In a recent national essay, author Paul Greenberg called for the United States to become a ‘fishier’ and ‘healthier’ nation. He goes on to cite a staggering fact, that the U.S. controls 2.8 billion acres of ocean, yet nearly 90 percent of commercial seafood consumed by Americans comes from abroad and a third of the fish caught by U.S. commercial fishermen is shipped overseas.
With so much national attention placed on commercial seafood – that which is caught and sold for market – it’s a shame that more emphasis isn’t placed on America’s recreational fishermen, those who fish for personal, no-sale consumption.
As Mr. Greenberg pointed out, there is a ‘locavore’ movement in this country with many Americans almost exclusively eating foods from their local foodshed and typically harvested within 100 miles of home. Locavores believe in sustainable harvest and may grow their own vegetables, shop primarily in farmers markets, or even harvest their own fish and game.
The American recreational fisherman or saltwater angler is the historical embodiment of the 21st century locavore.
The U.S. Department of Commerce, through its National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), is currently working on a National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy to help guide the agency’s future policy actions. While the term “recreational fishing” may mean different things to different people, NMFS has mostly established that recreational fishing includes non-commercial fishermen who fish from shore or on private vessels; for-hire vessels like charter and head boats; the recreational fishing industries themselves including bait and tackle manufacturers and sellers; and those who fish for subsistence.
It is estimated that between 7 and 14 million Americans fish recreationally in marine waters each year; a more concrete number cannot be established because of inconsistencies with NMFS’ data collection deemed “fatally flawed” by the National Academy of Sciences over 8 years ago. When Congress reauthorized the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 2006, the law required NMFS to overhaul its system of gathering recreational fishing data by a time-certain deadline of January 1, 2009. Five years later, that deadline still has not been met.
To think that less than 2% of imported seafood in this country is inspected and that as much as 30 percent is caught illegally is mind-boggling, and proves that more emphasis must be placed on U.S. recreational fishing and the need to fight for sustainable harvest by American citizens motivated by healthy, sustainable food options, which in turn drive socioeconomic benefits to our local communities.
It may be true that some anglers fish purely for sport, even releasing 100% of what they catch. But when considering Mr. Greenberg’s point that the average American consumes “a scant 15 pounds of seafood a year,” it can be safely assumed that the average American saltwater angler must consume two to three times that amount. While some groups and individuals may look down on the consumptive angler as not sporting enough for their elite social clubs, it’s time that the average American saltwater angler is given his/her due respect in the federal fisheries discussion regarding sustainable harvest.
Our nation’s federal fisheries law is up for reauthorization in Congress. To truly reorient ourselves toward the sea as many feel we must, more emphasis must be placed at both the local and federal level on protecting our recreational fishermen and all those citizens who fall under its federal definition. Too much of the national spotlight in recent years has been shined on the ongoing battle between environmental organizations and commercial fishing interests – the mainstream media must share part of the blame with members of Congress for failing to recognize the socioeconomic contributions of recreational fishermen to both our seaside communities and the overall health of our coasts.
As Congress gets set to reauthorize Magnuson Stevens while the Commerce Department moves forward with creation of a first-ever National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy, let’s hope that fixing this particular imbalance will indeed become a national priority on behalf of the millions of locavores who enjoy open, sustainable access to our natural public resources.
While environmental organizations cite an abundance of fish in the ocean as evidence that Magnuson Stevens is working just fine, denying American citizens of sustainable access to abundant stocks as means to that end is proof that our federal fisheries law is actually failing the American people who fish for sport, recreation and food.
What the typical U.S. locavore angler wants is ‘sustainable fisheries.’ By definition, sustainable fisheries are fish stocks accessed by fishermen. Regrettably, abundant fish stocks don’t actually require the presence of fishermen to be defined.