Eric Schwaab, acting assistant secretary for conservation and management for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sees the fisheries management challenges faced by Gasparilla Island and a myriad other U.S. fishing hot spots in a cautiously optimistic manner.
He told attendees at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Summit in Sarasota Oct. 18 that it's encouraging how endangered fish species have rallied under protective management and daunting to consider how much work must still be done to right the ecologic wrongs overfishing and other contributing factors have wreaked.
One of the biggest problems NOAA has had, Schwaab contends, is essentially ignoring the input from professional recreational fishing groups such as the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association. That's changed, he said.
Here's Schwaab on how he intends to do his job, which basically comes down to saving embattled fisheries and maintaining those that are flourishing.
QUESTION: How do you rate the state of U.S. fishing stocks?
ANSWER: You can't talk about the progress that has been made without also taking about some of the challenges that remain because they are very much intertwined.
Eric Schwaab at a glance
Occupation: acting assistant secretary for conservation and management for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since Jan. 17. Previously, assistant administrator for fisheries for NOAA since February 2010.
Duties: Drive policy and program direction for NOAA's ocean resource and coastal management and protected resources. Ensure effective integration of activities, information, products and services across NOAA.
Achievements: Helped rebuild U.S. fisheries stocks, ending overfishing, enhancing protection of endangered species, marine mammals and sea turtles and improving aquatic habitat conditions. Led efforts with the regional fishery management councils and the fishing industry to establish annual catch limits for all commercial fisheries.
Experience: Nearly 30 years in local, state and federal natural resource management, most at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources where he began as a natural resources police law enforcement officer in 1983. Also served as director of the Maryland Forest Service; director of the Maryland Forest, Wildlife and Heritage Service; and director of the Maryland Fisheries Service. In 2003, started as resource director for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies until 2007 when he returned to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as the deputy secretary. Also served on the U.S. Department of Commerce Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee from 2005-2010.
Education: undergraduate degree in biology from McDaniel College and a master's degree in environmental planning from Towson University.
Q: How have the catch limits mandated in 2006 for all federally managed species worked out?
A: Some were implemented in 2010, some in 2011. Those catch limits, based in science, were to end overfishing and ensure stocks rebuild in some reasonable time period. We're seeing very important progress. In our 2011 annual report on the status of the stocks, of the 214 stocks assessed, the number considered overfished declined to 21 percent overfished and 14 percent subject to overfishing. We expect to bring that second number to zero in relatively short order.
Q: Have any fishing stocks been rebuilt?
A: We were able to declare in 2011 that six stocks had been rebuilt - the most we've rebuilt in any single year. There will continue to be important science and management challenges going forward to sustain that level of management and appropriate fishing.
Q: What news is happening in the Gulf of Mexico in terms of fishery management?
A: At home here in the Gulf, in one of our still-most controversial stocks - red snapper stock - we've actually seen total allocations in the Gulf increase from 5 million pounds in 2008 to 8 million pounds in 2012. The quality of the fish has increased and the range has recovered and repopulated in many parts of the Gulf where people have not seen red snapper for decades. I think it's fair to say that we do have a stock that by almost anybody's acknowledgment is in a significantly better place than it has been in at least a generation.
Q: What other fishing stocks are recovering?
A: Red snapper is not alone. We have seen tremendous improvement in swordfish stock in this region and flounder and scup stock in the mid-Atlantic.
Q: The recreational community, including Boca Grande, has long complained it has not been significantly respected, acknowledged and included in high-level decisions in Washington, D.C., and also the counsel process around the country. How has this been addressed?
A: That's been one of the central complaints. So we set out to address the concerns of the recreational community at the Recreational Summit of April 2010. We came up with four main issues.
Q: What were these issues and how have they been addressed?
A: No. 1, was engaging the recreational fishermen and interest in the management process going forward. And we have worked hard to increase that representation.
The second issue was science and data. On the stock assessment side, we have worked very hard in difficult budget circumstances to continue to put additional resources to independent surveys to collect data important to the assessment process in the South Atlantic and the Gulf.
We have spent a lot of time on the recreational side. Many of you know how about the challenges of accurately estimating the take of fish by the recreational community unlike the commercial side where there is generally close to real time data of real volume. Recreation take surveys have been criticized heavily over the years. We have new methodologies designed to remove the bias historically in these surveys such as shorter weigh-in times and a new license frame.
Another area where we addressed recreational fishing community concerns was in the area of catch-and-release mortality rates. Clearly some people want the fish they bring back to the docks. I'm in that category on some trips. The one challenge we have is doing a better job of handling and releasing fish, particularly the sensitive deepwater reef species, in ways that can reduce the discard mortality and allow the true mortality figures to be factored into the equation.
The last key issue is that of allocation. Once we rebuild stocks and have a plan in place to ensure sustainability for the long term and have a clear picture of what's out there and who's catching what. Then we get into the issue of allocation: What percentage of fish go to the commercial sector and what percentage is made available to the recreational community? These decisions should and do primarily occur at the Fishery Management Council, which has really struggled to take on this tough issue. One of the things we did was a new, more robust economic survey so we have a better handle of the value of the recreational catch so it can be on a level playing field with the commercial catches.
We also hired a contractor to identify other best practices and we are awaiting in a couple weeks the first report and recommendations from that contractor.