Speak Up…Please

My somewhat strange obsession with fisheries management for the past three decades has been punctuated by a continual frustration.

That’s the fact that just a small number of little-known people, listening to another small number of little-known people, make huge decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of anglers.

Usually, I’m afraid, the average Joe out there isn’t much heard.

The problem hit home especially hard when, flying to Tallahassee for still another meeting uncovered by the media, I scanned the millions of homes five miles below us and considered how so much of their outdoors enjoyment is influenced by those unseen small numbers.

The vast gap between the citizenry and the folks making the big decisions is a bit scary.

But the good news on a state level is that it used to be even much worse. Many of us remember how just a couple all-powerful senators ruled the roost and pushed through bad law on behalf of certain lobbyist cronies. More importantly, they often quietly killed good legislation without a whisper.

Nowadays, at least, we anglers have our own lobbyists to follow the machinations, and we more often than not achieve good changes, such as the felony status for illegal gill netting.

And the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida is present and active at nearly all state meetings.

We’ve seen a revolution in Florida fisheries, which is a huge satisfaction.

Still, there’s that frustration over the fact that more grassroots anglers don’t pipe up more often.

The failure is most apparent on the federal scene. Workshops, research and hearings orchestrated by the National Marine Fisheries Service and its regional councils attract piddling bits of response from the legions of anglers who fish the blue water.

We’re convinced that the non-participation is just the way the feds like it, perfect to serve their longstanding alliance with the powerful commercial fishing industry.

Data is constantly massaged and manipulated to exaggerate the impact of recreational fishing and downplay overfishing for the market.

Most compelling is NMFS’s total refusal to consider the concept of prohibiting large-scale commercial uses in a proposed zone while allowing small personal-use fishing on a family level. They take the all-or-nothing approach, and only that approach.

Currently, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is ramming through a network of eight no-fishing zones that bans all fishing for snowy grouper and other deepwater species.

The Council’s recent newsletter shows a color photo of several recreational anglers holding snowy groupers, with a cleverly written caption suggesting that these catches are a significant part of an overfishing situation.

The fact is, however, that the recreational catch is an unimportant four percent of the snowy grouper catch. Four percent.

Why no photo of a pile of snowies on a commercial boat, where the real problem exists?

These latest no-fishing zones slid through largely because of that same lack of public input that had haunted state management for so long. At one point the feds heard from a total of only 17 people about the closures. Little wonder they can get away with whatever the commercial forces desire.

We’re destined to get more of the same until we hound Congress for reform. And until we show up in greater numbers in the process.