Question: How can things be “better than ever” but still flirting with disaster?

Answer: If they are marine fisheries resources whose management is entrusted to Congress by the American people.

Reason: Lack of funding to do a thorough job.

That was the takeaway from the two-day Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Saltwater Media Summit in Sarasota, Florida last week, which drew leaders from the recreational fishing industry, sportsmen’s conservation groups, and senior managers from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

There was plenty of good news for those willing to hear it:

* Overfishing is less of a problem today than in the past, and the dire predictions of world fisheries collapsing made just a few years ago have been rescinded.

* Several species popular among sportfishermen that were in danger are now on the comeback, resulting in improving limits thanks to management decisions based on science.

* NOAA has acknowledged and begun addressing serious issues with the way catch data is collected and implemented into management actions.

* The Obama Administration became the first to recognize recreational sportfishermen and the industry they support by appointing a National Policy Advisor for Recreational Fisheries and a 22-member Recreational Fisheries Working Group to provide expertise to the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee.

* Participation in fishing continues to climb, increasing the number of people who have a stake in wise management.

* Catch-and-release is growing among marine recreational anglers.

* The Billfish Conservation Act was signed into law by President Obama.

So, could we all just go to the afterparty and chow down on grilled fresh catch-of-the-day?

Well, no.

When placed against the global picture of where marine conservation is today, all that good news makes it clear there’s still a lot of critical work left undone.

Mike Nussman, President and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association–the recreational fishing industry trade group–gave this sobering perspective:

Only 25 percent (2.5 billion acres) of land in the United States is owned by the public, yet all of it is under intense and constant management based on years of in-depth science. But while 100 percent of the 3 billion acres of marine habitat off our coasts (known as the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone – EEZ) is owned by the public, we don’t have the national commitment to provide the funding to do a similar job.

This has long been a fact even though the law–specifically the Magnuson-Stevens Act–requires our agencies to provide that level of management.

Of course, marine environments have always been the step-child of conservation for a simple reason: People live on land, not in the ocean, and like most animals, we protect our homes first.

Changing that dynamic has always been difficult, and has become more so during the financial downturn. But many of the debates over issues concerning anglers at this summit seemed to reach the same conclusion: The solution required funding.

There was one glaring absence on the agenda: Estuaries.

Most of the discussion by sportfishing industry representatives involved issues of access and allocation–even the pointed critiques over science funding related to the data required for setting limits and allowing fishing.

Missing from the debates was the fact that the habitat responsible for most of those marine fisheries–coastal estuaries–is still declining at rates fatal to quality fishing for everything from snapper to tarpon.

For instance, researchers say that up to 90 percent of the fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico are estuarine dependent. Yet the largest estuary in that ecosystem–the Mississippi River delta–has lost nearly half its volume in the last 70 years and continues to be destroyed at the rate of 16 square miles a year. The causes are well known, as is a solution to slowing the damage and stopping it in places.

And there was only a fleeting mention of global warming–even though accelerated sea-level rise caused by that warming threatens to swamp the estuaries providing the fish and fishing–which were the topics of concern for the summit.

So, while things are much better for marine fisheries than just a few years ago, we still are flirting with disaster.