THE PROBLEM: STAFF CUTS AT WILDLIFE REFUGES COULD MEAN LESS HUNTING
IN MARCH 2003 the Bush administration threw a party for the centennial of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Festivities were held at Pelican Island, the Florida bird sanctuary where Theodore Roosevelt was inspired to create the system that has grown to cover 96 million acres of habitat. Administration officials gathered to pledge their commitment to Roosevelt's legacy.
But shortly after the party hats were off, the administration put the National Wildlife Refuge System on a starvation diet with standstill budgets that have led to a $3 billion maintenance backlog, and a nationwide crisis it could solve only one way: Cut staff and services. In late 2006 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forced the elimination of 140 positions across refuges in the Southeast, which could prompt the end of programs including hunting and fishing. Agency officials said the first two years of losses didn't affect programs, but that day is coming.
A preview may be found at the Southeast Louisiana Refuge Complex, where cutbacks left four managers to oversee seven refuges. Before the last waterfowl season, hunters saw this announcement: "Some public-use programs such as hunting and fishing may have to be scaled back or closed...due to a shortage of funding and manpower."
Additional plans to cut staff and services in the Northeast establish a disturbing trend for the rest of the nation. Hunting is a key part of the management program on 317 refuges nationwide; fishing is allowed on at least 270. Those figures could drop as staffing shortages make it impossible to satisfy regulations that require "quality and safe experiences for hunters and fishermen."
THE PROBLEM: NEW MARINE PROTECTED AREAS COULD MEAN FEWER WATERS OPEN TO FISHING
STARTING THIS SUMMER, a new chain of Marine Protected Areas, from Santa Barbara to Half Moon Bay, will ban all fishermen from 94 square miles of California's coast. Last fall, Florida added 61 square miles of ocean to a no-take reserve off Key West. Environmental groups in the Northeast are proposing no-fishing zones in spots between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia. "State by state, we're being locked out of the ocean," says United Anglers of Southern California president Tom Raftican.
Nationwide, fisheries managers are passing up conventional conservation strategies--the kind of regulations that restored redfish in the Gulf and striped bass in the East--in favor of broader blanket protections in the form of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). In California, webs of MPAs are planned for the entire coastline by 2011. Officials there describe the no-fishing reserves inside the MPAs as living laboratories that will help biologists understand marine species and habitat. California Fish and Game commissioner Richard Rogers says that some areas may never reopen. California anglers question the need for such blanket protection when the fishing is the best it's been in 30 years. Sport fishermen around the country are echoing similar concerns.
"You don't just close 20 to 40 percent of the coast to study biodiversity," says Jim Martin, a director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. "This is a knee-jerk gesture that ignores the real threats to fisheries--coastal development, commercial overfishing, and climate change."
Saltwater anglers, long champions of coastal conservation, account for 3 percent of fish landed, according to the American Sportfishing Association. "All we want," Raftican says, "is the opportunity to fish."