- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

“We do not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many. Our aim is to preserve our natural resource for the public as a whole, for the average man and the average woman who make up the body of the American people.”

- President Theodore Roosevelt

The national Recreational Fishing Alliance said a competing national fishing and conservation group, the Coastal Conservation Association, would set aside fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico, but only for those who have the money to pay for them.

The RFA, headquartered in Galloway, N.J., said: “In what can best be described as a ‘pay to play’ version of fisheries management, the Texas-based CCA has gone on record with a new socialized approach to managing the nation’s coastal fisheries, whereby access to the resource is offered to the highest bidder. According to Russ Nelson, fisheries consultant for CCA, a ‘free market-based approach to managing red snapper and other marine fishes’ could create individual fishing quotas (IFQ) for the recreational fishing community, the same as commercial fishermen.”

What this is all about is a proposal by the CCA that includes issuing nonreusable tags to catch red snappers. The tags would permit record-keeping of the total allowable catch during an annual cycle. The tags would be available at a public auction every year, and people who want to catch red snappers would have to bid on available fish tags.

That’s where problems arise. The red snapper fishery is extremely popular. Commercial fishing interests already are involved in IFQs that freeze out sport anglers in certain areas. If unaffected waters become available for recreational fishermen on a bidding basis, how could the average income earner compete with professionals like attorneys, doctors and business executives who would surely be throwing their hats into the bidding ring and offer sums of money that a Wal-Mart store clerk, for example, couldn’t possibly compete with?

But Ted Venker, the communications director of the Coastal Conservation Association, said: “The tag proposal is designed to spark debate on what to do with a fishery that has resisted improvement under every management regime since the mid-1980s. We face an unappealing landscape that spurred the need to move in a completely different direction on red snapper management. We need a system that allows recreational anglers to have fair and equal access to this fishery. And that won’t come easy.”

Venker said that the proposal “takes a completely fresh approach to management of red snapper, one that is based wholly on the free-market system rather than an outdated sector allocation system.” Venker added that such a system would relieve the federal government from managing recreational anglers - “something that it has never shown itself capable of doing,” he said.

The CCA communications director said the bidding proposal to begin having exclusive set-aside waters is a “discussion document - a concept for debate.” The proposal surely has opened a debate at the Gulf council. Venker believes that individual IFQs could distribute red snapper and other waters to everybody in an open-market forum.

“This tag proposal may not be the final approach to red snapper management, but it is the only proposal yet aired that could level the playing field on IFQs and give recreational fishermen a chance to access the 51 percent commercial allocation,” he said.

But the RFA disagrees, fearing that bidding on what now are waters available to everybody amounts to taking the common man out of sport fishing.

“We think it is bad policy to rest fishing rights in a select few,” said Jim Hutchinson Jr., director of the RFA. “Such a proposal would create a fishing elite to the exclusion of the American fishing public. Together with marine reserves, this plan, if implemented, would completely eliminate open-access fishing in America. Hopefully, the Gulf council can squash this idea before it gains any credibility within fisheries management circles.”

If individual fishing quotas catch on in the Gulf, you can bet your last nickel the rest of America’s marine waters will soon follow. IFQs will be of special interest to fisheries managers in busy places like the Chesapeake and Delaware bays - and think about what will happen in Florida.

• Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com. Mueller’s Inside Outside blog can be found at www.washingtontimes.com/ sports.

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