Local Contingent To Join Fisheries March On Capitol

OCEAN CITY – In what will likely be a historic show of solidarity, thousands of recreational and commercial fishermen from all over the country, including a huge contingent from the Ocean City area, will convene on the steps of the U.S. Capitol next week in an organized protest against flawed federal fisheries management policies.

The “United We Fish” demonstration, set for next Wednesday, Feb. 24, in Washington, D.C., is set to be an organized protest against the continued negative impacts of the Magnuson Stevens Conservation and Management Act (MSA), which governs federal fisheries policy. Magnuson was first adopted decades ago in an effort to better regulate federal fisheries policy in terms of monitoring catch and population data and making responsible decisions on quotas and season lengths, for example.

However, recreational and commercial fishermen believe the original intent of the MSA has become somewhat convoluted over the years and significant fisheries policy decisions often appear arbitrary and not based on any real scientific evidence. As a result, more and more season closures and quota decreases have been handed down in recent years. Most recently, under the guise of the MSA, the black sea bass fishery, a staple on the east coast including Ocean City, was arbitrarily closed without warning last fall, although federal fisheries management agencies recently agreed to increase the quota for the 2010 season.

Fed up with seemingly random fishery policy changes, anglers from around the country are preparing to march in Washington next Wednesday. Part of the problem over the years is a lack of a cohesive, unified front from the fishermen’s standpoint. The recreational sector is often at odds with the commercial sector, and even within the recreational sector, the offshore anglers sometimes clash with inshore groups over different issues.

However, a unified front against seemingly arbitrary federal fishing policies will be put forth next week when the “United We Fish” demonstration hits the nation’s capital. Anglers from all over the country are expected to participate in the first-ever rally of its kind including a large contingent from Ocean City.

“We’re working on bus number two,” said Jennifer Blunt of the Ocean City Fishing Center. “We have about 60 signed up already and we’re getting more and more calls everyday. I think we’ll be well over a hundred by the time next week rolls around.”

Blunt said the local contingent represents a cross section of the resort area’s entire fishing community including recreational and commercial anglers. In addition, a significant number of anglers from the coastal areas of Virginia will join the Ocean City contingent.

“We have everybody on the bus,” she said. “We have offshore guys, inshore guys, sport fishermen, commercial guys. Everybody is in this together. This affects everybody, and it’s not just the anglers. The tackle shop owners, marina people, fuel people, they’re all getting involved in this.”

Not all of the participants in the march on D.C. next week will be willing to simply stand by in a show of support. Blunt said some anglers have a more impressive show in store for federal fisheries lawmakers.

“We heard some of the guys down south are going to show up next week with their boats on trailers,” she said. “They’re basically saying, ‘if you go through with this, we might as well leave these boats right here because we’re going to be out of business.’”

The “United We Fish” demonstration was organized by a coalition of fishing advocacy groups from all over the country, led by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), which has become a strong voice for the private sector in fishery management decisions over the years.

RFA executive director Jim Donofrio said this week the unified voice emanating from the demonstration next week will help illustrate for members of Congress the impacts of the often arbitrary decisions handed down under the guise of Magnuson.

“The closures keep coming and it’s good to see the collective fishing communities and industries, both recreational and commercial, calling for scientific-based Magnuson reform,” he said. “We are all in this together.”

While some have called into question the timing of the rally in Washington, Donofrio said it is important to send the message now before decisions are made that could negatively impact the coming seasons.

“Some people have asked ‘why now, it’s winter’,” he said. “We can’t let seasons stop the momentum, and if we wait any longer, none of us will be fishing.”

While the RFA has been on the front lines of the battle, the commercial fishing industry has joined their counterparts in the rally. Commercial fishing consultant Nils Stolpe said this week over the three years since the original MSA was adopted, fishermen have gradually been phased out of the fisheries management process regardless of sector.

“The scientists have been put in charge and as the list of closures and restrictions painfully demonstrates, the Act has been turned into a weapon that is now being used against fishermen and fishing communities,” he said.