Battle for access


More and more when I talk with hard-core, passionate fishermen, the discussion ultimately turns into heated conversations on season closures and other detrimental factors facing anglers everywhere.

Although we may not agree on everything, we are in 100 percent agreement that while organizations are fighting various battles, fishermen are all losing the war for "access."

In my opinion, access consumes many categories (both freshwater and saltwater) but none are as important as land or waterway access rights, including Marine Protected Areas. Most fishermen do not realize that MPAs exist here on the east coast. We all know about California and their MPAs, but many of us just assume it's those different thinking folks in San Francisco that helped create that particular MPA.

We all assume that sort of thing can't ever happen here. And you know what they say about those who assume.

Well, it is occurring. Before we all jump to conclusions with fists in the air, take a step back and look at the big picture because MPAs are not necessarily a bad thing. Examples of east coast MPAs include Stellwagen Bank off of Provincetown Cape Cod as well as some ship wrecks in the Atlantic Ocean, and we can still fish and boat in and around them.

Most people think of an MPA as a closed off waterway or a place of denied access to all people and boaters. But in all fairness, that is not always the case as it depends upon which government agency controls the overall management of a particular MPA and why it is being managed in the first place.

The federal definition of an MPA, according to Executive Order 13158 of May 2000, is "any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, tribal, territorial, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein."

Basically, an MPA is an area where natural resources are given greater protection than the surrounding waters. According to NOAA, MPAs vary widely in purpose, legal authorities, agencies, management approaches, level of protection, and restrictions on human uses.

The buzz here in the northeast this past week is the nomination of Gateway National Recreation Area into the list. The U.S. National Park covers portions of New York and New Jersey and any regulations, good or bad, influences the recreational behaviors of millions of anglers, boaters, beach-goers and more.

The park consists of three units, the Jamaica Bay Unit, Staten Island Unit and the popular Sandy Hook Unit. Although boaters, anglers and beach-goers utilize Great Kills Harbor on Staten Island as well as Jamaica Bay on the outskirts of New York City, Sandy Hook probably yields the most traffic from individuals each year.

Each one of these units offers excellent bird watching, tourism and more importantly fishing and boating opportunities. Some of our best fishing and access areas occur in and around the recreation area, all within eyesight of Manhattan.

The park's General Management Plan of 1979 is a comprehensive and dynamic plan despite the complexity of the geography of Gateway. However, with changing times comes environmental factors and conditions that warrant a revision or new plan, a Columbia University research project determined.

A new management plan that considers environmental factors such as global warming, ultimately affecting the overall ecosystem is needed. Columbia University recently released a 74-page review with suggestions for Gateway National Recreation Area.

This study is aimed at educating the U.S. National Park Service as it continues to preserve and protect Gateway for future generations. Data collected by this University project will certainly carry weight as NOAA moves toward another MPA here in the northeast.

Sources at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said talk of this MPA nomination has swirled for a few years, and who gets control is crucial.

"If some federal agencies get control, stringent regulations will certainly take effect," the source said. " However, if one or two agencies take control of this MPA, then a complete closure could result. It all depends on which agency controls this MPA."

In this situation, access could very well be denied. At the very least, I could see certain portions of these units closed during fish spawning periods and extreme low water periods when considering marsh grasses and more. Our overall right to access a specific area could be at stake.

However, over the past few months I have met with and had lengthy conversations with high ranking officials at NOAA on various topics. NOAA as a whole is trying to get the best stock assessments possible; they are looking to fill jobs and create vibrant coastal communities.

That principal is a core focus for Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Under Secretary of Commerce and NOAA Administrator. If that is in fact a true core value of NOAA, then an MPA shutdown of Gateway would destroy jobs, tourism and kill that vibrant coastal community in which they are trying to preserve and protect moving forward.

Getting true stock assessments from an angry mob of anglers will certainly go down in flames. I am certain that NOAA is aware of these factors as they consider the best solution for Gateway.

The final outcome of this MPA and its management plan will be a balancing act for certain. All we as anglers can do is to become better educated on the policies, studies and agencies that potentially impact our fisheries. Keep in mind that information is power, especially when we are face to face with policy makers.

Gateway is up for nomination on Feb. 22, 2010. To learn more about Gateway National Recreation Area and the potential MPA looming, go to Columbia University for Gateway National Recreation Area, where you can access the full report.

Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).