There was a time, not too long ago, when recreational fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay watershed focused mostly on what was on the end of their line, on how many fish they could catch and how large they could be.
No more. Recreational anglers have launched an assertive campaign to influence fishery management. The effort has been most dramatic in Maryland, where the anglers are a regular presence at Department of Natural Resources meetings and public hearings.
Over the last five years, recreational anglers have lobbied for tougher restrictions on catching yellow perch, effectively blocked a permit that would have allowed Maryland's DNR to dredge in the Upper Chesapeake Bay for oyster shells — a scarce resource — and stormed meetings of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to protect menhaden from the purse seine nets of Omega Protein, a Houston-based company that nets millions of pounds of the oily baitfish in Virginia. They have fought for increased penalties on rockfish poaching and spent millions of dollars of their money on restoration. They write letters, attend meetings and make phone calls. They are in the weeds on issues as diverse as runoff from poultry houses to how to best manage oyster sanctuaries.
Maryland anglers won their first victory in 1984 with the state's famous rockfish moratorium. More recently, the state's two formal fishing groups — the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association and the Coastal Conservation Association — have tackled rockfish poaching as well as legislation aimed at making commercial fishermen pay an increased share of the costs for managing the commercial fishery.
And their numbers are growing. Recreational fishing in Maryland long ago eclipsed the commercial industry in terms of licenses — there are about 5,000 commercial watermen licenses issued in the state compared with 500,000 recreational licenses issued each year.
Tom O'Connell, fisheries director for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, said that he has noticed increased activism among the recreational groups since 2007, when they asked the legislature to increase their own fees. Feedback from the recreational groups helped to create a natural resources docket, where both commercial and recreational fishermen who violate the law appear before a judge that hears most of a county's natural resources cases.
Although O'Connell sometimes has his differences with the groups, he generally thinks the increased activism is a positive development.
"They're interested, they're becoming aware of the issues," he said. "They're in a position where they can raise awareness where we sometimes can't."
Commercial watermen are considerably less charitable.
"I don't think they should have such an influence on someone's livelihood," said Tommy Zinn, a longtime Calvert County waterman. "If we showed up on their doorsteps and talked about downsizing and laid them off, they wouldn't be too happy."
Waterman advocate Mick Blackistone, added: "They are perfectly fine using the guise of conservation to take food off the table of watermen families and their communities."
Zinn and Blackistone are both active in the Maryland Watermen's Association, where Blackistone writes and edits the Waterman Gazette. Their organization has strong support from Sen. Barbara Mikulski and a good relationship with Maryland DNR secretary John Griffin, as well as O'Connell. Its executive director, Larry Simns, has been a fierce advocate for crabbers, fishermen and oystermen. But it's hard to compete with the anglers' influence. Many of them are retired, so they have time to attend meetings when the commercial guys have to be on the water.
Of particular concern in Maryland was the recreational fishermen's opposition to a DNR permit application that would have allowed the state to dredge millions of oyster shells from Man O'War Shoal, near Poole's Island in the Upper Bay. Initially, the DNR wanted to dredge the shell and place it on harvest bars, restoration bars and leased bars to encourage reproduction and stimulate the aquaculture industry.
The legislature directed the agency to apply to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a dredging permit in 2009. But CCA opposed the move, saying that disturbing the shell would kick up sediment and hurt rockfish in a key spawning ground and that the state should not give a handout to the commercial fishery. The DNR has since revised the permit so that 90 percent of the shell would be used for oyster sanctuaries. The Corps has yet to approve it; they have been asking a lot of questions on where the shell would be placed, how the department would pay for it and whether the rockfish can be protected.
"It's kind of one of those things when you say, enough is enough," said CCA Executive Director Tony Friedrich. "First of all, where's that shell going, and second, who's going to pay for it? Third, there are alternate substrates. And fourth, this is one of the last places that Upper Bay fishermen can actually fish."
O'Connell said the CCA's argument was "very effective" in helping the department to revise the permit application and better manage the fishery. But the department still desperately needs the shell for aquaculture, restoration and the industry. And it's running out of places to dredge for shell.
O'Connell also praised the organization for their stance on yellow perch, known as the "people's fish" because the average Marylander could catch one just by standing over a bridge with a lure. When the fish began disappearing, the CCA pushed the department to complete a stock assessment and restrict commercial fishing of the species in much of the Bay. It did, and while the action hurt some commercial fishermen in their pocketbooks, it worked out for the species, Friedrich said. "We got kids lined up on the shores…catching fish, every day."
Recreational anglers tasted success last year when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to change how it managed menhaden and acknowledged that the species has been overfished. Menhaden will now be managed in a similar fashion to blue crabs, where managers set a population level for sustainability and then a threshold which the industry may not dip below.
For many, it had been a taxing fight, physically and emotionally, as the lobbyists from Omega Protein wielded their influence in Virginia politics. Menhaden in Virginia are managed by the General Assembly, which has long been concerned with the more than 200 so jobs the reduction fishery supports in Northern Neck towns that have little industry remaining. Virginia and North Carolina are the only states on the Atlantic Coast that still allow a menhaden reduction fishery, which means the fish are caught and then "reduced" into oil and other byproducts for the cosmetic, pet food and health-supplement industries.
But in the last few decades, striped bass fishermen witnessed skinny rockfish, some with sores, and believed the lack of menhaden in their diet was to blame. Anglers from New England and Virginia joined the Maryland fishermen in pushing hard for a reduced catch in the reduction fishery.
For years, the science didn't prove menhaden were overfished, and Omega removed them largely without limits. In 2006, in response to angler worries that too many menhaden were being harvested in the Chesapeake, the commission capped the Bay harvest at 109,020 metric tons, the amount Omega had removed in recent years.
Bill Goldsborough, an ASMFC commissioner and senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was in the trenches with the recreational groups. Goldsborough, an angler himself, said the menhaden debate has never been about having more and healthier striped bass to catch; it's about preservation of the menhaden, which is a keystone in the Bay's food web.
"There is an environmentalist viewpoint in fisheries management. Fishing and conservation are not always distinct and separate," he said. "The real success of late has come from the collaboration."
If the Virginia Marine Resources Commission managed menhaden, its staff might see a groundswell of letters and door-storming that ASMFC has experienced. But its spokesman, John Bull, said he has not seen a surge in recreational fishermen's activism. One exception to that, he said, was Virginia's decision to ban the blue crab winter dredge fishery in 2008. The recreational fishermen let the department know they supported that ban and wanted to keep it. Their pleas, he said, were "fairly extensive and fairly heartfelt." So far, the ban has been in place four years.
Other than that, recreational fishermen in Virginia do not have much reason for discontent, Bull said. Croaker are plentiful, tuna are plump, and blue catfish can reach close to 100 pounds.
"We hardly ever see a recreational angler at our commission meetings," Bull said. "I would say that, overall, most recreational fishermen and commercial fisherman are not so unhappy as to voice complaints to us in large amounts."
In the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, anglers were instrumental in pushing Virginia to investigate the high numbers of intersex fish and massive fish kills. The U.S. Geological Survey has been investigating the issue for several years. It even included Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble, a former fishing guide, as one of its authors.
Kelble has organized fellow fishermen to write letters to Virginia officials about pollution coming off poultry farms and to push for concrete, numeric standards on how much pollution is acceptable, instead of the more vague "narrative standards." Sometimes, Kelble said, he has to "really step on their necks" to mobilize fishermen. But more and more, he said, the fishermen are realizing that if they don't look out for their own interests, no one will do it for them.
"A little bit of the science is rubbing off on them. They're no longer only thinking about what they can put in the freezer," he said. "They're looking at the long-term sustainability of the fisheries."
In Pennsylvania, recreational fishermen have their own agency looking out for their interests — The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. An independent agency, it is often at odds with state environmental officials. Recently, the commission has criticized the Department of Environmental Protection for not doing enough to protect fish in the Susquehanna River and its tributaries from complications related to natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. It also implored the department to improve water quality for the river's bass, which are showing up in increased numbers with lesions.
Angler groups were among the first to sound the alarm in Pennsylvania that hydrofracturing in the Marcellus Shale — a process that removes millions of gallons of freshwater from streams, then discharges water laced with chemicals — could harm fish. Now, Trout Unlimited and several regional fishing and conservation groups have formed the Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Conservation, a coalition that seeks to mitigate the negative affects from drilling on the state's vast resources.
"There's absolutely an activism there," said Kevin Anderson, the Chesapeake Bay land protection coordinator for Trout Unlimited. "Many of our members are very interested in seeing those resources protected."
Pennsylvania does not have much in the way of commercial fisheries, sparing the state from having to play peacemaker with the warring factions angling for a bigger piece of the fishing pie. But those wars, too, may be coming to an end — at least with the watermen's group and the CCA.
Shortly after the 2011 legislative session began, the MSSA introduced a bill banning all gill nets in Maryland waters. The move surprised Friedrich as well as O'Connell — neither the CCA nor the department supported it. The bill would have imperiled the livelihoods of about 200 watermen, who use gill nets for striped bass. Friedrich met with the watermen to let them know the CCA did not support the bill.
Gill nets have come under scrutiny in recent years because several watermen used them to illegally harvest striped bass. The bill quietly died. But the weeks before its demise were "very scary," Blackistone said.
Goldsborough said that bill's demise shows how much fisheries management has changed, and that anglers now realize they can accomplish more by being part of the process than raging against it.
"In a sense, the MSSA bill was kind of like their march on the state house 30 years earlier, in that it was a blunt instrument," Goldsborough said. "I think fisheries managers are a lot more inclusive and deliberative than they were back in the day. Communication appears to be a more powerful tool than a single loud voice."
Friedrich agrees that the tide has turned. Now, he said, the watermen will sit down with him. Together, he said, they can help the state manage the various fisheries so that there are enough healthy fish for everyone.
"For us, winning isn't putting these guys out of business," he said. "Winning is, 'let's manage for abundance, instead of sustainability.' If we do that, then the arguments we have now aren't going to matter."