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Angling for access

A new task force poses a serious threat to close fishing to recreational fishermen. James Overstreet

This is a column from Robert Montgomery for ESPN Outdoors. As a Senior Writer for BASS Publications, Montgomery has written about conservation, environment, and access issues for more than two decades. It's part of a series of articles from Montgomery on the issue.

Until recently, threats to fishing access have been so diverse and so scattered that they have not raised collective concern among anglers.

Why should fishermen in Maine worry that the state of California has closed waters around the Channel Islands? Why should Texans be upset that the National Park Service blocked surf casters from reaching the beaches of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina?

With the recent creation of a federal Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, however, anglers should be genuinely concerned about the future availability of their favorite waters — whether freshwater or salt — according to leaders in the recreational fishing industry.

"It's time for fishermen to pay attention," said Chris Horton, national conservation director for BASS. "Right now, this is all an administrative directive with no accountability or oversight and no real public input, and that's scary."

President Barack Obama has created the task force with a June 12 memo. Staffed with "senior policy-level officials" from Interior, Commerce, Agriculture, Homeland Security and other departments and agencies, the task force provides a structure and a mechanism that could result in closures of sport fisheries not only in the blue and coastal waters of oceans, but inland, starting with the Great Lakes.

The President said it was created "To succeed in protecting the oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes, the United States needs to act within a unifying framework under a clear national policy, including a comprehensive, ecosystem-based framework for the long-term conservation and use of our resources."

Yet those with interests in recreational fishing say early indications are that many in the administration want to take it in the direction of recreational fishing closures under the guise of better protecting those resources. They claim evidence of that can be seen in the task force's Interim Report, released on Sept. 10.

"We are completely baffled as to why the task force failed to acknowledge or include any mention of the key aspects of recreational fishing that were presented to them in detail on more than one occasion," said Phil Morlock, director of environmental affairs for Shimano American Corp./Shimano Canada Ltd. "The significant number of jobs and the economy that more than 60 million American anglers support, and the major conservation efforts by people who fish in all regions of the country, were completely ignored.

"No distinction between the obvious dramatic differences between recreational fishing and commercial harvest methods was made."

Mirroring other initiatives that this administration has undertaken, the task force was given 90 days to develop the interim report and additional 90 days to come up with a framework "for effective coastal and marine spatial planning."

In addition to embracing the idea of protected areas in Great Lakes, the memo stated that management be "consistent with international law, including customary international law as reflected by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."

The U.S. has not signed that international agreement.

"Any treaty signed by the United States takes precedence over U.S. law," Morlock said. "We could be ceding jurisdiction — and access — to the U.N."

Horton said the administrative bureaucracy is reaching into what traditionally has been state jurisdiction.

"Thanks to programs like Wallop-Breaux, paid by anglers, and Pittman-Robertson, paid by hunters, the states have done a good job of managing resources," he said. "They're in the best positions to make decisions on the ground."

Once a beachhead has been established in the Great Lakes, however, "there's not a chance that it will stop there," Morlock said, adding that inland lakes, reservoirs, and streams could see closures under this new federal strategy.

"This is very serious," added Jim Martin, director of the Berkley Conservation Institute and board chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "Seventy percent of all freshwater angler days come from lakes and reservoirs that operate at the mercy of water managers.

"It's something that we take for granted. Until now, we've believed that places like Table Rock and Guntersville always will be there for us. But we can't be complacent. Policies can change."

And those policies can be changed by people who don't know — or don't want to know — that sport fishermen are at the forefront of conservation efforts in oceans and inland waters.

"What people have to realize is the more you eliminate recreational angling, the more you eliminate a data source for good management and a monetary investment in the resource," said Gordon Robertson of the American Sportfishing Association.

Since 1952, anglers have given more than $5 billion through excise taxes on fishing equipment to the Sport Fish Restoration program, also known as Wallop-Breaux. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then distributes that money to the states for aquatic education, boating safety, access enhancement, and fisheries research and management.

Instead of acknowledging this value, though, some environmental activists want to close fisheries with, in my opinion, no scientific justification. And, despite the obvious differences, they continue to reference "fishing" as if commercial and recreational are one and the same in terms of methods and impact on resources.

"Environmentalists started that and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has picked up on it," Morlock said.

"Overfishing," too, resonates with many who rightly believe that the oceans are in trouble, and they are correct in believing that problems do exist with some ocean stocks, according to Robertson.

"Marine Protected Areas and even closures, have a place," he said. "But there's clearly a problem in that people don't know about all the good that recreational fishermen have done for the resource and how resilient fisheries are."

What can be done about those who refuse to see and/or acknowledge the importance of recreational fishing and the value that it brings to management of our waters?

"It's going to be nearly impossible to change the perspective of people on the task force," Horton said. "The saving grace is that anglers can write to their members of Congress and insist on oversight.

"There's supposedly public input into this process, but we haven't seen it," he added. "There has been no opportunity to sit down with these people and come up with a collaborative policy.

"Right now, there's just a bunch of federal administrators accepting comments. And as we saw in the Interim Report, they didn't use what we told them earlier."

For more information

Find out more about the battle for public waters at KeepAmericaFishing.org, a web site maintained by the American Sportfishing Association.

To learn more about the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and its Interim Report, click here.