Classic Roundtable calls for separate saltwater sportfishing regulations

While the federal government is reevaluating the Magnuson-Stevens Act for reauthorization, recreational fishing groups would like to change how marine sportfishing is regulated.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, originally enacted in 1976, defines how the federal government manages fisheries in federal waters. In addition to establishing an exclusive economic zone from three to 200 nautical miles offshore, the act created councils that manage fisheries across the country. This includes the North Pacific Marine Fishery Management Council, which manages species like halibut, cod, pollock and some rockfish species in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

However, some have found fault with the way the act manages different types of fishing. At the time the act was written, sportfishing in saltwater was more limited, and so the parameters of the law tend to be designed for commercial fishing.

Alternative management was the topic of Wednesday’s fourth annual Classic Roundtable on National Recreational Fishing, part of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association’s annual Kenai River Classic event. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) both attended, listening in to the panel discussion and asking questions about different suggested management strategies.

Murkowski said the energy bill she introduced earlier this year made several provisions to increase sport angling access through its conservation reauthorization section. Additional funding for sportfishing habitat is included, as is new language that would include an “open unless closed” policy on federal lands, she said.

“Right now within certain agencies … you effectively have this policy that says this is going to be off limits,” Murkowski said. “We’re changing that. We’re saying it’s going to be open unless otherwise closed instead of the reverse.”

Sullivan said he was interested in the federal saltwater sportfishery management and would review some of the suggestions in the discussion for the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

“What I’ve been trying to do, as Sen. Murkowski mentioned, is to make sure that the data and the science is very, very, very well funded,” he said. “We can use that not to have politicians make allocation decisions, but to make sure that we continue to have the best-managed fisheries probably in the world.”

Panelists zeroed in on the faults they saw in federal management of fish species for recreational fishermen. Michael Nussman, president and CEO of the Virginia-based American Sportfishing Association and the moderator of the panel, said the current approach is not working for recreational fishermen and new approaches need to be considered.

“Recreational and commercial fisheries are fundamentally different activities and should be managed differently,” he said.

Chris Horton, fisheries program director and Midwestern states director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, who spoke on the panel, said a better method would be to manage for harvest rates rather than pounds to allow for more effort without abrupt season closures. He cited a report from the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, informally known as the Morris-Deal Commission for its co-chairs Johnny Morris and Scott Deal, that suggests separate management for saltwater recreational fisheries.

More states with saltwater fisheries should have control over the fisheries management there, like Alaska does, said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and a member of the panel. He also served on the commission that produced the Morris-Deal Commission report.

“The reason that the federal government delegates to the state of Alaska all management for salmon is that we do a much better job than the federal government ever did in the past,” Gease said.

Alaska conforms to most of the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s stipulations for salmon management but escapement goals replace annual catch limits elsewhere, and stocks of concern replace fixed timelines for fishing, he said. Allocation is still a controversy, particularly in Cook Inlet’s mixed-use fisheries, where many sportfishermen compete with a variety of commercial operations. He advocated for a proposed voluntary permit buyback program in Cook Inlet’s East Side Set Net fishery, in which the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission would purchase about half the existing permits at a cost of between $50 million to $60 million, he said.

Fewer participants in the fishery would increase the value of each remaining participant and alleviate some concerns about inriver allocation and king salmon conservation, he said.

“This is a real opportunity for a win-win solution where we can reduce the number of commercial permits while maintaining an overall commercial sockeye salmon harvest,” Gease said. “We can increase the number of valuable king salmon entering the river for sport anglers and for escapement.”

The buyback deal is still in progress, with discussions of having both the commercial and sportfishermen contribute to fund it, Gease said. It would be modeled after the Southeast Alaska purse seine permit buyback program, completed in 2010.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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