Finally, NOAA Officially Recognizes Saltwater Sportfishing

How should you react when a person you've been standing in front of for decades finally recognizes you?

Do you cheer, or snarl?

I did a little of both late last week when the Fisheries department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it was going to develop a national recreational fishing policy.

First, the snarl:

NOAA Fisheries is the agency charged with managing marine species and those who target them. Well, saltwater sport fishing has been a part of the nation's marine fishing scene as long as there's been a nation. In fact, as Whit Fosburgh of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership pointed out, it's a rather large part of that scene: 11 million saltwater anglers spent $27 billion in 2011, generating more than $70 billion and sustaining 450,000 jobs. And we've had numbers like that for many years.

Yet it's taken this long to be recognized as important enough to actually deserve a policy - something the commercial sector has had for many decades.

The reluctance to recognize the importance of sport fishing really goes back to that word "sport." Unlike freshwater species, marine fisheries have always been seen as having commercial value only - which is why its management is domiciled in the Department of Commerce. So while recreational anglers have been shouting for equal treatment in the faces of NOAA managers for a generation or two, we really didn't start to get noticed until the business end of our pastime - tackle companies, boat and motor makers - got involved. And now it's finally happened.

While it's important to credit this administration for finally doing what others should have done decades ago, it's still a little early to move that chip off our shoulders. They don't deserve gratitude for doing the obvious.

Now for the cheers:

Having a policy is important because it will establish the framework not just for how the species are managed, but also for how decisions are arrived at. And in this case, according to NOAA, that process will include active involvement by the recreational fishing sector - from industry components to angling groups.

Marine anglers know damage can be done to a resource when we allow fishing without input from science. Just as much harm can be done to a fishing community when an agency manages without input from that sector.

This change in attitude wasn't the result of a light bulb going off somewhere deep inside the agency. It was the fruit of a long campaign by industry and marine conservation groups. Progress started in 2009 when NOAA agreed to reach out to the sector, and in 2010 held the first recreational fishing summit.

The sport fishing coalition took a giant step forward last year when it outlined a roadmap forward with the report "A Vision for Managing America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries."

Those years of work paid off with NOAA's announcement, which tracks many of the recommendations in the vision report.

The deal was unequivocally sealed by Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries, with these words, "I commit that NOAA Fisheries will actively engage the recreational fishing community, and we will do our part to find cooperative solutions."

Those words should have been said decades ago. But it's still good to finally hear them.