Federal laws could shut down saltwater fishing

The future of recreational saltwater fishing is murky as restrictive federal regulations are poised to possibly close vast stretches of offshore waters.

Those potential closures have fishing organizations scrambling to get Congress to enact legislation that would prevent them from taking place.

Knowing how the federal government works, it’ll be a race down to the wire.

The issue was the hottest topic here at last week’s Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Saltwater Media Summit, which had speakers from groups such as the American Sportfishing Association, the IGFA and the Center for Coastal Conservation, as well Eric Schwaab, the assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries.

The closures could happen because of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which regulates fishing in federal waters. When the act was re-authorized in 2006, Congress mandated that annual catch limits, or ACLs, be determined for 528 species. The thinking was that ACLs would prevent overfishing of species.

The problem is that to come up with ACLs for specific species, NOAA Fisheries has to assess those fish populations. Stock assessments were done for 119 species, but a lack of funding due to budget cuts and a lack of time have the federal agency way behind on the remaining ACLs, which have a deadline of Jan. 1.

The way the law is written, the lack of ACLs could be the grounds for lawsuits by non-fishing groups to force the feds to stop recreational fishing for some species, even if those species are thriving. In addition, if those un-assessed fish inhabit the same waters as species that already have ACLs, then all fishing could be shut down in those waters.

Jim Martin, the conservation director of the Berkley Conservation Institute and a TRCP board member, said the inflexibility of the Magnuson Act when it comes to determining ACLs is the problem given that NOAA doesn’t “have the resources and the money to get there.”

“The deadline needs to change,” said Ken Haddad, the former executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“It’s hard to set ACLs without knowing stock numbers.”

There are two bills in the House of Representatives to amend the Magnuson Act.

H.R. 2304 would “provide the necessary scientific information to properly implement annual catch limits” and was supported by several summit speakers.

H.R. 3061 would “extend the authorized time period for rebuilding of certain overfished fisheries” and is supported by the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

If neither passes, then fishing could be shut down.

If anglers are prohibited from fishing for their favorite species, that would be a severe blow to the sportfishing industry: everything from boat and tackle manufacturers to tackle shops and fishing guides would be affected.

“Recreational anglers have to catch fish to buy tackle,” said Mike Nussman, the president of the American Sportfishing Association.

The economic impact on Florida would be huge. According to Rob Southwick of Southwick Associates, a Fernandina Beach company that specializes in the economics of hunting and fishing, saltwater fishing accounts for $5.7 billion in economic activity and $3.3 billion in retail sales in Florida. Southwick said that’s 12 times more than the value of Florida’s citrus industry.

swaters@tribune.com or 954-356-4648

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