The following profile on RFA executive director and founder Jim Donofrio was written by Gary Caputi and was published in the November 2012 edition of Making Waves.

Jim Donofrio has been the driving force behind the Recreational Fishing Alliance since the beginning over 15 years ago. Friends and critics alike agree that he is outspoken, passionate, an effective lobbyist and possesses an intellect capable of predicting the impacts and implications of legislation and regulatory actions well into the future.

He is at home at the helm of a tournament fishing boat chasing marlin, drifting a skiff in a bay for flounder, sitting in a duck blind at sunrise his trusty lab by his side, conferring with members of Congress or testifying at high level public hearings. He easily goes from camouflage and waders to three piece suits, from the local luncheonettes to D.C. receptions without missing a beat. So who is Jim Donofrio and how did he come to represent recreational fishermen and the industry with such passion, perception and dedication?

Jim testifying before Congress

Jim testifying before Congress

 The Roots of Angler Advocacy

Jim grew up in a small suburban town in New Jersey in the 1950s and 60s. When he wasn’t in school he was off somewhere fishing or hunting. His introduction to saltwater fishing led him to his earliest jobs on the water as a deckhand on some of most highly regarded for-hire boats in the Sandy Hook area in the late 1960s. His first ride was on the Francis C with veteran skipper Don Calio and a little later aboard the Blackfin under the tutelage of its legendary captain, Joe Renzo.

In 1971 he was aboard Andy Albano’s Tilly, a private boat that specialized in targeting giant bluefin tuna in the Mudhole off the North Jersey coast. The entire giant tuna fleet at that time consisted of about a dozen boats. They had no loran, navigating the old fashioned way using ranges, compass, clock and depth finder. During one fifteen day period in 1971 the Tilly with the young Donofrio in the cockpit caught a giant every day for 15 days straight, an accomplishment that has probably never been equaled in Jersey waters.

While he was honing his skills as a deck hand, learning the ins and outs of fishing, he was also gathering the necessary sea time to qualify for his captain’s license. And when he wasn’t working on charter or private boats as a deckhand he was fishing from center console skiffs, usually with his brother Ricky, a striped bass angler of the first order who still plies the North Jersey coast whenever he’s not in his florist shop.

Capt. Donofrio with a giant bluefin charter in 1988

Capt. Donofrio with a giant bluefin charter in 1988

In 1979 Donofrio got his Coast Guard certification and was granted his captain’s license. His first job as skipper came in 1980 when he took the helm of a 36’ Pacemaker called the Drifter. He sailed from Shark River and Cape May at various times of the year targeting striped bass, bluefish, weakfish and sharks. In 1982 he made his first canyon trip loading the Drifter with extra fuel bladders and headed offshore at the blistering speed of 11 knots. He put together a catch of tuna and along the way fell in love with being offshore. With the canyon’s calling he purchased a 40’ Chrisovich dubbed the Drifter II and started making the offshore run for tuna with more regularity.

“In those days we fished offshore for bigeye, yellowfin and longfin, but white marlin were more frequently caught on the 20 and 30 fathom lines,” Jim recalled. “But those were also the years the domestic pelagic longline fleets were growing at an exponential rate ravaging the billfish populations while they were fishing down the swordfish stocks. In recent years white marlin are again being encountered closure to shore, but usually far south of New Jersey. The RFA, through its work on reigning in the pelagic longline fleet through the imposition of time and area closures was instrumental in the recovery of white marlin and Atlantic sailfish stocks.”

An Angler Rights Organization Is Born in 1996

With big game fishing becoming a driving force in his life Donofrio went on the marlin circuit at the helm of private tournament boats that competed in events from North Carolina to the Bahamas living his life from port to port following the fish with the seasons. It was an exciting time, but a difficult one to be able to put down any roots.

“Around 1993 I was becoming more aware of fisheries management,” Donofrio recounted. “My concern about the health of many of our marine fisheries was peaking, but at the same time I was wary of the way the National Marine Fisheries Service seemed bent on devaluing the socioeconomic impacts of recreational fishing while frequently hiding the damage being done by an ever more industrialized commercial fishing industry. The recreational sector was being scapegoated and over-regulated under the guise of conservation while commercial overfishing was frequently kept under the radar in one management plan after another. The result was the downplaying of recreational participation while handing over the lion’s share of quotas in many fisheries to commercial interest and it just wasn’t right.”

NJ Governor Chris Christie, RFA's Jim Donofrio and House Speaker John Boehner

NJ Governor Chris Christie, RFA’s Jim Donofrio and House Speaker John Boehner

“I really started reading up on the management process, the science, or what passed for science, and that eventually led me to the legislation that created the regulatory process and the politics of it. It became obvious to me that if recreational fishermen were losing many of the early battles we were involved in it was because we did not have a cohesive organization capable of representing our interests. That weakness was most glaring when it came to the legislative process, where the real power to change the system and right the wrongs was found. While we had national trade associations for the marine and tackle industries, neither organization had the expertise in marine fisheries and they expressed little interest in using their limited lobbying efforts in that arena. Saltwater anglers simply did not have the clout that the commercial sector was bringing to bear on the politics of fisheries management and it was our Achilles’ heel.”

Donofrio embarked on a path of intense self-education including courses at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. During this time he was absorbing as much information as he possibly could about politics, government, regulatory agencies, lobbying and fisheries management.  In 1995 he met with two visionaries in his home state, Bob Healey of the Viking Yacht Company and Capt. Dick Weber, owner of South Jersey Yacht Sales, both accomplished businessmen with a deep and abiding love of saltwater fishing. They began discussing the need for an organization to represent and protect the interests of saltwater anglers and Donofrio outlined his vision for just such an organization. He laid out a bold vision for a grassroots political action organization that he deemed the equivalent of the NRA for recreational fishermen.

Another Attack On Striped Bass Launches The Defense

While this was going on there was a battle raging over NMFS decision to reopen the EEZ (waters outside 3 miles) to the harvest of a rebounding striped bass stock. This decision had serious implications for the future of this highly valued recreational fishery and was being opposed by a ragtag group of fishing clubs and state organizations with little success. Healey gave Donofrio a challenge: pull together a coalition of groups and individuals capable of halting the reopening—in essence prove you are capable— and he would provide startup money to build the political action organization that Donofrio envisioned.

A live striper release from one of Jim's favorite back bay locations.

A live striper release from one of Jim’s favorite back bay locations.

Jim hit the ground running and generated so much interest in the angling community, the press and among area politicians that he packed all three public hearings. There were over one thousand fishermen at each meeting, something that NMFS had never seen before or since!

In addition to the public pressure, Donofrio found a willing ally in Congressman Jim Saxton, the chair of the House Fisheries Subcommittee, who took an active role in pressuring the Agency into maintaining the closure for the health of the striped bass stocks. As a result the Assistant Administrator of the NMFS, Dr. William Hogarth, called off the misguided effort and the Recreational Fishing Alliance was born.

One thing Donofrio felt was paramount in establishing any grassroots organization, whether it was a 501(c)(3) conservation types like the Coastal Conservation Association or a 501(c)(4) political action groups like the RFA, was providing a clear, concise mission statement by which that organization would operate.

“An organization’s mission statement is its Bible and Ten Commandments,” said Donofrio, “the pledge it makes with its members. Too many conservation groups have misled their members into believing they could act as lobbyists or deal with actions that were political in nature when nothing could be further from the truth. Others claim to represent recreational fishermen when their mission statement never even mentions the word ‘fishermen’. I vowed the RFA would be totally up front with its goals and would operate accordingly and I am proud to say that after 15 years these three simple tenants have never been compromised.”

RFA Mission:
  • Safeguard the rights of saltwater anglers;
  • Protect marine, boat and tackle industry jobs;
  • Ensure the long-term sustainability of our nation’s fisheries.

As the RFA began to grow it took on many difficult tasks following up on its first victory. A new scourge was entering the offshore tuna fishery called pelagic pair-trawling, initially billed as an ‘experimental gear.” A large net was strung between two high powered trawlers and pulled at speed through vulnerable canyon areas offshore, frequently right through fleets of recreational boats fishing these areas.

The effectiveness of the gear on tuna was clear, but it came with negative impacts to non-target species and the recreational offshore fishing fleet that was generating strong economic benefits to coastal areas. Something had to be done. The RFA took on the challenge taking the concerns of its members directly to Assistant Secretary of Commerce Terry Garcia. Donofrio held high level meetings with him and brought in a number of key legislators from the House and Senate to put pressure on the DOC to stop this experimental fishery in its tracks and again won the day.

Read this story and more in the November 2012 edition of Making Waves. exclusively from the Recreational Fishing Alliance