By Jenny Neyman
Don’t let the term “recreational” mislead you, sportfishing is serious business, and panelists at the Classic Roundtable on National Recreational Fishing made the case for it to be taken more seriously in public perception and federal fisheries management.
“We think there’s a pretty compelling case, particularly if you look at economics, as to why we need to elevate the focus on recreational fishing within our federal fisheries management system,” said Mike Leonard, policy director of the American Sportfishing Association. “If you look at finfish harvested in the U.S., there are actually more jobs supported and more of an economic impact by recreational fishing than commercial fishing. However, recreational fishing is only responsible for 2 percent of finfish harvested.”
The roundtable was put on Wednesday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association as part of its annual Kenai River Classic fundraising event. The panel consisted of various national leaders in the sportfishing community, representing Yamaha Marine, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Center for Coastal Conservation Board of Directors, American Sportfishing Association, Alaska Oil and Gas Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Coastal Conservation Association.
Alaska’s congressional delegation participated (Sen. Lisa Murkowski in person, with Sen. Dan Sullivan sending his chief of staff, Joe Balash, as Sullivan was unable to attend), and of the 30 or so people in the audience, several were state politicians, though no elected or governmental officials representing the Kenai Peninsula were in attendance.
The two-hour presentations tackled the 20-year future of recreational fishing, with a look at current challenges and how to meet those challenges in the future to ensure that recreational fishing and its contribution to the economy and conservation continue to grow.
Martin Peters, manager of government relations for Yamaha Motor Corp., USA, and moderator of the event, detailed some of that contribution.
“America’s 11 million saltwater anglers spend $26.5 billion each year on fishing equipment, tackle, apparel and travel, creating 455,000 American jobs, generating $20.5 billion in income and contributing $70 billion to the American economy. Clearly, recreational fishing is important business for America,” Peters said.
Leonard and other panelists advocated for a system of federal fisheries management that puts recreational fishing more on par with commercial fishing.
“We would argue that, in terms of economics, we need to elevate the focus that we’re paying for recreational fishing as the economic case would lend yourself to think that that is a pretty sound argument,” Leonard said.
After all, said Patrick Murray, president of the Coastal Conservation Association, money spent by anglers is a significant support of fisheries management and conservation.
“The American sportsmen and women are the backbone and often literally the wallet of good conservation. As a group we contribute $1.5 billion — I’m going to say that again because $1.5 billion is a stunning number — mainly through excise taxes, fishing licenses and direct donations,” Murray said. “That is that user-pay model that we talked about earlier, the American system of conservation funding.”
But it’s not only the federal fishery management system that doesn’t recognize the importance of recreational fishing, says Jeff Gabriel, legislative counsel at the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Anglers have failed to recognize it, as well. And that needs to change to more effectively push for change at the management level.
“Quite frankly, to educate our members as much as the fishing community itself as to what do we bring to the table,” Gabriel said. “What is it that we are as a community and what kind of power do we have? So, as an industry, we need to do a better job of explaining what it is that we do and what it is that we represent.”
As the event wrapped up Wednesday afternoon, Peters summed up the recommendations from the panel.
“Looking towards the next 20 years, we, who are recreational fishermen, need to consider new management models. We need to work harder to conserve the resource and, finally, we need to do a better job of organizing ourselves and expanding our coalition,” he said.
He added his own 2 cents, that, as change comes, disagreements with other groups should be handled in a “mutual gains” approach.
“You sit down at the same table with your adversary, and you enter into joint fact-finding. You do things like accepting responsibility for your mistakes, you acknowledge the concerns of the other side,” he said.
The recession took a bite out of recreational fishing, but participation is growing again — the latest survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found a 13 percent increase in participation in recreational fishing, Leonard said. That makes it even more incumbent on recreational anglers to band together and speak up, especially in addressing federal fishery management issues.
“We can’t really pay attention to those successes when, where our problems are arising, we’re not doing enough to meaningfully address those,” Leonard said.
Mullins ended on a happier note — specifically one from author Zane Grey, who said, “Hope burns always in the heart of a fisherman.”
“I think all of us as anglers are a pretty optimistic bunch. We’re always holding on to that hope that that next cast is going to be the one that will hook into the big one,” Mullins said. “… And so I tend to put myself in that very optimistic, hopeful camp when I think about the future of our sport, the future of our industry and the future of the conservation of our resource, as well. … We have a clear vision for the future of where we want to go, where we need to be as a community. We’re not only talking about challenges but we’re bringing solutions to the table, so I think that’s very important.”