VMFC meets about federal cobia season closure

The Chief of Fisheries Management Rob O'Reilly briefed the Virginia Marine Resources Commission at length on Tuesday May 24 during a meeting to consider the federal order to close the coastal cobia season on June 20.

The Modern Fish Act could help solve a problem that recreational fishermen in Hampton Roads have complained about for decades — data on what and how they catch isn't being used in fisheries management decisions.

Instead, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division has used data provided by scientists, fisheries biologists and commercial fishermen.

Recreational anglers have argued for years that nobody knows more about what's swimming the depths than they do. They report information to federal fisheries managers who set rules for the size of fish and how many can be caught, and when seasons open and close. But they say it isn't used well to inform those decisions.

The legislation was signed by President Donald Trump on the last day of 2018.

It requires the NOAA Fisheries to apply better management tools, some already used by state agencies.

NOAA Fisheries will have to join the National Academy of Sciences in a study of mixed-use stocks — meaning those used by both recreational and commercial fishermen.

And the biggest improvement forces NOAA Fisheries to start using more recreational catch data provided by the nation's 11 million saltwater anglers. 

"Recreational fishing has always been the poor stepchild in fisheries management, especially at the federal level," said Ken Neill, a Virginia representative to the International Game Fish Association and a board member of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission that regulates the state's fisheries.

"If nothing else, this law will take us out of the shadows," said Neill, an avid saltwater fishermen. "Almost all recreational fishing and conservation groups are behind this because of that.

"NOAA will no longer be able to say their decisions were based on the data available. It will force them to get better information and that's going to come from recreational anglers."

"America's anglers and members of the recreational fishing and boating industry are among the most responsible stewards of our marine resources because healthy fisheries and the future of recreational fishing go hand-in-hand," said Scott Deal, president of Florida-based Maverick Boat Group, in a news release. 

Four years ago, Deal joined with Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris to issue a report: "A Vision for  Managing America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries." Known as the Morris-Deal Commission, many of the the partnership's recommendations appear in the Modern Fish Act.

According to several different organizations that represent recreational fishing interests, saltwater anglers account for $63 billion in economic impact and generate nearly a half million jobs. Approximately $1.3 billion goes towards conservation, boating safety and infrastructure like launch ramps, and habitat restoration.

Lee Tolliver, 757-222-5844, lee.tolliver@pilotonline.com

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