While commercial harvesting of our public’s land-based wildlife resources, such as ducks and deer, ended decades ago, the industrial harvest of marine resources using trawls and longlines remains an unexplainable priority for our federal fisheries management.
Fishing laws in federal waters were designed, almost exclusively, for industrial harvesting of the fisheries, often bypassing more sustainable, economically productive uses for them.
The 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act has been reauthorized by Congress every 10 years to accommodate the industrial fish harvesters. But, it’s become apparent that laws to manage large commercial vessels harvesting hundreds of thousands of tons of sea life are not appropriate to manage anglers using hook-and-line on small private or chartered boats.
No one sensibly argues that recreational fishing and commercial harvesting are not two fundamentally different activities needing distinctly different management tools. Finding solutions begins with recognizing that techniques for fisheries management in some regions do not work for all species of fish in all the ecologies in which they live.
This past spring, Congress introduced the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (“Modern Fish Act”). This is Congress’ best opportunity in years to improve federal fisheries management. If passed, the Modern Fish Act will tweak the law to address the differences in fisheries and fishing interests across the country.
The differences between the commercial harvesting of fish for profit and recreational fishing are stark. Twenty-thousand vessels commercially harvest 98 percent of all the finfish caught in the United States.
Sadly, netting operations and longline fishing with hundreds or even thousands of hooks reeled in mechanically are totally indiscriminate. Commercial fish harvesters discard up to 2 billion pounds of dead “bycatch” (non-saleable wasted fish) every year, by some estimates.
On the other hand, 11 million marine recreational anglers travel to our coasts from many parts of the country and individually catch only a mere 2 percent of the finfish. Because of the sheer number of recreational anglers, counting every pound they catch is impractical and largely unnecessary for sound management. But, the Magnuson-Stevens Act currently requires a pound-specific annual catch limit for every species for both commercial and recreational fishermen.
This may make perfect sense for a seafood industry that offloads from relatively few vessels in designated ports, but is an impossible standard for recreational anglers coming into thousands of docks and marinas every day.
Requiring these two vastly different enterprises to adhere to the exact same management standards has caused intractable problems in many federally regulated fisheries. There are better ways than tonnage-based quotas to sustainably manage recreational fisheries without the need to count every fish. The Modern Fish Act would allow federal regulators to implement management approaches suitable to the nature of recreational fishing while adhering to the conservation principles of Magnuson-Stevens.
Congress is beginning to understand that recreational fishing is fundamentally different from commercial fishing, and requires fisheries management that recognizes the distinction. Otherwise, the public will continue to experience frustrating mismanagement outcomes.