Written by Jen Finn
NMFS' new angle on data
To the surprise of the few — and chagrin of the many — NMFS in early June proposed licensing recreational saltwater fishermen by means of a National Saltwater Angler Registry.
The creation of such a registry is mandated by the Magnuson Act to facilitate the aggregation of better data on fish harvesting.
For that reason, the registry, like most books I borrow from the library, is long overdue.
Data collected from recreational marine fishermen can help us better understand the size and behavior of fish stocks (as well as the amount of fish being removed from them), and it will give us insight into public participation in recreational fisheries and the fisheries' economic impacts.
Many of us have angler friends who go on (and on) about how each dollar spent by sport fishermen sends vast and splendid ripples throughout the economy. To hear them tell it, one kid with a worm could wipe out poverty.
Setting aside the fact that for most Americans, who will never eat a fish they've caught themselves, commercial fishermen are protein providers, I have no doubt that sober analysis of the data will one day put paid to fatuous assertions about the relative value of recreational fisheries.
That said, there is no question in my mind that recreational fisheries are a substantial component of all landings and a crucial component of coastal communities, and sport fishermen deserve the representation of a knowledgeable government.
When it comes to fisheries management, knowledge is everything, and generally lacking. The U.S. government — you and I — spends billions of dollars every year in an effort to manage and conserve fish, yet only one-third of the fish pie — commercial landings — is well accounted for.
About the other two slices — recreational landings being one and fish that go unharvested being the other — much less may be said with certainty.
Whatever your view of U.S. fishery management, it seems to me its first order of business ought to be knowing what's out there.
So while it's important to consider the impacts of recreational as well as commercial fishing, comprehensive and reliable stock assessments are critical.
Although the registry opens next year, there won't be any federal license fees associated with angling until 2011, at which time NMFS says they will be $25 or less per year. By rights, the money should be earmarked for stock assessment. Knowing how much fish we're catching would be much more useful if we knew how many were there in the first place.
But that won't be the case. The money instead will go to the U.S. Treasury, where it will await squandering by Congress. Alternatively, states that have license programs, which is most of them, will be able to keep the money they collect.
(Incidentally, NMFS provides an exemption from the license fee for indigenous people "such as members of federally recognized tribes." The reason? NMFS "recognizes that many indigenous people fish for food as part of an ancient cultural tradition." Well, so do I. The tradition is called eating. But I digress.)
I wish I could say I were optimistic about the saltwater angler registry. Collecting information is one thing, putting it to good use is something else. NMFS now spends upward of a year collating commercial harvest data, which is why numbers you see in National Fisherman Market Reports sometimes seem dated. So it's unlikely the aggregation of fishery statistics will be expedited by recreational data.
And I remain concerned about stock assessments, as will anyone familiar with, for example, the gag grouper situation in the South.
Speaking of which, Hoyt Childers, our Gulf and South Atlantic bureau chief, writes about the issue this month (p. 22) in an article that reminds us that sport and commercial fishermen have much to gain when they put allocation and gear disputes behind them and focus on their common interests.
Indeed, we are not so far apart at all. I can tell you that I caught my first small harbor pollock with a hook and line and a clam stripped from a broken shell.
I didn't need any license and I didn't need permission from anyone, other than my mother, to fish off the town dock at Perkins Cove. As a matter of fact, I didn't even pay for bait. John Maxwell, who sold steamers at his lobster pound, gave the broken clams to little cove rats like me to get rid of them — the cove rats and the clams both, I suspect.
- Jerry Fraser
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