Quite a few years ago, there was a major controversy in the state of Maine over the building of a major dam on the Penobscot River.
It was called the Big A, which was short for its location at Big Ambejackmockamus Falls. It seemed like this controversy rippled out across the entire state, partly due to its potential impact on recreational fishing.
I often wonder why the subject of allocation of saltwater fish does not ripple out across the recreational-fishing industry. It has the potential to resolve a lot of the problems faced by anglers with some of the most popular species.
In September this column discussed this same subject, and while I’d like to think that it had some influence on the decision by NOAA Fisheries to address the issue, I doubt that it did. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which regulates fisheries in federal waters, allocation is a mandate, maybe even the most critical one. It is also the hardest part of the fisheries-management process. It determines winners and losers. Making winners is easy. Living with the wrath of the losers is not.
During my tenure on the New England Fishery Management Council, there was constant discussion about the need to periodically revisit allocations. The reason behind this discussion was the implementation of catch-share management and quotas. This management regime changed the previous paradigm of “set it and forget it.” For all the discussion, NOAA Fisheries gave only general guidelines, and those are too easily ignored.
Since I wrote last month’s column, NOAA Fisheries issued more specific guidelines for the regional fishery management councils (RFMCs) to follow. While I happen to think the guidelines did not go far enough, they are a good start, and I suspect some councils will actually improve upon them. Of the 10 highest-priority actions recommended to improve saltwater recreational-fisheries management at NOAA’s 2014 Recreational Fisheries Summit, two council-related priorities were relevant to allocation review: 1) achieving more equitable council representation, and 2) readjusting recreational and commercial allocations, in addition to the recommendations of the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, also known as the Morris-Deal Commission, which wanted to require an objective process and regular time intervals for reviewing allocations. These priorities, along with input from the Council Chairs Committee, are the likely reasons that NOAA Fisheries has spent the time and effort to craft this policy. While it has taken a long time to get rolling, the train is now moving forward.
Here is the problem that recreational-fisheries users face: Historically, allocations have been based on the landings histories of individual user groups. While this might in some ways seem to be a fair methodology, it means that little will change. Over the past 20 years, we have seen substantial demographic changes, which will likely continue. More and more people are moving to coastal areas, which means there will be more and more recreational anglers, who will also have a bigger and bigger economic impact, not only on their local communities but also nationwide. Basing allocations on historical landings means a growing user group would have to share a stagnant resource allocation.
While these figures may not be exact, they will dramatically illustrate the problem. On a macro level, recreational anglers make up 95 percent of finfish users, and they land about 3 percent of the resources. I admit that some of the high-volume commercial fisheries influence that number, and recreational anglers are not interested in landing those fish. In some cases, though, they would like to see more set aside for ecosystem considerations. But that’s another story for another day.
It’s easy to see that if demographic and economic considerations are not included, recreational users will not get their allocation dramatically changed, no matter how often the subject is revisited.
Feet to the Fire
The Fisheries Allocation Review Policy gives general guidance to the RFMCs on revisiting allocations and factors to consider. Within the next three years, or as soon as “practicable,” the councils are supposed to determine the triggers that would prompt a review of specific allocations. For a lot of us, that is a little too loosey-goosey. The RFMCs will take every opportunity to avoid making controversial decisions. That is simply human nature.
Some legislation has been filed and even passed to include specific allocation-review language in the MSA. It has not yet been signed into law and may not be. The legislation carrying these changes also makes other major changes to the MSA that some feel would not be beneficial in the long run.
Getting allocation on the table is a good thing. Now that we are talking about it, let’s get some of the elements that will enhance the socioeconomic benefits of healthy resources front and center.