Activism, unity needed for the future of sportfishing

SOLDOTNA, Alaska — Sportsmen must rally in support of one another or see their favorite pastimes slip away, agreed panelists participating in a special roundtable discussion on sportfishing held here Aug. 19.

Threats to recreational fishing and hunting are too formidable for any one group to go it alone, speakers said.

“We have to get rid of this niche mentality that fishermen have,” said Jeff Gabriel, legislative counsel for the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA). “The bass anglers don’t really care what the trout anglers are doing. And the inshore guys don’t really care what the offshore guys are doing. And the fly fishermen, my gosh, they’re a whole different group. They’re out there doing their own thing.

“We’re all anglers. We’re all sportsmen.”

Gabriel was part of a panel comprising a who’s who list of conservation and fishing industry leaders taking part in the third annual Classic Roundtable on National Recreational Fishing. Others included Bob Hayes, Center for Coastal Conservation (CCC) board of directors; Mike Leonard, ocean resource policy director, American Sportfishing Association (ASA); Geoff Mullins, chief operations and communications officer, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP); Patrick Murray, president, Coastal Conservation Association (CCA); and Martin Peters, manager, marine government relations, Yamaha Motor Corp., who served as moderator.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Joe Balash, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, also of Alaska, took part as well. In attendance were many of Alaska’s state senators and legislators, along with leaders of conservation groups in the state. The annual sportfishing symposium is part of the Kenai River Classic, a fundraising event benefitting the Kenai River Sportfishing Association’s conservation efforts.

In addition to unity among fishing factions, recreational anglers must communicate the fact that sportsmen are the prime sources of funding for fisheries resources and habitat, Murray noted.

“American sportsmen and women are the backbone and often literally the wallet of good conservation,” he said. “As a group we contribute $1.5 billion — a stunning number — annually through excise taxes, fishing licenses and direct donations. That is the American system of conservation funding. I know we’re familiar with it, but I think there’s a lot of value in more people becoming familiar with it.”

Murkowski said hunters have recently had that point driven home to them.

“I’m a hunter,” she noted. “Right now hunters around this country are being vilified because of the dentist who shot ‘Cecil’ [a lion in a Zimbabwe national park]. And so, what you’re seeing right now is every hunting group out there is rushing out to the microphone to remind everybody how hunters provide for a level of conservation not only in Africa but in this country. Well, you know what? We’re a day late and a dime short in getting the message out there. We’re playing catch-up.”

 Scott Minor/Fitzgerald Photography

Gabriel said ASA and NMMA are trying to get funding through the federal Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund to communicate the fact that fishermen and hunters are the ones funding the sports.

Much of the discussion centered on angler access to fisheries, particularly red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hayes, a lawyer who served in several capacities in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service during the George W. Bush administration and remains active in several conservation groups, pointed out that red snapper have made an incredible comeback in the past 20 years, to the point where scientists believe the population can withstand a take of 20 million pounds, compared to 1 million pounds two decades ago.

“Now that’s what I call a recovery,” he said. “The bad part . . . is that the federal management system doesn’t allow for an adequate season. The federal management system is basically reducing recreational fishermen’s catches to 10 days. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that.” He urged federal agencies to adopt a different management system more in line with the way states manage fisheries — through size limits, creel limits and seasons.

Leonard agreed that recreational anglers deserve more access to fisheries.

Citing NOAA fisheries data, he said, “There are more jobs supported and more of an economic impact by recreational fishing than commercial fishing. However, recreational fishing is only responsible for 2 percent of all the finfish harvested, compared to 98 percent commercially.”

The speakers’ championing of recreational anglers did not come at the expense of any other marine user group, stressed Peters, whose company is a major sponsor of the Kenai River Classic. He said sportsmen should pursue a “mutual gains” approach to resolving disputes over fisheries — which could apply to conflicts over a declining king salmon fishery in the river. “I think we recreational anglers should sit down with commercial anglers [to seek solutions], and that would be my hope for the next 20 years,” he added.

Mullins of TRCP mentioned three other threats to the future of fishing: habitat loss, poor water quality and climate change, which can have a profound effect on gamefish abundance, he said. Mullins urged anglers to get involved in their communities and conservation and sportsmen’s groups that will advocate for habitat restoration and angler access.

On a national level, he urged Congress to reauthorize the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act with improvements to benefit recreational angling, and he said the entire hunting and fishing community should call on Congress “to work in a very bipartisan way to come up with a new bipartisan budget agreement.

“We want to avoid any talk of return to sequestration levels, any talk of shutdowns. Those scenarios would be very bad for conservation,” he said.

Murkowski is hopeful that the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Package legislation, which she introduced in February, finally will be passed this year.

Provisions in the bill would protect access to public lands and waters, prevent bans on lead in fishing tackle and lures, require improvements to recreational access to federal lands and reauthorize the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. A version of the package last year was killed in the Senate when it became embroiled in a dispute over gun control measures.     

“My hope is that we can avoid the continuing politics that comes with the sportsmen’s bill,” Murkowski said. “This is about access. This is about allowing our sportsmen and women around the country to have access to fishing, hunting and the like. This is not about gun control, and unfortunately this is where we get hung up. That’s where our snarl is.”

(Editor’s Note: B.A.S.S. has helped launch Bass Anglers for Saltwater Conservation as a way to enable freshwater anglers to join forces with saltwater anglers for causes that benefit fisheries. Go to www.bassforsalt.com to learn how you can participate.)