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Rep. Frank Pallone and Sen. Bob Menendez make the rounds in Atlantic Highlands talking with recreational fishermen, while back in DC their fellow congressmen are tackling fisheries reform.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  July 30, 2017
On the docks of the Atlantic Highlands Municipal Harbor (left to right) Congressman Frank Pallone, harbormaster John Amici, mayor Rhonda C. Le Grice, Senator Bob Menendez and Capt. Tom Buban of the Atlantic Star talk about issues hampering the New Jersey recreational fishermen. Photo by Jim Hutchinson, Jr.

“These amendments need to not only support the existing population of recreational anglers and fishing related businesses but also allow for new entrants to come into the fishery and businesses to grow and expand,” Cicero told recreational industry members assembled for a day of meetings with members of Congress.

“The law needs to recognize that in its current form, our tradition of fishing cannot be passed onto our children without MSA taking away opportunity from the rest of the fishing community,” Cicero said, adding “MSA, as it applies to the recreational fishing, is a flawed law, one that stifles growth of our industry and challenges the very future of our tradition.”

Opponents of angler efforts to reform the federal fisheries law include organizations like Pew Environment Group, Ocean Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and the Marine Fish Conservation Network. As sportsmen’s organizations convened in Washington DC on July 19 to ask members of Congress to help recognize the recreational sector through MSA reform, Charles Witek, a frequent critic of regulatory reform efforts and a blogger for the Marine Fish Conservation Network told members of the House Committee on Natural Resources that the law was doing just fine for coastal fishermen as it stands now.

However, in one particularly unusual exchange, Rep. Graves of Louisiana grilled Witek on his support for something called the “Catch Share Experience” where commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico with exclusive ownership of fish stock take charters fishing under their commercial quota; private anglers get to “experience” fishing by catching the commercial vessel owner’s fish on rod and reel, returning to the local fish market afterwards where they can buy fish at a retail price.

“Mr. Witek, I’ve heard that you’re a proponent of what some have called a catch share experience,” asked Rep. Garret Graves

“Yes I am,” Mr. Witek replied.

“I’m struggling with understanding how that’s an appropriate application of resources,” Rep. Graves replied. “It seems if there’s additional demand for recreational fishing, and it’s being handled by commercial fishers, it seems that’s more of a charter activity or a recreational activity, it seems that’s almost poaching.”

Donofrio somewhat agreed with Rep. Graves’ poaching assessment, but pointed out that’s just another flaw in the present law.

“They’re doing it under the law, but the whole thing is a conflict of interest. You’re either commercial or recreational, I mean you can’t have recreational fishermen going offshore on scallop boats,” Donofrio said. The fact that commercial shareholders in the Gulf of Mexico are harvesting more than enough to supply the United States with a daily supply of red snapper at $15 a pound for consumers, Donofrio said the “catch share experience” shows just how seriously flawed the federal fisheries law really has become.

“These fish barons, with the help of Environmental Defense Fund and the Obama administration, created this monster, cornering the market on Gulf red snapper, while leaving shareholders enough leftover fish to sell back to the recreational community,” Donofrio said. “Clearly our saltwater anglers are getting shut out by a broken law, and we simply cannot allow this same type of Wall Street takeover of any more of these fisheries shared between the commercial and recreational sector, whether snapper or sea bass, fluke or cod.”

In the same exchange with Rep. Graves, Witek claimed to be nothing more than a concerned recreational fisherman, yet the former Wall Street attorney refused to answer how he’d come into possession of unpublished discussion documents coming out of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“Actually I would prefer not to answer that question,” Witek replied, seemingly invoking his Fifth Amendment rights before the congressional subcommittee.

On Friday, July 21, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) took a tour of Atlantic Highlands Municipal Harbor where they spoke to fishermen and captains on local head boats and visited Fishermen’s Den North to talk about ongoing issues in the recreational fishing community. While neither legislator sits on committees responsible for moving fisheries legislation along the proper channels, Donofrio said their support for HR.2023 and S.1520 would go a long way in seeing Magnuson reform move forward in this Congress.

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