If you are one of the millions in Florida who enjoy offshore saltwater recreational fishing, we feel your pain. In the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, charter for-hire and private recreational anglers are faced with shrinking fishing seasons, lowered bag limits, uncertainty of current fishery management and the prospect of declining access.
This is troubling, because Florida relies heavily on the business of recreational fishing. Millions of anglers generate billions of dollars for Florida and the gulf state economies, and they support thousands of jobs. It is crucial that we find commonsense solutions to these complex problems to cure what ails our fishery.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, or MSA, is the primary law governing marine fisheries. Reef fish such as red snapper and red grouper, cornerstones of our offshore recreational fishery, are rebuilding thanks to MSA provisions.
However, history has shown that current management methods are not working for the recreational fisherman. This is evident by compressed fishing seasons, uncertain and confusing regulations and declining opportunities to fish.
The task before us to provide better access to recreationally important fish and maintain their healthy numbers. Many fishermen agree that improved data collection and stock assessments are a good starting point; yet, this does not answer all management questions.
Recreational fishery management is now a one-size-fits all system that governs charter operators and private anglers as a single group. It is a fact that the charter for-hire business owner and the private angler have vastly different goals and objectives. Charter operators provide fishing opportunities for those recreational anglers who don't own boats or have other means of fishing offshore. Private recreational boat owners fish for their personal enjoyment. Both groups are vital to the economic well-being of coastal communities. Both demand separate and unique management approaches that can maximize fishing benefits to each group.
In an effort to modernize management, participants in the Gulf of Mexico charter industry have suggested separating the recreational fishery into two distinct components, a for-hire sector and a private recreational sector. Sector separation is a straightforward concept that permits each sector to catch the same amount of fish they have historically caught. With sector separation in place, each group could then develop management options that work best for their individual needs.
The Gulf of Mexico Regional Fisheries Management Council has agreed to begin a period of discovery concerning the merits of a sector separation plan and meets in the Tampa Bay area Monday. This is a moment to ensure opportunities to fish when it best suits each sector and continue rebuilding fish populations.
We believe that if you bring people to the table, you should have something on the menu for everyone. Under sector separation, charter fishermen can develop a management strategy that is predictable and flexible. The private recreational angler can do the same by exploring techniques such as weekend or supplemental seasons.
In addition, each sector can create data collection and accountability measures that are a good fit for their fishery. Everything is on the table to ensure opportunities to fish when it best suits each sector and to continue rebuilding fish populations.
Sector separation is a process where ideas can be developed and vetted, and it can offer a viable management solution. It will be critical to balance the needs of different kinds of fishermen, fishing-related businesses and fisheries management bodies. Succeeding at this could bring us closer to a cure.
Mike Colby, left, is president of the Clearwater Marine Association and a charter boat operator. Steve Viada is a recreational angler and a senior scientist at Continental Shelf Associates International in Stuart.