The Obama administration is launching a significant new effort to reach out to marine recreational fishermen, an economically and politically powerful group that has previously felt shut out by the new administration.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the main federal agency overseeing ocean and fisheries policy, has rolled out a series of new initiatives in the past month aimed at raising the profile of recreational fishing within the agency and calming some of the hostile waters between fishermen and the administration. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco created a new post for a high-level national policy adviser for recreational fishing, reorganized regional offices to put greater emphasis on sportfishing and created a new advisory panel on the issue.
And in its most visible move, the administration is hosting hundreds of fishermen this weekend in Alexandria, Va., for a national summit on recreational saltwater fishing.
The efforts are an attempt to reach out to a vast group of more than 15 million saltwater recreational fishermen who pump more than $31 billion into the economy each year and who could pose significant challenges as NOAA attempts to rebuild depleted fish stocks.
It is also an attempt to step in the midst of what fishermen are calling a "crisis" moment for their industry and improve dialogue that has lately become "fairly strained" between fishermen and the administration, fueled in large part by the potential for strict new catch limits, according to Russell Dunn, NOAA's new national policy adviser for recreational fisheries.
"There is increased tension and concern as they look forward and say, 'How are we going to resolve this?' Dunn said. "So it's just been more strained."
Dunn and other leaders at the National Marine Fisheries Service say they want to use this weekend's meeting to hear the concerns of recreational fishermen and begin to draft an action plan for the future that can balance the desire to uphold fishing businesses and fishermen's way of life, while still conserving fish stocks.
"We want to create a more trusting atmosphere between us and the recreational community, so they can see that we are responsive," Dunn said. "And so they can understand that while we are responsive to their concerns, we also have stewardship responsibilities to the resource."
A community 'lit on fire'
Many fishermen are reeling at the prospect of strict closures that could come into place in the next year, as NOAA races to implement a requirement to end overfishing that was included in a fishing law that Congress passed in 2006.
The biggest blow for sportfishers could come from limits to the red snapper and grouper fisheries in the Southeast -- overfished fisheries that are also major gamefish. Restrictions have the potential to strike an economic blow to coastal towns in places like Florida, the self-proclaimed "fishing capital of the world" and generator of more than half of all recreational fishing dollars in the United States.
The federal fishing council's current proposal would set the shortest season ever -- 54 days -- to limit the take of depleted red snapper stocks. Those limits might be workable for fishermen, but the council had also previously discussed closing areas to fishing for all 73 species that dwell on the bottom of the ocean, near snapper and grouper.
Recreational and commercial fishermen have already faced temporary closures of the grouper fisheries. The closures have incited anger in some fishermen because they are based on a survey of fish stocks they say is outdated, as fishermen report they are seeing more fish than ever before in the water.
"The red snapper has really lit the recreational community on fire," said George Cooper, who works as a consultant for recreational fishing groups in Washington, D.C. "Any time you have a divide between what fishermen are experiencing on the water and what is being used for decisions like total closures, these guys get very upset."
The tension among recreational fishers burst to the surface last month after an ESPN.com columnist suggested that the administration's ocean policy could shut down sportfishing. ESPN later amended and corrected the piece but not before it ignited a game of "telephone" played at the breakneck speed of the digital age.
Bloggers with a fishing interest picked up on the rumor and ran with it, even as some prominent fishing groups posted their own stories to attempt to assure their readers no nationwide recreational fishing bans were under discussion.
NOAA, the White House and members of Congress rushed to tamp down the untrue rumors, issuing statements to clarify that the administration has no plans for any broad ban on recreational fishing.
Recreational fishing groups say the willingness of some fishermen to believe the rumor probably grew out of existing concerns about cuts they have seen to their catch.
"When you look at what happened with the rumor ... clearly there was enough misunderstanding and enough concern about how recreational fishing fits into marine protected areas and marine spatial planning that people are concerned," said Gordon Robertson, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. "When you throw all the concerns together and the intricacies of communications, what you get is millions of anglers that are concerned about whether they are going to be able to access public resources and public waters."
This weekend's conference comes at a critical time, Robertson said. The summit is not just a nice gesture but a needed opportunity to begin to work together to set an agenda for the future of sportfishing. (The summit also is unrelated to the great outdoors summit taking place at the Interior Department, which was scheduled separately.)
"They are responding to a definite need, you could call it a crisis," Robertson said. "This isn't just a friendly event. It needs to happen."
Recreational fishing is a powerful sector. Indeed, the word "recreational" may be a deceptive title for an industry that supports more than half a million jobs nationwide and is the major economic driver for many coastal communities.
Many recreational fishermen cast their lines for the pure pleasure of it, but their purchases of boats, charter fishing trips, tackle, rods, fuel, ice and other gear create a major industry. It can cost as much as $1,000 to charter a boat for a full-day deepwater fishing trip in Florida -- not to mention the hotel rooms and restaurant meals associated with the vacation.
NOAA's most recent assessment found that saltwater recreational fishermen spent more than $31 billion on gross expenditures in 2006 and contributed to more than $82 billion in total sales. NOAA officials expect those numbers to go up in the next update of the report, which is conducted based on statistical surveys of fishermen.
"Nationally, recreational fishing is incredibly important from an economic perspective," said Eric Schwaab, the head of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "When you go to some places, the numbers alone don't tell the story, there are regions of the country where recreational fishing and recreational fishing businesses dominantly support certain local coastal economies."
Recreational fishing groups insist their industry's economic contributions are commensurate to those of commercial fishermen -- and should give them a greater stake in management decisions at NOAA. But how the two industries stack up depends on how you compare the numbers.
Across the board, NOAA found that commercial fishermen generated significantly more economic activity than recreational: $103 billion in sales and 1.5 million jobs in 2006.
But if you set aside those fisheries that are strictly industrial -- like menhaden, which are not fished for human consumption but are a huge commercial species for fishmeal -- and compare recreational and commercial contributions in fisheries where they overlap, the stronger economic driver is often recreational fisheries, according to Brad Gentner, who designed and administered the 2006 recreational economic survey for NOAA and now works as a private consultant.
In mixed fisheries, commercial fishing's economic contribution falls to about $1.3 billion in total sales, half a billion in income and 19,000 jobs, Gentner said -- less than the contributions from recreational fishing. For example, Gentner estimates that recreational fishing in the Gulf of Mexico's grouper fishery creates about 2,000 jobs and an $81 million impact on total income. Commercial grouper fishermen lag behind with 1,300 jobs and less than half of the income impact, $31 million.
In a state like Florida, recreational fishing contributes to twice as many jobs as commercial fishing. But Gentner said the industry is still often overlooked as an economic powerhouse.
"For whatever reason, perhaps because recreational fishing is spread out far more than commercial, perhaps because there is no single sort of entity like that rugged fishermen sitting on his boat, but for whatever reason NMFS and others tend to discount recreational fishing as just some hobby, whereas from the viewpoint of dollars and cents, that is not the case," said Gentner, who now does economic assessments for fishing and environmental groups, as well as federal agencies.
The recreational fishing sector also makes significant financial contributions to state and federal conservation programs that are funded by fishing fees or taxes. An excise tax on items like fishing tackle, fuel taxes for motorboats and import duties on equipment garner upward of $600 million a year for various conservation efforts, according to the American Sportfishing Association. And state fishing licenses for saltwater and freshwater anglers totaled nearly $587 million in 2008, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Recreational fishermen claim NOAA underestimates their economic contribution, but some scientists say the agency also underestimates the sportfishing community's impact on fish stocks.
Based on NOAA statistics, recreational fishermen estimate they take 3 or 4 percent of the overall catch, while providing a third of all fishing-related jobs. But a paper published six years ago in the journal Science found a bigger role for sportfishers when looking at the numbers a different way. The scientists found that when you take out large-scale reduction fisheries, like menhaden, recreational fishing's share of the overall take comes to 10 percent.
And when they focused on stocks that are overfished or headed in that direction, recreational fishermen took a quarter of the total catch.
"Based on that analysis, we suggested that for fish stocks that are overfished or in the process of overfishing that need to be recovered, in some cases recreational takes are substantial and in some cases commercial fisheries have been closed down, so recreational takes are all that is left," said Larry Crowder, a marine biologist at Duke University who co-authored the report.
Crowder says NOAA has to pursue new limits on recreational fishing, especially for particularly fragile fish stocks. In some cases, that might mean shutting down a healthy fishery to preserve a struggling species that lives in the same area. For example, the Northwest Fishery Science Center found that recreational catch of rockfish could further harm the endangered boccaccio through accidental bycatch of the imperiled fish.
Management restrictions are tricky. Commercial fishermen have more central docks and ports and heavy gear that can be restricted. But recreational fishermen are disperse.
One person going out in a boat for an afternoon and catching a fish does not make a tremendous impact on the resource. But with millions of his friends doing the same thing, it is a big deal. NOAA estimates recreational fishermen take upward of 100 million trips a year.
"It is really one of those issues that is very sticky and hard to solve because a lot of recreational fishermen don't see themselves as having a large effect," Crowder said. "It has been very difficult to regulate recreational fishing because of the number of people involved and the economic importance of that industry and the perception, actively promoted by the rec sector, that they don't have much of an impact."
Schwaab and Dunn agree that a major challenge NOAA faces with recreational fisheries is a lack of good data -- something they are hoping to improve in the coming years.
And Dunn notes that the sportfishing sector may have to face restrictions on their catch, even as fish stocks begin to rebuild. Scientists have found that even relatively small takes of depleted fisheries can impair their recovery.
"Even when the resources are fully rebuilt, for example with striped bass, when that resource was rebuilt we were not able to restore all the historical uses to all the traditional user groups at the same levels," Dunn said. "So there will have to be some acknowledgement that in some fisheries we may not be able to go back to what happened 10 to 15 years ago, even when it is fully rebuilt -- how do we address that issue?"
Then-candidate Barack Obama made overtures to recreational fishing on the campaign trail, when he referenced the importance of sportsmen and women, conducted an interview with Field and Stream magazine and stated support for saltwater anglers to get a "fair percentage" of the catch as part of his campaign platform.
But recreational fishermen began to feel left behind as new leadership of NOAA took over and moved quickly on efforts to implement new "catch share" fisheries management systems and a sweeping new national ocean policy.
A number of sportfishing lobbyists met with NOAA officials last year to voice their concerns, and they have seen a quick response from the agency since then to reach out to the recreational sector. Lubchenco issued a statement last September declaring that NOAA would "improve engagement" with the saltwater fishing community. In October, she went to the American Sportfishing Association conference in California, where she wowed members with a promise to support recreational fishing and work to raise its profile in her agency.
In addition to creating the new national recreational fisheries adviser, Lubchenco assigned staff in each region to focus on recreational issues. The effort has created a core group of about 25 agency employees that focus on recreational fisheries, along with hundreds of others who do research that informs both recreational and commercial management, according to Dunn.
Fishing groups say it is a big improvement, but not enough to appease some who feel NOAA has shunned them for years in favor of environmental groups or commercial fishermen. Commercial fishermen, who have their own concerns about recreational anglers snaring a catch they base their livelihoods on, have often been more organized in bringing their concerns to federal officials.
"A commercial fishermen is one guy and he is very motivated to stay in business and motivated to not be abused or pushed around by NMFS," Gentner said. "Whereas the same amount of money in recreational fishing represents several hundred guys. … Commercial fishing is better able to rally their troops and have a voice for themselves."
Recreational fishing groups admit they have not been organized in the past.
Jim Martin -- who was the head of fisheries in Oregon for many years and now works on conservation issues for the recreational fishing equipment company, Pure Fishing -- says the recreational fishing community "has always been fragmented like crazy."
"We create a gigantic amount of economic value, and fishing is one of the most common and most popular economic activities in America; those things are all big deals, but how you translate that into political action has never been particularly well-organized, and fishermen are all over the map when it comes to political affiliation," Martin said. "We are not highly political, but we get pretty doggone excited when you start to try to restrict or shut down a fishery for reasons we don't understand or might not support."
But even without major political organizations, recreational fishermen have had influence over previous administrations.
"They hold a special place in the hearts of politicians because there are 15 or 16 million recreational fishermen in the United States ... and politicians can count," said Duke's Crowder. "They do have a big impact in numbers and also tend to be fairly wealthy because they have disposable money to put in fishing, so it is not surprising they would have influence."
President Clinton signed an executive order in 1995 that called for federal agencies to improve the quality of U.S. waters for increased recreational fishing opportunities. The order established a new advisory council to the Interior Department on sportfishing and set the stage for a number of other similar fishing-friendly endeavors from the agencies.
President George W. Bush amended that order to note that recreational fishing should be managed as a sustainable activity on federal lands and waters. He also gave a special "gamefish" designation to striped bass and red drum in 2007. But Bush's marine policy moves were not all universally popular among sportfishers -- his administration's move to shut out recreational fishing from vast new marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean angered some fishermen.
Talk, then action
For now, the Obama administration hopes to open better communication lines with recreational fishermen. But while this weekend's summit will focus on talk, fisheries officials say they hope it will lead to action on better efforts to improve data, recognize recreational fishing's role in fisheries and hopefully find cooperative ways to restore depleted stocks.
"We all agree improved dialogue is critical to solving the problem, but we need to go beyond just improved dialogue; we need to actually move toward resolving the issues that are out there," Dunn said.
His boss, National Marine Fisheries Service chief Eric Schwaab, added: "We know we need to communicate more effectively, but we also know that it goes beyond communication. We're going to require a focused follow-through on priorities."