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What the NOC means for anglers

8/7/2010

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 on the issue.

The deal is done and a structure is in place that could lead to the closure of at least some recreational fisheries.

As reported recently by ESPNOutdoors.com, President Barack Obama used an executive order to implement "Final Recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force," released on July 19. That 96-page document is as notable for what it does not say as it is for what it does.

What it does not say is that recreational angling is a national priority deserving special status because of its unique and considerable value economically, socially, and historically, as well as its contributions to conservation.

That designation, which has been part of executive orders in previous administrations, would have afforded sports fisheries increased protection from closures by "marine spatial planning" — a broad term for the management of certain activities within marine areas.

Instead, recreational fishing could be thrown into the mix right along with commercial fishing, oil drilling, wind farms and other uses that the National Ocean Council (NOC) and nine regional planning groups will consider as they plot out how public waters will be utilized.

But recreational fishing is not a consumptive, for-profit use of the resource, as are commercial fishing and oil drilling. Rather, recreational angling contributes billions of dollars annually to the economy, as it allows millions of Americans to enjoy themselves in the outdoors with friends and family.

The American Sportfishing Association expressed concern about the "top-down tone of the policy," noting that it sets the foundation for "vast areas" of America's public waters to be closed to angling.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance added: "We don't see anything in the presidential order that guarantees recreational anglers' rights to fish will be protected in the future. Simple inclusion of the term 'recreational values' does not give the RFA any confidence that this new administrative bureaucracy will acknowledge the role of our recreational industry or honor the conservation decisions of established fisheries councils."

However, Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation (CSF), expressed cautious optimism. "I don't think that all recreational fisheries will be closed or that the NOC intends to do that," he said.

Last week, Crane and others met with the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which spearheaded the task force, to argue for priority status of recreational uses of the oceans.

"I think they are finally understanding the concept," Crane said. Administration officials "at least acknowledged the difference between commercial angling and recreational fishing. Bottom line is that we as the sport fishing community need to stay on top of this and engaged as it moves forward, which we intend to do."

In the first document from the task force last fall, recreational angling was not mentioned. Instead, the authors spoke only of "overfishing" and "unsustainable fishing," implying that recreational angling and commercial fishing were one and the same.

ASA, CSF and others voiced their concerns to the CEQ and the task force. Also, they recognized the possibility that the structure (NOC) being put in place could lead to closure of recreational fisheries, as regional planning groups implemented their plans.

In fact, some suspected that this agenda was being pushed by environmental groups and their supporters in the administration who are preservationists, as opposed to conservationists.

It seemed likely that these same people and their associates would try to orchestrate closures similar to what has happened in California under the Marine Life Protection Act. Pushed by anti-fishing activists, that process has shut off angler access to prime fishing waters while ignoring science-based fisheries management.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and others on the task force told angling representatives in a meeting of the ASA that they were listening to their concerns.

In March, a firestorm was created when concerns reached proportions that some angling groups feared the Obama Administration would ban recreational fishing.

Angler outrage got the attention of the White House. That possibly delayed issuance of the Executive Order, and it certainly helped the angling community drive home the importance and popularity of recreational fishing.

It also prompted the administration to address concerns. NOAA's Eric Schwaab said flatly, "The Ocean Policy Task Force has not recommended a ban on recreational fishing."

In the wake of that controversy, the final document does mention the importance of recreational angling. In fact, the word "recreation," along with its variations, appears more than 50 times, while Obama mentions the word twice in his executive order. From page 51 of the final recommendations:

"From a societal perspective, CMSP (Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning) would improve opportunities for community and citizen participation in open planning processes that would determine the future of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes. For example, the CMSP process would recognize the social, economic, public health, and conservation benefits of sustainable recreational use of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources (e.g. fishing, boating, swimming, and diving), by providing improved coordination with recreational users to ensure consideration of continued access and opportunities to experience and enjoy these activities consistent with safety and conservation goals."

To those who worried that sport fishing would be lumped with, and restricted with, commercial fishing, these mentions of recreational uses are cause for celebration.

Some, however, remain concerned that recreational angling was not given national priority status, as requested by the fishing community.

"The president missed a great opportunity to entrench angler access to public waters as a national priority in the EO," said Phil Morlock, director of environmental affairs for Shimano.

"Although the angling community suggested the importance of this many times to the administration/task force ... evidently there was a reason the White House chose not to adopt this important recommendation and the omission is a concern."

In addition to what was not said, some will be concerned about what is included in the final recommendations. As it has from the beginning, the task force endorses closer adherence to dictates of the United Nations, including its 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The United States has not yet signed that international agreement, which opponents fear might interfere with the North American model of science-based fisheries management.

"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."

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1984, then-Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick said ratification would "diminish our capacity for self-government, including, ultimately, our capacity for self-defense."

Yet another concern is the reach of the National Ocean Council. Final recommendations leave no doubt that NOC will become a giant bureaucracy with authority that extends far inland, beyond oceans, coastal areas and the Great Lakes to lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

"The geographic scope would include inland bays and estuaries in both coastal and Great Lakes settings," the report states on page 55. "Inclusion of inland bays and estuaries is essential because of the significant ecological, social, and economic linkages between these areas with offshore areas. Additional inland areas may be included in the planning area as the regional planning bodies, described in Section X of this Part, deem appropriate. Regardless, consideration of inland activities would be necessary to account for the significant interaction between upstream activities and ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes uses and ecosystem health."

And page 56 includes what can only be described as doublespeak:

"Although the geographic scope of the CMSP area in the United States would not include upland areas unless a regional planning body determines to include them, the health and well-being of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes are in large part the result of the interrelationships among land, water, air and human activities."

The bureaucracy created by the president has the potential to be as massive as it is pervasive. In addition to the NOC, the executive order calls for a Governance Coordinating Committee, regional advisory committees and assorted subcommittees.

The NOC alone contains more than two dozen members, including the secretaries of State, Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, Energy and Homeland Security, as well as the attorney general and assorted assistants to the president. It also will have a director and a deputy director.

The nine regional planning bodies, meanwhile, will consist of "federal, state, and tribal authorities relevant to CMSP for that region."

Anglers should be pleased that the executive order did not spell out a plan to ban recreational fishing in America's waters as was feared initially. But they should be concerned that a framework has now been put into place to establish government control of where you can and cannot fish.

Involvement is critical to the future of fishing.

To learn more, go to KeepAmericaFishing.org, a web site maintained by the American Sportfishing Association.