Recreational Fishing Alliance
To millions of Americans it’s the ability to go to the beach or get on a boat, enjoy a day on the water and maybe keep a few fish for the table within the limits of current regulations. What makes fishing such a universal pastime is its availability to everyone regardless of age, race and wealth, but open access is being challenged from a very unlikely source.
At the April meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, Dr. Russell Nelson, on behalf of the Coastal Conservation Association, presented a paper outlining a new scheme for managing fisheries that, if put into practice, would change recreational fishing into something unrecognizable. It is an attempt to bring recreational fishermen into a system that the Environmental Defense Fund calls “catch shares” and federal fishery managers call Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs).
After reading this paper I was struck by the realization that there are some among us who believe recreational anglers aren’t already paying enough for the “privilege” of fishing. In case you’re not keeping score we’re already required to purchase a saltwater fishing license and if you’re a nonresident the fees are becoming usurious. We not only pay sales tax on every piece of tackle we purchase, we also pay a 10-percent excise tax that goes to the Wallop-Breaux Fund. If you purchase fuel for your boat at a marina or other waterfront location you pay an 18.5-percent federal excise tax on that, too. As a group, anglers pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year in user fees and special taxes to support conservation, management, enforcement, restoration and access projects…but apparently that’s not enough.
Under this proposal recreational anglers would be required to enter a competitive bidding process for the opportunity to purchase tags for the fish they want to catch. Tag auctions will be open to anyone – commercial and recreational harvesters, fish brokers, environmental groups – and the tags would be sold to the highest bidders. According to the paper, tag holders can take the fish home and eat it, give them as Christmas presents, or take their fish to a market, effectively wiping out the distinction between the commercial and recreational sector. The proceeds from the auction would be earmarked for management and enforcement because, obviously, we aren’t paying enough already.
The paper, titled A Free Market Based Approach to Managing Red Snapper and Other Marine Fishes, provides a framework that limits access to only those with the time to enter the auction and the financial means to make a high enough bid to obtain tags. In case you’re wondering how much that might be, since the quota system was introduced the price that commercial anglers get for red snapper has increased from $2.75 per pound to over $4 per pound, while the National Marine Fisheries Service reports IFQ shares selling for between $10 and $20 per pound.
This paper was presented as a formal response to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s question “Is there a better way to manage U.S. shared commercial and recreational fisheries?” The formula it contains goes against the very grain of what sport fishing has been and most anglers hope it will be in the future. While there are provisions in the MSA reauthorization that have caused significant socioeconomic harm to recreational fisheries, the law has and can continue to work in the future by addressing those provisions.
In a recent press release the RFA called the scheme the “pay to play” version of fisheries management. In many ways it mirrors a management approach being espoused by the Environmental Defense Fund and other Pew Charitable Trust funded organizations, yet the paper claims this program “is simple and arguably the most fair and equitable approach.” The operative word is “arguably” because the fairness is an illusion where recreational fishermen are concerned!
“With the changes to the MSA endorsed by the RFA and found in proposed legislation currently introduced in Congress the MSA can not only rebuild fisheries but provide for equitable distribution of allowable harvest,” said Jim Donofrio, RFA Executive Director.
“Most of the problems currently encountered by managers are the result of arbitrary rebuilding deadlines and a lack of flexibility as dictated in the most recent reauthorization,” Donofrio explained, adding “with these corrections we can continue to see stocks increase, as Gulf of Mexico red snapper have in recent years, without losing the open access process that has been inherent in recreational fishing.”