Anglers rally for changes in fishing law

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Nearly 5,000 recreational and commercial fishermen gather in Washington to protest "inflexible" catch limits

Thousands of fishermen from Alaska to New England and California converged in February on a wintry Capitol Hill, gathering beside the Capitol building to demonstrate united support for more flexible fishing rules.

A crowd of recreational and commercial fishermen, estimated at 5,000, came to Washington, D.C., from as far away as California.

Sponsored by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the Feb. 24 rally aimed to convince legislators to change the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. "We're all a little bit exhausted," says RFA managing director and event organizer Jim Hutchinson. "It turned out even better than we imagined."

The RFA expected 3,000 participants and there were reports of up to 5,000 fishermen in the crowd, Hutchinson says. About 40 chartered buses filled with supporters made the trek to the nation's capital from several states along the East Coast. A bipartisan group of more than 20 members of Congress joined the rally in support of the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2009 (HR 1584 and S 1255), which would amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to extend the authorized time period for rebuilding of certain overfished fisheries and for other purposes.

The proposed legislation, according to Hutchinson, would allow the Secretary of Commerce to have more flexibility in making decisions that minimize the economic impact of fishing communities.

"[Fishing] is more than a lifestyle, it's a tradition and a livelihood for these people," Hutchinson says. "No one wants to catch the last fish. We just want to be able to continue to fish."

Chief among fishermen's concerns are the 10-year time frames regarding stock rebuilding, which the RFA argues are too rigid.

"I understand the criticism of the 10-year rebuilding time frames in Magnuson," says Eric Schwaab, NOAA assistant administrator for fisheries, in a statement regarding the rally and opposition to the Magnuson Act. "However, I believe Magnuson already contains the flexibility we need for rebuilding stocks by allowing certain exceptions based on biology and other issues. Balancing rebuilding for the long-term health of coastal communities with the immediate economic effects remains a challenge for everyone involved in implementing the act's mandate to end overfishing and rebuild stocks."

The rally united two traditional rivals: commercial and recreational fishermen. Though sometimes at odds, these two factions found common ground in this issue, say organizers. Attendance was equally mixed between recreation and commercial fishermen, according to the RFA. "It's all about reasonable access to healthy, rebuilding fish stocks," says Gary Caputi, fishery management consultant and longtime RFA member. "That's something we can all agree on. The rally was a positive step for everybody."

The rally brought much-needed attention to the issue, according to Matthew Dunn, legislative director for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

"It's a complex problem with diverse solutions," Dunn says. "We look forward to working with all parties."

For the RFA, the next step is to maintain its lobbying effort. "We've gotten our foot in the door," says Caputi. "The conversation has been started and now we work on the legislature to get these problems solved."

For information, visit www.unitedwefish.com.

This article originally appeared in the New England and Connecticut/New York Home Waters Sections of the May 2010 issue.