and rivers. These trips were executed on bicycles outfitted with rod holders and tackle box containers. In those days, most did not get cars until well past the driver license age. Losing fishing privileges was a big penalty.

Today’s F-word and fisheries are far different. Some think that not believing in the F-word as it applies to fisheries should get a punishment far worse than oral soap or getting grounded. They think that if one is not for the F-word, then one is against recreational fishing and the industry it supports.

What is today’s F-word? Well, it is “flexibility” and seems to be the central concept being pushed for the current Re-authorization of the Magnusson Stevens Act (MSA), also know as the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), so named after its re-authorization in 2006. I am hoping that this reauthorization does not become the “Flexible Fisheries Act.”

What’s the problem with making fisheries more flexible to help accommodate the needs of the resource users. Nothing really. But do we need to make a change to do that? A lot of folks do not think so.

Last week, one of my fellow bloggers, Capt. John McMurray, wrote a good piece on the current efforts to Re-authorize the MSA/SFA, whichever you’d like to call it. He gave a good look at all the major issues. If you want a refresher give it a read. I am going to focus in on one issue that continues to give me heartburn. This issue is also getting some traction after a recent report was released by the National Research Council, which is an arm of the US National Academy of Sciences. Several former members of Congress requested the report. I cannot criticize the report as I have felt that the arbitrary re-building timeline mandated in MSA was just that. Arbitrary. But the mandated timeline does hold managers feet to the fire as well as tying their hands on some species.

The report does say that the existing law works. It noted that a good percentage of the stocks examined were now rebuilt or rebuilding. This is all good news. What the report points out is that current science capability is not good enough to precisely manage to a specified biomass level. Given that constraining element, they suggested that managing to a mortality level rather than an arbitrary timeline “might” be a better way to go. Note they said “might” not “would be.” From a managers standpoint, managing to a mortality level is very attractive because it is fairly straight forward. Set it and forget it!

In a discussion with John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance, he made a very good observation about this report. “This report is an intellectual debate that will unfortunately be used to inform a policy decision.” Spot on.

With some of the problematic stocks, the allowed mortality (landings + discards + natural mortality) would be set at a low level with no rebuilding timeline. That may work for the commercial industry as it avoids the huge swings in quota currently being experienced and gives some level of stability. I doubt that it will be much help to the struggling groundfish industry in New England.

However, my strong sense is that this type of management strategy will absolutely cream the recreational users that share resources with the commercial users. What drives the recreational industry? Fishing trips. What drives fishing trips? Abundance of fish. This has been proven time and again. People want to catch fish and since recreational users have the least efficient gear, they need lots of fish. Keeping them at low levels until the stars align to cause a lot of high recruitment events will not help the recreational industry. I think that a lot of the push from the recreational industry for the F-word is due to one or two specific fisheries. Ya, ya, red snapper is one. There may be other ways to address these specific fisheries and it appears that the Gulf is working on one.

I do not think that there needs to be a complete remake of MSA to solve some specific issues. Rick Methot, Chief assessment Scientist for NOAA Fisheries supported that idea, “the agency is investigating how it can revise its national management guidelines to provide more flexibility, while still preventing overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks. We are interested in finding the right balance of flexibility and firmness.”

If there are ways to improve MSA that make the managers jobs simpler and more effective, I am all for it. However, allowing stocks to remain at low levels for prolonged periods will do nothing to rebuild and sustain the recreational fishing industry. I’m pretty sure of that.

 

For More Information

  1. The Bottom Line
  2. Report shows gains in many fish stocks

Much Ado About Nothing

The desire to point the finger without acknowledging our own impact is endemic in the angling community

 

Slinging

 

So…  It looks like there are quite a few people who have their panties in a bunch over my recent column in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters:Deep Diving (is spearfishing the blood-sport we think it is?).  If you are on Facebook, you will see the well over 100 comments on the article which I posted on my page, most of which are from people who appear to be greatly offended, and well… angry. (Please do “friend” me if you’d like to see those comments).   Believe me, I get it.  It’s beyond infuriating to see some knucklehead holding a big, fecund dead and bloody fish, which had likely lived for two decades before this bonehead decided it would be fun to put a spear in it.  But if you could have made it past the knee jerk reaction, and, uhm, read the article, you would have probably seen a different picture.

If you are too busy/lazy to read the article, I’ll summarize it in a couple of paragraphs.  Spear-fishermen in Louisiana have been shooting tarpon (29 in the last 3 years according to the Louisiana Council of Dive Clubs) so that Dr. William Stein (an ardent tarpon angler turned marine biologist) may dissect and analyze the fish with the intent of finding out more about them, and with the end goal of providing relevant information that may ultimately help us protect them.

Unfortunately, a spearfishing club unwisely posted photos of dead tarpon/hero-shots as well as video of the act itself.  Yes, it was offensive, yet pretty much harmless, and in fact beneficial when you consider the scientific use of such fish.  Yet, there was a reverberating reaction as editorials popped up everywhere and internet forums lit up.  In response, there were some who rightly pointed out that recreational release mortality (whether it’s 10% or 4%) simply dwarfs whatever damage such speared fish might cause, even if you were to assume spear-fishermen kill “hundreds” of tarpon a year (which they don’t, simply because, as anyone who has ever fished for them knows, tarpon are big, strong, fast animals).  In other words, it’s really freak’n dangerous.  And, despite whatever preconceived notion folks might have of spear-fishers, they generally don’t like to kill simply for the sake of killing, and you really can’t eat tarpon without having a gag reflex.

None of this apparently mattered to a lot of people who read the piece.  That’s assuming they did read the piece in its entirety (given some of the comments on my Facebook page, I have to believe a lot of people didn’t bother to read the entire article, at least not initially).  Killing a tarpon was wrong in any case, they claimed.  Yet when anyone, including me, pointed out that, well, anglers inadvertently kill a lot more tarpon, and that perhaps we shouldn’t throw stones.…  Well, it got a little ugly.   There were folks who simply denied and continue to deny the well-established fact that release mortality is significant.  And there were people who claimed that they deserve no blame and that the perceived reduction in tarpon over the last two decades was simply due to habitat loss.  The latter may be true; however, natural mortality due to habitat loss, plus fishing mortality, of course equals total mortality, so you really can’t point to habitat loss and say you are not responsible at all.  Because you are.  And, well, individually, there isn’t much we can do about habitat loss, while there are indeed steps we can take to reduce fishing mortality.  I listed such steps in my article, no need to rehash here.

Moving on, there are those folks who surprisingly believe that Dr. Stein is not really using these fish for science at all. They claim his documented research is simply an excuse to allow blood-thirsty divers to shoot tarpon.  Well, this is just silly.  Those divers are entitled to shoot as many tarpon as they want as there are no regulations (gear type, seasons, bag/size limits) in either state or federal waters.  Why on earth would they need to use Dr. Stein’s work as an excuse?!

What was perhaps most disturbing, however, were the deeply personal attacks from both sides, some of which came from supposedly unbiased scientists.  Frightening given that I had always thought that marine biologists were supposed to be objective.  In this case, they certainly weren’t.

The bottom line is this.  Anglers more than likely kill orders of magnitude more tarpon than Louisiana spear-fishers. To deny this is intellectually dishonest, self-serving and scientifically inaccurate.  I don’t like to see dead tarpon either, but given the facts, I’m certainly okay with some being killed via spear for science.  And, of course I like to throw flies at tarpon just as much as anyone else.  And in no way did I or would I suggest we stop.  I made what I thought was a very valid point; that we probably shouldn’t throw stones at the innocents when we might be living in  glass houses, because, in the end, a dead tarpon is a dead tarpon.   I followed up by suggesting some things we should be focusing on rather than those fish killed for science by spear-fishers.

The point of this blog is not, however, to simply rehash that debate.  It is that, unfortunately, this sort of finger-pointing has become endemic in the recreational fishing community and particularly the flyfishing community.  There is often a complete denial that we have any impact, and we frequently act as if we are simply above it all, because we release most, if not all, of what we catch, and we promote conservation in our magazines, etc.  Yet most of us are loath to attend a public hearing, or to otherwise actually do something constructive; instead, we just complain about “those guys”.  I’m not saying that being a conservationist (e.g. releasing “keepers”, carefully handling fish, educating other anglers etc.)  or that promoting conservation isn’t significant.  It is!  But the supposition that it’s “those guys” or even, in this case anyway, “habitat destruction” has become a distraction from doing what’s best for the fishery, which is in most cases is reducing total mortality.   I touched on this during a recent striped bass blog.  Such finger pointing to some extent has taken our community’s eye off the ball, and in several cases has severely reduced anglers’ credibility amongst fishery managers.  I know this to be true, because I’ve sat with such managers and they’ve told me point-blank that this is the case.  And we wonder why we are always being accused of being elitist, snobs, and/or why managers simply don’t listen to us.

Believe me, I’m on your team here, but we have to be real.  We really need to work at thoroughly understanding the issues, provide useful solution-oriented comment, and be willing not to rule ourselves out as part of the problem, because in many fisheries we likely are!  We have to remember that despite the fact that we, as anglers, may be the best stewards of the resource, that resource does not belong to us.  It belongs to the public.  And unfortunately, that includes the guy in Wisconsin who might want a fresh fish fillet without having to drive out here to catch it.

As anglers and conservation advocates, we have to work within the system, making compelling arguments that take all sides into account.  Not simply come out, guns blazing, that these fish are ours, we don’t have an impact, and we’re more economically important or something.  Unfortunately that seems to be the track most recreational opinion leaders want to take.  And it isn’t working.  .

The take home message here is that we can be part of the solution if we, for one, acknowledge that we may be part of the problem and two, educate ourselves on all aspects of the issue at hand, instead of shooting off with knee jerk reactions similar to the one we saw here with the speared tarpon.   In the future, I’ll do my best to educate readers on what the aspects of such issues are.  So stay tuned!

Let’s Get Together

Recreational Fishing Community needs to find common ground with the Environmental Lobby

 

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

 

This past week I spent some time in DC, common slang for our nation’s capitol and a place I like to avoid when the temperature goes above 85 and Congress is in session. I failed on both accounts. I was there to work with a group of folks from the recreational fishing industry/community to discuss the vision for this user group. What do we think the recreational fishing community/industry should look like in say ten years and how do we get there. It is an interesting process and one that is very much still a work in progress.

One of the groups that came to the meeting to participate in the exchange of information was a number of the environmental non-governmental organization (ENGO) community leadership. Wash you mouth out with soap!!! It was soooo intimidating being face-to-face with members of the “great conspiracy.” Okay, I’m just kidding, but there are some in the recreational community that feel we should not be talking to or working with the environmental community. I’ll take the other side and simply say that the recreational community cannot succeed in a realistic future vision without embracing the ENGO community in some fashion.

Let’s take last week’s Blog on the proposed tuna regulations that NOAA Fisheries is asking comment on. Pushing those changes was not done by a single entity, it was a cooperative effort by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC) and the Pew Environmental Group. Could the recreational side of the equation have made this happen on their own? Maybe. Could the ENGO’s have done this on their own? Maybe. But they did successfully do it together and that is what counts.

One of the discussion topics at the visioning project was that all of the groups concerned about sustainable fish resources should be working together more often on issues that move all of us toward our visions. It is my feeling that this is going to be important in an era of budget constraints and increasing demands on fishery managers. Does this mean that the recreational community has to agree with everything proposed by the ENGO community? Heck no. The truth is that the recreational community does not always agree 100% with its own proposals.

A number of years ago, I worked with a member of the ENGO community to bring together a coalition of interested parties to look at common ground where we could all work together to an objective accomplished. We did come up areas of mutual agreement, but the effort lost traction as folks went about their own business, not because it was a bad idea. All of these collective efforts take constant attention and effort to push them forward.

So, do I think that we should be working together with the ENGO community where we have common goals? You bet I do. I do not think that all ENGO’s want to end recreational fishing. It is my feeling that the perception that all ENGO’s are after the recreational fishing community is fear mongering perpetuated by a small and vocal minority. It is my belief that most of the reputable ENGO’s want to see sustainable rebuilt fisheries resources. How does that not benefit the recreational community?

I know that there will be potholes along the road to success, but that does not mean we should not try to work together. I believe that it has the possibility of moving the recreational fishing community/industry toward that ever elusive vision of the future.

Sage Grouse Saga a Wake-Up Call for Sportsmen

These days, there’s a lot of talk out West about a game bird called the greater sage grouse. This chicken-sized bird lives in the sagebrush country in places like Wyoming, southern Idaho, southeastern Oregon and Nevada.

Western sportsmen have enjoyed hunting sage grouse in open sagebrush country for generations. Unfortunately this great tradition is in jeopardy. Populations have been declining for years, so much so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the bird for possible listing as threatened and endangered – a decision that would end sage grouse hunting for the foreseeable future.

As sportsmen, maintaining robust populations of all kinds of wildlife should be one of our top priorities. That we could lose the opportunity to hunt such an iconic game bird should be a wake-up call.

Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The story of the sage grouse is a sadly familiar one; the loss of crucial habitat throughout the range has led to steadily declining populations. While there are places throughout the West where robust populations exist, the Fish and Wildlife Service is mostly concerned with the overall trend – not just in population numbers but also the continuing loss of quality habitat throughout the range.

Like another Western icon, the mule deer, sage grouse need a variety of habitat types, including summer and winter range and breeding areas, all of which are highly dependent on the West’s fickle – and often extreme – weather patterns. The decline of the sage grouse closely correlates with decreasing mule deer populations in the West. Each is highly dependent on healthy sage brush ecosystems, and as the health of the sagebrush ecosystem declines, so too do the populations of wildlife that rely on them.

One of the biggest threats to the sagebrush ecosystem is wildfire. Dramatic changes in the wildfire ecology in sagebrush country, has largely been driven by the proliferation of cheatgrass. Once this invasive exotic grass gets established, in and among sagebrush, it causes wildfires to burn hotter and faster. Instead of less intense, slow moving “cool fires” that tend to be beneficial, cheatgrass causes very hot, fast moving fires that completely destroy many hundreds of thousands of acres of prime sagebrush habitat. Then after the fires, cheatgrass outcompetes other native plants making it difficult for the beneficial natives to reestablish. The result is millions of acres converted from healthy sagebrush plant communities to cheatgrass monocultures, leading to more frequent and hotter-burning wildfires that are harder to contain – and often spread to other areas of healthy sagebrush, continuing the cycle.

Energy development such as oil, gas and wind energy is another major threat to sage grouse. Both traditional and renewable projects and their associated infrastructure like roads and pipelines reduce the quantity and quality of sagebrush habitat, translating into lost hunting opportunities down the road. While most sportsmen agree that we need domestic energy, the real challenge is going to be balancing this need with the need to protect high quality habitat here in the West.

The TRCP is working with sportsman’s groups and state fish and game agencies across the West to identify valuable public lands fish and wildlife habitat and develop strategies to conserve them. Here in Nevada, local sportsman’s organizations and the Nevada Department of Wildlife are partnering in this effort. We’re discovering that much of the high value habitat for animals like mule deer, pronghorn antelope and elk overlaps with areas of core sage grouse habitat. The lesson is clear: quality hunting and fishing relies on quality habitat and sage grouse conservation in sagebrush habitats will benefit multiple species of wildlife including those pursued by sportsmen.

An endangered listing for the sage grouse would have far reaching consequences here in the West – and not just for sportsmen. Ranching, mining, energy production and the economies of many small towns and rural areas all would feel the effects.

Photo courtesy of the USDA.

Sportsmen need to be aware of what’s going on and get involved. It’s not enough to avoid listing the sage grouse; we need to make sure that habitat conditions in the West are improving so that fish and wildlife populations remain healthy and so that sustainable harvest will continue to be part of our wildlife conservation heritage. The TRCP is working directly with our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., as well as with local and state governments to focus efforts on protecting existing habitat and developing new strategies to tackle this challenge. Sign up as a TRCP Western Sportsman Advocate to stay informed and take action on issues that affect our Western hunting and fishing heritage.

What Matters Most to Hunters and Anglers?

The TRCP has a simple mission. We strive to guarantee you a place to hunt and fish. Our work falls into three main categories:

  • strengthening laws, policies and practices affecting fish and wildlife conservation;
  • leading partnerships that provide a strong sportsmen’s voice in the decision-making process;
  • building consensus in the conservation community to advance policy solutions.

While our mission sounds simple, we often deal with complex issues. Laws, policies and decision making – the “insider baseball” that takes place on Capitol Hill can be hard for the average person to understand.

In an effort to put our work in tangible and applicable terms, we developed a “cheat sheet” for the everyday sportsman interested in conservation policy. The 2013 Sportsmen’s Conservation Priorities outlines the main areas where we at the TRCP will be focusing our work on behalf of hunters and anglers in 2013.

We’ll be hosting a live chat on Tuesday, March 5, to give you an opportunity to ask questions about the 2013 Sportsmen’s Conservation Priorities. Expect more information and a link to the video conference later this week. In the meantime, take a look and let us know what you think in the comments section below.