For the past 7 years, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) has doggedly attacked the 21st century environmental movement as being co-opted by lawyers and lobbyists who care less about our resources and more about meeting their financial bottom line.

As noted in Part I of “What’s Your Freedom to Fish Worth,” lobbying organizations like K&L Gates, Oceans Champions, Jenkins Hill Consulting, Liberty Partners, and Sonny Callahan & Associates, to name a few, have benefitted greatly from the effort to privatize our nation’s fisheries through a system of individual fishing quota (IFQ), catch shares, and fish tags.

Former members of Congress like Sonny Callahan, James Walsh and Robin Tallon, together with former top level legislative staffers like Stacy Smith (previously with Sen. Bill Nelson’s office) and James Sartucci (worked in Sen. Trent Lott’s office), are working the inside track to radically change the way saltwater anglers access a public resource.

FutureFishermanThe problem is, none of these folks really care about saltwater fishing; working the system from one side or the other is ‘sporting’ enough for these political insiders, and the end game for them personally is all about getting paid at the end of the day.

Since 2007, RFA has been upfront and vocal about efforts by the environmental business community to further ratchet down restrictions against saltwater anglers.  Our small staff, unlike most of the Beltway crew in DC, is comprised of hardcore saltwater anglers who care about the fish, the fishermen and the fishing industry from a recreational perspective alone.

Regrettably, many trade association leaders, conservation groups, and even a few of the national fishing magazines have criticized RFA’s outspokenness, arguing for example that catch shares are only for commercial sector and can’t be applied to the recreational community.  They’ve been wrong of course – as RFA pointed out recently, and as we’ll update you below, the real end game for the environmental business community is to cap the number of anglers by trading away ownership of the resource.

In fact it was against RFA’s continued urging that seven prominent members of the recreational fishing industry joined hands in a coalition letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) with environmental lobbyists at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Pew Environment Group to ask for a “final catch share policy (that) should provide for reallocations and inter-sector trading.”

Telling NMFS of their willingness to work together on a federal catch share policy, the boating and fishing industry’s ‘Magnificent 7’ signed off on an agreement with EDF, Pew, Ocean Conservancy, Oceana, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Natural Resources Defense Council to support inter-sector trading options between commercial and recreational in order to offer the “best opportunity for gaining broader private angler support for catch shares.”

RallyCrowdAfter many of those recreational industry insiders went back to their day-to-day business, perhaps mistakenly under the belief that their unique coalition would only negatively impact commercial fishermen, the political insiders at EDF and PEW got busy working behind closed doors in Congress.

The photos you see on this page were all taken at national rallies held near the steps of our Nation’s Capitol in 2010 and 2012 when fishermen united in a congressional call for ‘open access’ fisheries.  If your trade association leadership wasn’t there, you need to ask them why – because this is what we’re up against today at the RFA, trying to unscrew a completely screwed system.

THE HORSES HAVE LEFT THE BARN

Almost exactly one year prior to the coalition’s pledge to gain “broader private angler support for catch shares,” one of the signers had actually supported the concept of recreational catch shares by suggesting that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council consider issuing individual non-reusable tags for red snappers that would account for annual catch.  Placed in units of 10 to 100 up for auction every year, the conservation group’s plan would “let anyone who so desires to place their best bid and distribute to highest bidders – bidders could be individuals, states or organizations” – perhaps the telling word there regarding ownership of these shares is “organizations.”

NoCatchSharesSoon after this trial balloon crashed to the ground with the public, environmentalists began a full court press in Congress while the plan’s originators ran from the wreckage while urging calm within the recreational fishing industry.  For the past few years, either unwittingly or by some twisted design, the apologists and their ‘go along to get along’ mentality actually have allowed EDF to spread the belief that catch shares will work for recreational fisheries too.

New EDF-funded groups were formed, including the Gulf of Mexico Reef Shareholders Alliance, Charter Fisherman’s Association, and South Atlantic Fisherman’s Association, and they’ve continually maligned the RFA defensive position while continuing the ‘catch shares are just for commercials’ lie. “That line in the sand has been redrawn several times as anglers keep getting pushed back further and further,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio, arguing that RFA remains the one national group unwilling to take step back.

“At first, the apologists allowed an exception for the charter and head boat fishermen, publicly offering up the for-hire sector as a sacrifice to the environmentalists,” Donofrio said, explaining how EDF first got their foot in the door.  “Several recreational industry advocates and outdoor writers were the first to allow that the charter and party boat captains were commercial operators, thinking perhaps that once there was a little inter-sector trading of catch shares that perhaps EDF would not continue their assault on individual anglers,” Donofrio added.

“It’s the fisheries version of old Martin Niemoller poem about political apathy, first they came for the commercial, and then for the charter and party boat fleet,” he said.  “Now EDF is coming for private anglers.”

THE NEW PUSH FOR ANGLER FISH TAGS

TheCrownRFA and its members were quick in leading the charge in the Gulf region in 2012 to rally opposition to a plan which would have separated the recreational sector into sharply divided pieces.  The Council ultimately held off on voting on the plan, but regrettably that means that the idea is still in place.

And now that some members of the recreational fishing community have given in on the first two points (first being that catch shares were okay for commercial, and then secondly giving in to the fact that catch shares are okay for charter/headboats because they’re a business), EDF is running towards the goal-line with their new plan to privatize all fisheries.

On June 27th in a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee EDF’s Pam Baker specifically asked members of Congress to consider a new way of managing our coastal anglers.  “For example, states can try methods such as harvest tags, similar to those used to allot hunting privileges for limited game populations like deer and elk,” Baker said, explaining how “tags could be allocated throughout the year to accommodate tourist seasons, tournaments, and other priorities.”

Very similar to the lead balloon introduced by the conservation group at the Gulf Council back in 2009, Baker and EDF suggest that “Angler management organizations, which receive a given amount of fish to distribute at the local level and allow anglers to manage themselves in cooperation with regulators, also have promise.”

(View Baker’s letter at www.edf.org/sites/default/files/FINAL_MSA_Testimony_6272013.pdf)

While the conservationists who originally compromised the viability of open access fisheries in America when they pitched the concept of privatized ‘fish tags’ ultimately distanced themselves from ownership of the scheme, the EDF attorneys, activists and lobbyists continue to pressure legislators and management officials for a ‘catch share’ program for all recreational anglers

FIGHTING AT THE COUNCIL LEVEL

NMFSIn a May 21 hearing in Washington, Dr. Richard Merrick of NMFS  told Congress that “phone surveys don’t work anymore.”  RFA said what Dr. Merrick failed to acknowledge is that both coastal phone books and telephone surveys are still being utilized by NMFS to gather recreational harvest information.  RFA maintains that without utilization of the national angler registry and vessel trip report (VTR) data as required under federal law, NMFS is completely disregarding the best scientific information available.

On July 17th, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council) convened a special hearing in New Orleans to review new quota recommendations for the red snapper fishery.  Capt. Tom Adams of Mexico Beach Charters and chairman of the Recreational Fishing Alliance’s (RFA) Forgotten Coast chapter along the Florida Panhandle testified before the Council and asked for immediate relief for the recreational fishing community in terms of increased red snapper days.

“NMFS can boast of the new estimating procedures, but if the traditional VTR data is still being ignored, and if phone surveys which ‘don’t work anymore’ are still being administered, then the best available data is being disregarded, and that’s a clear violation of National Standard 2, which states specifically that Conservation and management measures shall be based upon the best scientific information available,” Adams noted.

A recent lawsuit filed by the legal and lobbying firm of K&L Gates on behalf of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance maintains this “fatally flawed” data collected by NMFS should be used more stringently to restrict anglers’ ability to fish for red snapper in the Gulf.  The plaintiffs in the case and their lawyers, both heavily funded by the Environmental Defense Fund, suggest a minimum of a 20% target reduction buffer to account for the management uncertainty associated with the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), which equates to 5 days off the top of an already shortened federal red snapper season.

OurRedSnapper“There’s a big difference between statutory overfishing and biological overfishing,” Adams said at the Gulf Council meeting.  “With Gulf anglers tripping over red snapper and unable to get away from this species on practically any type of bottom we find, we could easily return to a 194-day season, two fish Gulf-wide bag as we had prior to the reauthorization of Magnuson in 2007 without causing any ‘biological’ overfishing.”

“If the federal government can’t meet their own ‘statutory’ requirements to fully correct the recreational data problems, then ‘statutory’ overfishing is what NMFS is forcing on our community,” Capt. Adams noted.   He and other RFA members and staff urged the Gulf Council to deliver a message to NMFS, that unless the congressional mandate to fix the recreational data collection methodologies was fully in place, that regulations for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico should revert back to 2006/2007 prior to the reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act.

“Before government inaction destroyed our recreational fishing industry,” Adams added.

At the end of the day, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted to increase the 2013 red snapper quota by 2.5 million pounds, up from 8.46 million to 11 million, in time to add perhaps another 21 consecutive days of recreational red snapper fishing later this fall.  Not everyone on the council voted in favor of the increase however, as Mississippi’s Kay Williams voted in opposition complaining that the lower quota penalizes commercial boats for NMFS’ failure to control the recreational sector.

In terms of further “control” over the recreational sector, the 400-and-some-odd red snapper share owners, roughly 10% of the entire fishing population in the Gulf of Mexico who presently own 51% of the entire red snapper fishery, the fight to starve anglers into accepting the catch share plan now enters the legal fray.

WHAT EDF REALLY WANTS

That brings us full circle back to the lawsuit, filed by the legal/lobbying outfit at K&L Gates on behalf of their clients at the Gulf of Mexico Reef Shareholders Alliance.  Responding to a recent email chain, attorney Jack Sterne, EDF’s Director of Strategic Alliances and co-founder of the environmental lobbying organization called Oceans Champions, said that the problems with “short seasons and bag limits are robbing the recreational side of the fishery.”

NoCatchShares_AKSterne is willing to admit that recreational anglers are “extraordinarily unsatisfied” with their fishing experiences in 2013, but like his employers at EDF he refuses to concede that the “fatally flawed” recreational data collection efforts at NMFS are much to blame for the statutory nightmare.

Prior to implementation of the IFQ, the commercial fishery was in a similar place to where the recreational fishery is now, with ineffective management and a fishing derby that led to shorter and shorter seasons. Many of the most vocal opponents of the IFQ then are now some of its biggest supporters, having experienced its results. I’m hopeful that one day you’ll be able to say the same when a new, more effective management regime is implemented that improves performance across the board and not just in one sector,” Sterne explained in his email.

As to the specifics of the ‘fish tag’ system first proposed in 2009 and now being offered as a new “management regime” by EDF, Sterne explains that “Alaska manages its king salmon fishery with a kind of tag system, where every angler who buys a license and a king stamp gets the right to harvest five kings a year.

Alaska is far bigger than the Gulf of Mexico, and yet this system appeared to work quite well (at least when I was there) to hold anglers to our collective limits,” Sterne added.  In an email blast to members on Monday, July 22, 2013, RFA explained yet another new catch sharing plan in Alaska which has the for-hire sector and sportfishing lodges up in arms, as it would take halibut away from the recreational sector to give to commercials who would then be able to sell back to recreational anglers at a profit.

“EDF can put whatever spin they want on it and continually label fact as nothing but conspiracy, but when one segment of the population is given ownership of a public resource which they in turn lease back to other members of the public at a profit, it’s nothing more than coastal sharecropping,” said RFA’s Donofrio.

RFAThe concept of privatized angler fish tags offered up to various organizations for resale back to the public is the end game for Sterne and the EDF, with the loss of recreational access during the past 7 years the very means to that end.  “We started spotlighting this takeover plan soon after the Magnuson-Stevens Act was reauthorized and signed into law back in 2007, and especially in 2009 when the concept of fish tags for the privileged was first introduced to the Gulf Council,” Donofrio said.

As for Pam Baker’s suggestion that the federal government hand over shares of fish to “angler management organizations,” Donofrio warns that the group who offers to take control of those fish may very well become the organization known in the future as being responsible for the end of open access recreational fishing for all American anglers.

“One has to wonder if EDF has already hand-selected the angler management organizations that they would support being given ownership rights of red snapper stock in the Gulf of Mexico,” Donofrio said.  “I guess that organization or business owner probably sees dollar signs when thinking of the possibility of being the sole retailer of recreational fishing opportunity in the future.”

Early adopters of the EDF catch share scheme in the commercial fishing community are presently united under the EDF-financed Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance which now has the federal legal case in play now to go after recreational fishermen.  Donofrio expects a second lawsuit any day now from another EDF-backed group called the Charter Fisherman’s Association (CFA) which claims to represent the for-hire sector but actually got most of its start-up funding from the commercial shareholders and fully supports the inter-sector trading concept.

“EDF lobbyists and their various associations are preparing for a big drama on the national stage, hoping to tie up the legal process while making a big pitch against overfishing in America,” Donofrio said.

Again, the question is, do you want RFA to start being kind and cuddly with those who are trying to take away your right to fish?  Or would you prefer to fight – go to JOINRFA.org, contribute to the battle to protect open-access recreational fishing in America!

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