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    I have always been an optimist. I see the glass as half full almost all the time.
    At the same time, I am a realist. I know the glass could run dry. I’m hopeful it will be refilled, but I know there’s a chance it won’t be.
    My optimism, however, is sorely tested when it comes to the NOAA Fisheries. Far too many times there have been promises of change from the federal agency, promises of working with the fishing community, promises of listening that have faded as quickly as the sound of the words being spoken.
    So it is with some skepticism that I’ve been reading about NOAA Fisheries’ latest effort to connect with the recreational fishing community. We have always been the bastard children — difficult to define in terms of setting fishing quotas, and difficult to control through regulations because of the diverse interests. If you read fisheries regulations, most of the language within them is directed at commercial fishing. Quotas are defined by pounds, even for the recreational sector, where anglers catch individual fish (and are bound by bag limits instead of poundage limits). And because of the inability (or unwillingness) to make common-sense changes in the approach taken with the recreational side — why not break the recreational quota down to a number of fish, for instance — there’s long been a feeling that if NOAA Fisheries had its druthers, it would simply do away with us pesky recreational fishermen.
    NOAA Fisheries claims it is trying. There have been public meetings and webinars, seeking public input on what anglers believe should go into the National Saltwater Recreation Fisheries Policy it is writing.
    “For an organization the size of NOAA, process and policy are important. A clear statement about our operating principles does two things: 1) it institutionalizes our commitment to healthy recreational fisheries and the benefits they provide to the nation and 2) it provides guidance when difficult choices need to be made,” the agency states in its literature seeking public input.
    NOAA has put together a discussion guide — you can download a pdf of the guide by typing in www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/management/recreational/documents/recfish_policy_discussion_guide_final.pdf — but even the guide makes me wonder how much NOAA will really be listening. And even if its policymakers are listening, how long will it take for them to really implement changes in a way that really makes a difference?
    I sat in a presentation by the National Academies of Science, in a stuffy, cramped conference room in a hotel in New York way back in late 2004 or early 2005, listening to the recreational sector expressing its concerns about the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey — a program NOAA was later told was “fatally flawed” and that it was required, under the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson, to replace. Nearly 10 years later, we still do not have a data collection system that adequately or accurately gauges recreational participation. The national database of saltwater anglers, which was supposed to make it easier to quantify effort — which we were told for years was the significant part of the equation — has solved nothing. The Marine Recreational Information Program, the successor to MRFSS, continues to provide inexplicable results: New Jersey recreational fishermen are accused of overfishing their summer flounder quota by 47 percent in 2013. Why is this inexplicable, you ask? Because by Memorial Day 2013, there were still thousands of people who had not even returned to their homes following Hurricane Sandy. Thousands of boats — privately owned boats used by recreational fishermen — were damaged or destroyed. Some boats flat out disappeared. In New Jersey, people were still in the early stages of putting their lives back together, not out fishing every day for fluke.
    But NOAA will try to insist that its methods are better.
    (In the years since MRIP and the national saltwater angler database have been implemented, I have never received a phone call seeking to survey my saltwater fishing participation. Not one time.)
    That said, it’s important for anglers to get involved, because otherwise the decisions on policy will be driven by those whose interests are in anything but recreational fishing.
    Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said that already "NOAA Fisheries has collected comments from some folks who would like to see fish watching and eco-tourism considered under the recreational fishing definition.”
    "Very simply, recreational fishing should be defined as fishing for sport, pleasure and food," Donofrio said.
    Whale watching? Eco-tourism? I’m having flashbacks to 2007, when New Jersey legislators tried (and failed) to pass a bill that would have altered the way the state’s Fish and Game Council was set up, paving the way for the elimination of recreational fishing and hunting in the state.
    Because those who have other agendas — those who want to push recreational fishermen off the water — are trying to redefine “recreational fishing” as something that has zero to do with fishing, it is critical for you, as a recreational fisherman, to give your input on this national saltwater recreational fisheries policy.
    "As illustrated by the town hall meeting at NOAA Fisheries, this is definitely the proper venue for this type of public initiative, as opposed to attempting to create a recreational fishing policy through an act of legislation in Congress," Donofrio said, "which is why we're encouraging anglers to take advantage of this opportunity to provide their honest input."
    Sitting around the cooler or the cockpit bitching about how NOAA Fisheries has repeatedly screwed over the recreational fishing community won’t fix what’s wrong. We won’t get better regulations by complaining amongst ourselves. We have to get involved — by taking the time to participate in public comment opportunities such as this.
    The reality may be that none of this changes things. NOAA has disappointed us before.
    But — ever the optimist — I’m hopeful that getting a realistic recreational fisheries policy in place, one that treats recreational fishing as a vital and worthwhile part of the economy and fabric of the country instead of paying lip service to it, will give the recreational fishing community the opportunity to really be a part of the national discussion, instead of being the child told to hush and leave the room.     

Download a copy of the National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy Discussion Guide by going to www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/management/recreational/policy/index.html.
    Comments will be taken until Sept. 12. You can submit them online at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/management/recreational/policy/comment_online.html

Karen Wall