Does the ocean make a sound if there is no one there to hear it?

I know that is a somewhat childish dip into the waters of phenomenology, but it begs a relevant question of modern anglers. Are we losing recreational fishing access to our nation’s waters? It’s a simple question. And if federal regulatory action is any indicator, I fear the answer becomes obvious.

In 2016, the U.S. National Parks Service disappointed anglers with plans to close 10,000-plus acres of prime reef fishing area in Biscayne National Park. Additionally,there is increasing chatter about federal designation of marine monuments and reserves, marine protected areas and other tools designed to remove anglers from the environment by preventing them from accessing it.

Arguably, the most fundamental need of recreational angling is access. If you are prohibited from fishing, all of the complications of tide, wind, feeding patterns and every other nuance in successful angling become irrelevant. If you can’t go fishing, it really doesn’t matter if they’re not biting.

The most popular recreational fishery in the U.S. is largemouth bass. You ask yourself why that is? Is it their sizzling runs? Their non-stop, Olympic-quality acrobatics? Fine table fare? I would argue that although they are an incredibly desirable sport fish to pursue, their unique and ubiquitous appeal largely comes from the fact that an eager angler of any age is rarely more than a short drive, bike ride or even walk from a pond, lake, reservoir or river that houses one of these fine fish. It is access that helps them be the target of hundreds of thousands if not millions of angler trips a year.
The lovable finfish species of our oceans and bays will always have a distinct disadvantage in luring prospective suitors, garnering a fraction of the angler trips per year that freshwater species do. By proximity, saltwater is quite a bit more difficult and often expensive to access. Although favorable improvements in so many forms of transportation have aided the ease in accessing coastal destinations, it is always going to be easier for a landlocked angler to access a largemouth over a saltwater species.

So why would the National Parks Service try to limit recreational angling in a marine-centered national park? Why would there be near-constant rumblings of potential massive marine no-fishing zones being created via the Antiquities Act at the end of virtually every Presidential term in the past two decades? I apparently missed when it was determined that recreational angling was such an imminent and imposing threat to the future of our nation’s fisheries and the integrity of federal parks that it needed to be banned. I find it incredible that so much energy is put into efforts to remove recreational anglers from the marine environment when longlines, trawls and gill nets are not only allowed, but encouraged to clear-cut so much of our nation’s coastal waters.

The above scenario is even more outrageous when you look at the economics involved. NOAA Fisheries announced in its annual report on Fisheries Economics of the U.S. that commercial fishing generated $5.4 billion in revenue in 2014, but there was absolutely no mention in that same report of the amount of money that recreational fishing generated. If you look back at 2011, the last time NOAA produced recreational expenditure estimates, recreational fisheries generated $23.4 billion in a single year! If you extend those estimates to the 2014 effort estimates presented in the current press release, recreational fishing generated $24.4 billion in 2014.

Incredibly, that $24.4 billion is generated on a mere two-percent of the nation’s harvest of marine finfish. The commercial sector generates its $5.4 billion on the other 98 percent, or 9.5 billion pounds of dead fish. And yet, the federal fisheries management system is regularly trying to promote and perpetuate commercial fisheries by creating privatized harvest rights and subsidies.

Are our shared oceans disappearing? They are not. But if access is denied to anglers through no-fishing zones or woefully misguided management regimes, the answer is inevitably a resounding Yes.

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