People often ask why recreational anglers have such an adversarial relationship with the federal fisheries management system, and the answer is as simple as it is obvious. The National Marine Fisheries Service was created to assist and promote the domestic commercial fishing industry. Period. Only relatively recently did NMFS even begin to acknowledge a recreational component.
It is in the agency’s DNA to be a partner and collaborator with commercial fishing interests. Who is in the White House – Republican, Democrat or Other – doesn’t matter because the bureaucratic heritage at the agency never changes. You may get a new head of the Department of Commerce or a new administrator for NMFS, but the core pro-commercial mindset buried deep in the agency itself is virtually untouchable. Regional council members come and go, but federal and council staffers are the omnipresent architects of federal fisheries policy, crafting (or not crafting, as the case may be) the analysis and options that guide the councils on complicated matters.
As part of its yearly effort to talk to the vast recreational angling community, NMFS hosted a Recreational Angling Summit earlier this year. Russell Dunn, the agency’s National Policy Advisor on Recreational Fisheries, told a story about the time he asked a senior NMFS fisheries scientist a question about a recreational fishery. The scientist dismissed him brusquely, saying not to bother him with things like that because he had “real” fisheries to manage. It is good that at least now we hear about episodes like that and it took some courage for Dunn to relay it in that setting. But we are still light years from changing that culture.
That bit of insight does help explain things like the agency’s recent approval of an exempted fishing permit for a PURSE SEINE VESSEL TO HARVEST BLUEFIN TUNA. Exempted fishing permits (EFPs) are the latest tool used by the commercial industry to bend the rules on gear or other restrictions and fish when they otherwise wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be allowed. EFPs are ripe for abuse, as demonstrated by this baffling approval to allow netting of a fish that is generally considered to be on the very threshold of an endangered species declaration.
Conceivably, NMFS should at least explore ways to buy out destructive, indiscriminate gear like longlines and purse seines rather than granting exemptions to use them to harvest globally depleted species like bluefin. But that is not how the agency thinks. And so this EFP was approved, and a tone-deaf agency marches on.
Many people call it a stacked deck or an unlevel playing field for anglers, and it is, but it goes well beyond that. It is a deep philosophical disconnect. On land, we learned long ago that the industrial harvest of wildlife is not the highest and best use of those resources. NMFS is literally 100 years behind and steadily walking backwards.