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 from Montgomery on the issue.
With the deadline just a few days away for a federal "framework" that could have negative consequences for recreational anglers, members of Congress, as well as individual fishermen are speaking out regarding this threat to public access.
"It is time for all of those who enjoy the outdoors — not just hunters and fishermen — to take back our rights from the government that is eroding our access under the guise of conservation," said Steve Chaconas, a fishing guide on the Potomac River.
"We are the stewards of the environment. We fund maintenance and restoration of waterways with purchase of licenses and support the industry through excise taxes on our gear. In protecting and promoting our sport, we also protect and promote our fisheries.
"But the biggest impact we can have to control our own destiny is fighting back with our votes at election time! It is time to be proactive and to talk to our representatives and to others who aren't aware of what is taking place. Otherwise, in the blink of an eye, we will be telling future generations what it was like to cast a line and enjoy a day on the water."
What has Chaconas and so many others in the angling community worried is the mission of an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force convened by President Barack Obama back in June. Obama ordered "senior policy-level officials" to create a plan for managing not only the oceans and coastal waters, but the Great Lakes as well.
Ostensibly, producing a "comprehensive, ecosystem-based framework for the long-term conservation and use of our resources" might seem a good idea. But advocates for recreational angling fear that some on this task force side with preservationists who would like to ban all consumptive use of these public waters, with inclusion of the Great Lakes a means of pushing federal control into inland lakes, reservoirs, and streams.
Additionally, they point out that the task force's Interim Report made no distinction between recreational anglers, who are stewards of the resource, and commercial fishermen, who have overfished many stocks.
"As you consider a marine spatial planning framework, we urge you to include representatives of the recreational fishing community in any new ocean governance structure," said two members of Congress in a recent letter to the task force and its chair, Nancy Sutley.
Rep. Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican, and Rep. Dan Boren, a Oklahoma Democrat, added, "While marine spatial planning can be a valuable method of preserving ocean environments, we are concerned about the possibility that such planning could place restrictions or unnecessary burdens on the ability of the public to enjoy these public resources.
"Furthermore, the inclusion of representatives of the recreational fishing community could greatly assist with many of the task force's state objectives. For example, with more than 13 million saltwater anglers in the United States, these groups form an effective network for better educating the public and coordinating local support for ocean policies."
Both Putnam and Boren are members of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus (CSC).
Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportmen's Foundation, which serves as a link between CSC and the sportsmen's community, said that along with their sporting partners, the CSF discussed in detail issues of interest and concern to the recreational fishing community in a July meeting and followed up with a written submission to Sutley.
"We offered specific, detailed recommendations to the task force, emphasizing the need to recognize and promote recreational angling in any federal policy the task force developed," Crane said.
But the Interim Report, released in September, did not mention of recreational angling and its contributions. Instead, it spoke only of "overfishing" and "unsustainable fishing," implying that recreational anglers and commercial fishermen are one and the same.
At a Sportfishing Summit in October, however, a key member of the task force seemed to make amends. "As an active participant in the task force process, I want to assure the recreational fishing community that this concern has been heard," said Jane Lubchenco, Undersecretary of Commerce and administrator of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. "The task force has now received significant input from anglers across the country. I am confident that when the task force releases its final report (mid December), your interests will be recognized."
But many still fear what could happen to public access when the task force issues its "recommended framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning" sometimes this month.
Some outdoorsmen are speaking out.
"I'm absolutely miffed at the lack of science in this and the failure to separate sport from commercial fishing and how each impacts the resource differently," said Dave Burkhardt, an avid angler and owner of Triple Fish International, a Florida-based fishing line company. "To anyone with common sense, it's so obvious that these issues should be addressed, but, so far, they have been ignored. This is big government at its worst."
Ron Castille, a sportsman and outfitter in Louisiana, added, "Possibly 50 years ago I might have been persuaded to allow the government to get involved with the management our waterways. Then the American public had much more confidence in their government.
"I and the people that I associate with these days do not have the confidence in our government officials to allow them any management or control of any projects. Today I am opposed to any additional government management of our waterways and any management or control of any newly proposed projects."
But have anglers been vocal enough to assist the CSC and the recreational fishing industry in protecting public access? Understandably, most fishermen just want to fish.
"I am realist enough to know that we have to be involved," said North Carolina angler Bill Frazier. "But I believe the majority of fishermen, casual, recreational, and competitive, view fishing as an escape that is only supposed to be about fun. Not politics, not conservation, not invasive prevention."
The answer to that question will be revealed during the next few days, along with the blueprint for our angling future.