- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thousands of saltwater fishermen, some from as far away as Florida, Texas and the Pacific Coast, will descend on the U.S. Capitol this week seeking reforms to federal policies they view as increasingly hostile to recreational fishing.

They plan to march Thursday under a banner of “United We Fish” as the anglers are joined by members of Congress who are backing revisions to encourage more flexibility from government regulators.

“The closures keep coming,” said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the New Jersey-headquartered Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), one of the rally’s main organizers. He said federal requirements that all fish populations be rebuilt to historic levels are “reckless, unrealistic and without regard for coastal communities and recreational fishermen.”

The alliance and other groups say questionable statistical methods built on inaccurate field counts of fish have led to needless closures of coastal waters in California and catch bans on popular game species like amberjack, red snapper and black sea bass along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Such bans hit charter fishing-boat operators like Paul Forsberg of Tarpon Springs, Fla., especially hard at a time when captains are already hurt by a weak economy and high fuel costs. “It’s killing us,” said Mr. Forsberg, who owns Viking Fleet in Tarpon Springs.

Fishermen talk constantly about what seems to them a disconnect between the fish they’re finding in the ocean and lesser populations claimed by scientists and regulators with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We’ve never seen so many fish in the ocean,” Mr. Forsberg said. “The scientists are saying, ‘No, you’re not seeing what you’re seeing, you’re lying.’ ”

Officials at the fisheries service insist they’re not trying to kick amateur anglers off the water.

“It does concern us when we hear that fishermen don’t have confidence in our numbers, and we’re working hard to make them better,” said Forbes Darby, recreational fishing coordinator for the NMFS. “Folks see what’s going on with fish in their part of the world, and they want to see that reflect in our numbers. We get that.”

Jim Smarr, state chairman of the RFA in Texas, said things are grim for recreational fishing on the other side of the Gulf, too.

“The docks around Port Aransas are getting emptier. Every year, there are fewer charter operators left in business and less access for fishermen. Family operators that have made a living doing this 30, 40 years, are dropping out every month. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts to a way of life.”

Recreational saltwater fishing and its impact on fish are difficult to measure simply because they cover everything from anglers going after trophy fish from multimillion-dollar charter boats to children dropping a rented line from a pier.

A 2004 government report found that more than 13 million Americans make more than 80 million recreational saltwater fishing trips a year, generating more than $30 billion in economic activity that supports more than 350,000 jobs.

The way fish landed by amateurs are counted - and how the effort made to catch fish is measured - are sore subjects for many anglers.

Spot checks at piers, charter docks and boat ramps are admittedly hit-and-miss, and Mr. Darby said that’s why officials are looking for the best sources for each species. Even more literally random are NMFS surveys aimed at estimating who has gone fishing. The current method is based on randomly dialing coast-city phone listings asking if anyone at home goes fishing in the sea.

Congress told fishing regulators to fix that flaw three years ago by setting up a national saltwater fishing registry, a voluntary system that went into effect the first of this year for anglers in eight coastal states that have yet to require a saltwater license: Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Virginia.

Officials in the other 15 saltwater states that do require a license or registration to fish on the coast are sharing names and phone numbers with the fisheries service.

Many fishermen embrace this new system, while others say the surveys still will not accurately reflect who’s on the water.

Mr. Smarr said he’d rather see a voluntary system that has anglers use “catch cards” that would note their take on every trip and be mailed in to a regional fisheries office to be scanned and tallied. “True data sets us all free,” he said.

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