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Column: Don't roll back protections for saltwater fisheries

When I first moved to Daytona Beach in the early 1970s, it was an angler's paradise. Hailing from the north, I had never experienced such tremendous diversity and abundance.

Fast forward to 1986, when I retired from the Army and my wife and I moved back to Florida. Sadly, my dream return turned to shock, disbelief and disgust as I discovered that the abundant fisheries that lured me here 15 years before had become overfished and depleted, a mere shadow of the prior abundance I had seen.

My eyes were opened to the sad truth about overfishing. Here, as in many U.S. waters, decades of chronic overfishing and a lack of meaningful management limits had led to a deeply depleted resource. Overfishing — catching fish more quickly than the population can reproduce — is a losing proposition for both fish and fishermen. Just as it is important to maintain fiscal discipline and make hard choices to balance our nation's budget, so too must fisheries managers make difficult decisions to ensure we don't "overspend" by catching more fish than is sustainable.

Unbelievably, the overfishing continued for over two decades. Unfortunately, things didn't start to change until federal law required hard catch limits starting in 2010.

That strong legal mandate led the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, on which I served as chairman at the time, to finally implement meaningful regulations. Those mandated science-based catch limits are now bearing fruit, such as the recent recovery of black sea bass in the region. And stories of successful fisheries rebuilding are being repeated from coast to coast.

America's saltwater fisheries are finally rebounding.

Twice in the last 20 years, bipartisan majorities in Congress, recognizing the alarming crisis of marine resource depletion, passed sweeping reforms to the nation's fisheries management law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The purpose of these changes was to end overfishing with science-based catch limits and to rebuild depleted fish populations.

The results are remarkable. Nationally, 34 commercial and recreationally important fish species have rebuilt to sustainable levels since the late 1990s. Overfishing has been cut in half. Commercial fish landings and revenues are at their highest levels in 15 years, and recreational anglers are catching 30 percent more than they did in the 1990s.

Yet, these gains are now at risk from efforts in Congress to weaken the very wisely crafted provisions of the law that led us out of the dark days of depleted and unsustainable fisheries.

My personal experience has led me to speak strongly against the sweeping and ill-advised changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act proposed in the House Committee on Natural Resources. U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has introduced a discussion draft of a bill that would gut the law's requirements to rebuild overfished populations and exempt scores of species from science-based annual catch limits, returning to the failed policies of the past.

His proposed legislation would hide taxpayer-funded data from the public and even from state and federal agencies. It would ignore science and clear evidence that current rebuilding efforts are working. Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are preparing to introduce a bipartisan bill soon, and I hope their bill avoids these counterproductive rollbacks and instead strengthens the legal framework that is conserving our fisheries, marine ecosystems and the fishing communities that depend on them.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has estimated that the complete rebuilding of all U.S. fish stocks would increase fishermen's dockside revenues by $2.2 billion a year — a 50 percent increase from 2010 — and produce as much as $31 billion in total sales. It also would create 500,000 jobs. These gains belong to all of us. We cannot afford to roll back progress. We should build on the strength of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, not destroy it.

George Geiger is a recreational fisherman and fishing guide in Florida, and a former chairman and three-term member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Don't roll back protections for saltwater fisheries 04/16/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 5:50pm]
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