How Can We Do It Better?
With the discussions in the media recently about HB 258 that allows gill nets to be used again in the Tennessee River system, I felt there was a need to give our fisheries chief Stan Cook a chance to weigh in on issues that impact Alabama’s anglers. As usual, misconceptions and lack of communication seem to be at the root of most evil.
As I complete a few remaining tasks before retiring after 37 years as a fisheries biologist, there is a natural tendency to reflect on the journey. I have experienced much in those 37 years – 15 of them as Alabama’s Chief of Freshwater Fisheries – and I hope I am the wiser for it. Serious challenges that present significant threats face state resource agencies. However, instead of getting into specific threats, let’s assess the landscape of fisheries management in Alabama.
A large commitment of our staff time is invested in fisheries management. Fisheries management plans are crafted by input and action derived from science (biologists), users (anglers) and policy (administrators). These three elements or groups are constantly being influenced by dynamic conditions due to a growing knowledge of our natural resources; new technology; economics; environmental changes; angler demographics, attitude and desired outcomes; and the nature of politics in decision making and enacting regulations and/or law. The relationship between the three groups is similar to legs of a stool – without any one of them, the stool will not function.
The first leg of the stool represents science, the body of fisheries knowledge as practiced by biologists. Alabama fisheries biologists are hired with a fisheries master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree with several years of fisheries experience. They come to our staff inspired by the latest population models and techniques, and are full of energy to make their mark in developing a world-class bass or crappie fishery. Computer population models are a great tool for biologists and can potentially produce numerous population outcomes by changing management options. In effect, it is a science tool that can support biologist’s common sense and intuition in determining a good management plan. Besides issues limiting the collection of good data, young biologists lose sight of a fundamental question in a desire to develop the ideal plan: What do anglers want? The answer appears to be simple in the case of bass. They want a quality bass fishery. However, different segments of the bass fishing community have varying perspectives on identifying a quality fishery. More than we care to admit, biologists assume they know what anglers want. Regular dialogue between biologists and anglers is invaluable.
I learned a communication lesson a few years ago when bass length limit exemptions were being requested for tournament sponsors at Lewis Smith Lake. Local officials wanted to be able to weigh-in protected fish before the fish would be released. They believed exemptions would enhance their opportunity to recruit big bass tournaments to the area. The position of the Fisheries Section, including myself, was that we should not give a privilege to a specific angling group. We felt good about our stance and shared an excellent presentation at a public meeting on the subject of management and regulation exemptions. In the discussion following, both tournament and non-tournament anglers were in favor of allowing the exceptions. The group we were trying to protect did not need protection. So we amended the regulation and developed a 3-year trial regulation exception study. At first glance, we were guilty of assuming we knew what anglers wanted, but the public-meeting process created an opportunity for us to listen to anglers and make a better decision. Why did we initially get this wrong? Although the public meeting identified for us what anglers wanted, we missed it early in the discussion because we made an incorrect assumption. The need to communicate with anglers must remain one of our highest priorities. This need goes beyond fisheries management if we are to be diligent in utilizing our resources in a sustainable manner.
What about the second leg of the stool? Anglers are a diverse family who are very passionate about fishing and protecting their beloved resources. Often, biologists are also members of the angling family. Sometimes this fact is lost in discussions. Because we are government employees, some anglers are automatically suspicious of our decisions. Although surveys have revealed that the majority of anglers are satisfied with current management, there are some anglers who strongly believe problems exist. Samples of problems submitted to us in the past include: not enough big fish, not enough fish, too many hybrid striped and/or striped bass, bucket anglers (removal of too many small bass), too many tournaments, poor fish handling, no shad, sores, too many Alabama (spotted) bass, gill nets, too many nonresident anglers, exceeding the creel limit, no room at the ramp because of tournaments, lake levels are too low, too many aquatic weeds, not enough aquatic weeds, more regulation, less regulation, etc. It is common that these problems are not mentioned in initial conversations. The message comes in the form of a recommended solution. Too often, the solution is not based on sound science or practicality. A solution based on a false assumption is always wrong. The distressed angler then wants to defend his solution rather than analyze the problem. These types of adversarial conversations are not beneficial to either side. Once again, communication is the key. If the concerned angler had requested a meeting to have a frank discussion about his or her fears for the resource, it would have a better outcome. The communication miscue is more about the lack of trust. I am convinced, if biologists and anglers were having regular discussions, the trust issue would be addressed.
How do we maintain a steady dialogue? This has been a frustrating issue. Attempts by our agency to encourage bass clubs to invite us to club meetings have been moderately successful. We also held public meetings in every county a few years ago just to create a forum for discussion, but it resulted in minimal participation. It has been my experience that anglers show up in force when there is a high-profile issue, but, when fishing is good, they prefer to talk about the next tournament or fishing trip. As I said earlier, we are passionate about fishing. Anglers, just like biologists, forget the fundamental need to communicate, and often forget the collective capacity of a group to influence positive action. Fish management agencies will need the power of anglers more than ever to address future threats.
Policy is the third leg of the stool. Administrators who enact policy are vital to integrating the biologists’ and anglers’ wishes into a strategic management plan. For this discussion, policy is a course of action adopted by government to meet a defined goal. Whether policy is formalized by statute or regulation is simply a choice of which legal path is taken to address a course of action. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has been given the authority to preserve, protect and enhance wildlife resources utilizing regulations. With sport fish populations, regulations are usually about limiting harvest by use of daily creels, protected length ranges and legal gears. Basically, describing how the state can take a public trust resource such as a fish and legally transfer ownership to an individual. Although sometimes tedious in my opinion, the regulation process offers anglers more of an ownership to determining the outcome as opposed to statutes. Unfortunately, some try to impose their will on others by going the legislative route. Legislation may be appropriate at times, but, when the action is intended to remove authority from ADCNR and trump the regulation process, it can become a red flag. These attempts seldom reflect sound science and rarely do bill sponsors look for input from biologists. The danger in these legislative efforts, whether state or federal, could place access to fishing and fishing itself at risk. Sound policy will exist in fisheries management if biologists and anglers are assisting policymakers to deliver a desired outcome. Communication, again, is the message.
The application of science, insights of anglers and policy implementation has been most successful when everyone works together for what is best for anglers and the sustainability of the resource. Although biologists expect to be challenged on fish management strategies, it should take place in an environment of steady exchange. Not only is it important to strive for consensus in fisheries management but it also enables all those who care about our resources and the enjoyment we gain from them to watch for challenges. Serious challenges are coming. There are activists whose goal is to eliminate fishing, invasive species such as largemouth bass virus or silver carp threatening sport fish stocks, water management failing to adequately address fisheries resources, a shrinking angler base and failing funding models for resource agencies. These are just a few of the issues we face.
Commercial and recreational anglers, biologists and those who have not forgotten the value of a healthy ecosystem must build upon ideals we have in common. We all have a deep commitment to protecting Alabama’s waterscapes and the bounty swimming beneath those waters.
Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.