On June 3, the U.S. Commerce Department’s fisheries division released their 2019-20 Recreational Engagement Plans that promised “continuing commitment to strengthening its relationship with saltwater recreational fishermen,” to provide “more engagement and two-way dialogue with NOAA Fisheries.” According to the NOAA release, “These engagement plans highlight actions that NOAA Fisheries will undertake over the next two years to improve visibility, develop understanding, and enhance collaboration with the recreational fishing communities we serve.”
Much like House members who serve two-year terms, many federal bureaucrats working the swamps of DC also see things in two-year cycles; one spent making promises, another staying mostly out of the crosshairs (a little like Jack Lemon’s character Ensign Pulver from the 1955 John Ford Film, Mr. Roberts).
If our Commerce Department really wanted to engage in two-way dialog, they should send bureaucrats on a personal visit to the local docks and tackle shops to hear what American anglers and business owners are really saying. I’d also highly recommend a trip on a local party boat to meet personally with folks who will never get invited to the ritzy, white collar summits that NOAA holds for special stakeholders every few years. But do it quickly before your present engagement efforts put anyone else out of business! Several New Jersey party boat captains were recently informed they owe six-figure fines for traveling faster than 10 knots in local waters. Radar gun? No, Big Brother! Since 2016, vessels 65 feet or longer engaged in business – like for-hire fishing – must have Automatic Identification System (AIS) installed. This real-time AIS tracking allows government agents to know where we are at all times; while captains were originally told AIS would not be used for enforcement, that’s turned out to be another NOAA fairy tale.
Over the course of about a year, one NOAA special agent tasked with reviewing AIS data determined that several local vessels were traveling in excess of the 10-knot speed restriction that extends 20 nautical miles out from November through April during the North Atlantic right whale migration (These speed limits also apply to larger sportfishing vessels over 65 feet.). The captains received no warning, no phone call, no visit from a NOAA port agent, just a big, fat, six-figure summons that far exceeds most annual revenues. As if the government’s fishing regulations weren’t punitive enough, our Commerce Department how has a new weapon in their fight against recreational fishermen! You’d think National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) could muster more engagement by actually engaging with saltwater anglers when coordinating harvest surveys; I’ve polled crowds in countless seminars over the years and can count on one hand the number of anglers who said they’ve been surveyed by NOAA agents for harvest data. So while NMFS has kept unutilized vessel trip reports on dusty shelves, they have no problem assigning a “special agent” to pore over AIS data from which to levy new fines!
“Pure bureaupap,” is how my friend Barry Gibson put it. The Maine charter captain and regional director for the Recreational Fishing Alliance has a lot of experience with these promise-makers, having spent close to 25 years as editor of Salt Water Sportsman and nine years on the New England Fishery Management Council. “NMFS has been promising to improve collaboration with the recreational sector for 35 years that I personally know of, using heartfelt terms such as develop, improve, and enhance over and over again ad nauseum, but has never actually done anything,” Capt. Gibson told me.
“I truly believe that NMFS feels that as long as they are promising good things in the future to the rec sector that its mission has been fulfilled,” Gibson added. If NOAA’s mission is to engage and destroy commerce in recreational fishing, they’re doing a bang up job! And that’s why to help NOAA “improve visibility” this column is also being sent directly to the White House.