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June 29, 2010

Missed Opportunity

New NOAA appointee may face a steep learning curve.

As this is being written, the northeast part of the country has been experiencing a once-in-a-hundred-years series of nor'easters that have dumped record amounts of rain. So much, in fact, that I sent my wife out to gather two of each kind of animal. Seriously, we have had a record month for rainfall, and the effects of this may be felt well into the fishing season. Where spawning conditions are an issue, this may be felt for years to come. The only good news is that my property is a lot closer to being waterfront.

Maybe it is this persistent overcast and precipitation that have turned my mood sour, or perhaps it is a recent decision by the upper echelons of NOAA that has affected my outlook. Or maybe it is both.

Back in September of 2009, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of NOAA, announced that she was creating a new position entitled the National Policy Advisor for Recreational Fisheries. This person would advise the Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, Eric Schwaab, on all things to do with the recreational fishing community. This is good stuff for sport fishing. It begins to get recreational fishing the kind of attention that many of us have pushed for and ranted about for years. While where this person would be found was never actually specified, many felt that the search would branch out into the sport-fishing industry, to find someone familiar with all of the issues faced by this substantial industry, someone who would not have to spend time getting up to speed, someone who could hit the ground running and would have direct connections into the industry. The last thing that many thought would happen was a selection from inside the Beltway, of someone who is more familiar with the bureaucratic workings of the system than with the industry and the user groups that industry supports. Those of us who thought that were wrong, although Dr. Lubchenco has fulfilled promises for a recreational fishing summit, establishing a recreational fishing team within NOAA Fisheries, and appointed recreational advisors to her Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee.

The selection for this position has been made, and it was filled by someone from within. While this may seem like a condemnation of the individual selected, it is not intended to be. The position was filled by Russell Dunn, who has been the branch chief of NOAA Fisheries' Highly Migratory Species Management Division and policy advisor to the U.S. delegation to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. Mr. Dunn may be just right for the position, but he will always wear the mantle of a bureaucratic insider rather than of a familiar member of the sport-fishing industry. He will have to get to know many of the players. He will have to do the legwork to get up to speed on issues that impact this industry. He will have to be the go-between of an industry that has grown distrustful of fishery management actions and managers who still do not understand the inner workings of this substantial industry. Dunn will need some of the negotiating skills of one of his former bosses, then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

One of our biggest concerns was pointed out in the February issue of this magazine when a commercial fisherman from North Carolina blasted Editor in Chief John Brownlee's editorial from an earlier issue by stating, "It is also apparent that you think because recreational fishing creates more money, your hobby is more important than someone trying to make a living."

Well, the answer is, no, we don't just think that. We know it is true! Rec-reational fishing generates more economic activity, employs more people, pays more taxes and puts more meals of fish on the table than comparable finfish commercial fishing does.

The idea that recreational fishermen are only hobbyists who play with their food has been promoted by many in the commercial industry and tacitly endorsed by those in fisheries management. Our feeling is that this problem stemmed from the comparison of the average angler to the commercial fisherman, who runs a fishing vessel and employs people and sells a product. The commercial fisherman should be compared to a tackle manufacturer, who has a business, employs people and sells a product, or to the tackle-shop owner, who does the same. Never do they compare the end users, the consumer and the angler.

The press releases on the NOAA position talk about the value of recreational fishing to coastal communities. This is true, but when you look at those companies that benefit from a well-managed resource, you see that the largest tackle manufacturer in the world is based in Iowa and some of the largest sport-fishing boat manu-facturers are in the middle of the country. Simply look at the addresses of all the members of the American Sportfishing Association or the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and it is easy to see that this is a countrywide industry. These are all things that may or may not be apparent to the new policy advisor. Certainly, they can be learned, as can all of the issues and concerns of the recreational fishing industry. Learning all these things will take some time, but one thing that will take more time and effort is building the bridge of trust. There are years of disappointment to allay, as well as discontent, which culminated in the United We Fish march on Washington in February. That will take a lot longer to mitigate.

While we express our concern that staying within the Beltway for this position was a missed opportunity, we certainly want to see Dunn succeed in this new position and will do everything we can to help.