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Push is on for equal access to saltwater fisheries

For dealers in 38 coastal states who depend on successfully selling boats to saltwater anglers, the good news is that a serious push is on to improve the often misguided policies that currently manage our fisheries.

In an unprecedented effort, a blue ribbon commission of biologists, economists, conservationists, fisheries managers, industry experts and policymakers have issued a first-of-its-kind report with recommendations for improving saltwater fisheries management while keeping it sustainable and healthy.

A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” has been a year in the making. It tackles the nation’s most important fisheries management issues. It comes at a time when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law that governs the nation’s marine fisheries, is again up for congressional reauthorization. The report takes on even more importance when we realize the previous reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens in 2007 has resulted in serious problems, especially for recreational anglers.

There is no doubt that our saltwater customers have had to deal with regulations clearly written to favor commercial fishing. For example, red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is closed — or is it? Florida Sportsman publisher Karl Wickstrom has reported that the feds are allowing 17 headboats to take out hundreds of anglers for red snapper fishing during the closure.

“Meanwhile, regular private boat owners and charter boats may take not a single red snapper,” Wickstrom writes. “You stay home . . . while your neighbor boards one of the anointed headboats to bring home, collectively, a quarter-million pounds of the public’s tastiest creatures with fins.”

Policies like that are as unreasonable as putting Lucille Ball on the candy wrapper assembly line. But it’s clear evidence of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s bent on “sector separation” to favor the commercial interests.

The timing, then, of bringing the blue ribbon commission together to lay out goals for the recreational fishing industry couldn’t be better. In producing the “Vision” report, the boating and fishing industries have signaled they will engage as never before in the reauthorization process of Magnuson-Stevens. The “Vision” identifies six key policies that need to be addressed:

• Establishing a national policy for recreational fishing

• Adopting a revised approach to saltwater recreational fisheries management

• Allocating marine fisheries for the greatest benefit to the nation

• Creating reasonable latitude in stock-rebuilding timelines

• Codifying a process for cooperative management

• Managing for the forage base

It’s time that national fishery policies recognized that the economic imprint of saltwater fishing is big. In 2011, approximately 11 million recreational saltwater anglers spent $27 billion. That activity generated more than $70 billion in economic output and sustained 450,000 jobs. Moreover, anglers contribute more than $1.5 billion annually to fisheries habitat and conservation by paying excise taxes and license fees alone. In terms of economic impact, commercial fishing isn’t even in the same league with recreational angling. It’s time for the facts to be taken to Congress during reauthorization and time for serious legislated changes to Magnuson-Stevens.

A shout out goes to Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats president Scott Deal for serving as co-chairmen of the commission. Using the commission’s work as a base, we have to take up the fight for changes in policies that guarantee nothing less than equal access to our fisheries.

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