Nearly a decade ago, anglers and biologists knew little about Largemouth Bass Virus and worried that it could have catastrophic consequences.
In response, B.A.S.S. assembled resource managers and fisheries scientists for a coordinated response. Fish Health and Technology Centers operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proved indispensable for analyzing samples, determining vectors, and tracking spread of the virus.
“Many states that used those labs didn’t have the capacity to do it themselves,” says Dave Terre, chief of Inland Fisheries Management and Research for Texas Parks and Wildlife. “Plus, they (labs) provided support for sampling designs and elevated aspects of our work.”
In other words, if not for this segment of FWS’s Fisheries program, we wouldn’t so quickly have discovered the causes, symptoms, and limitations of the virus, as well as calmed the concerns of anglers and state fisheries managers nationwide.
Today, FWS fisheries scientists are working with the U.S. Geological Survey and others to better understand Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, a fish disease that has caused major die-offs in the Great Lakes.
These are but two small examples of the incalculable value provided to the nation’s anglers and fisheries by the nearly 800 employees of FWS Fisheries. It’s a value that’s not appreciated by most of us, according to Noreen Clough, National Conservation Director for B.A.S.S.
“It does so much that I can’t get my mind around it. This is the only agency that fulfills the role of national fish and aquatic resources conservation,” she says.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fisheries program supports a variety of projects and programs that are very important to the sportfishing industry from healthy fish to the federal fish hatcheries to habitat restoration,” said Mike Nussman, president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association.
Admittedly, I didn’t know that much about Fisheries. But I decided to find out after hearing from angling advocates that they have “concerns” for its future.
First the numbers: Fisheries consists of 65 Fish and Wildlife Conservation offices, 70 National Fish Hatcheries, 9 Fish Health Centers, 7 Fish Technology Centers, and a Historic National Fish Hatchery (D.C. Booth in Spearfish, S.D.). In a nation that spends trillions of dollars annually, such a program poses an insignificant expense, yet it is an invaluable support system for a sport fishery that generates $125 billion annually in economic output.
Considering the fiscal mess that our nation is in, however, concern for its future is not a surprise. Fisheries and conservation programs are considered “easy marks” by many of those who trim budgets. That’s borne out by the recent recommendation from the Office of Management and Budget to steal $34 million from the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund (SFR) to help reduce the federal budget. Never mind that those are dedicated funds, obtained through excise taxes that anglers pay on fishing tackle and motorboat fuel.
Additionally, within the Department of Interior, approval of outdoor recreation is diminishing, as evidenced by access limitations imposed at Cape Hatteras by the National Park Service. The agency also wants to prohibit fishing in portions of Florida’s Biscayne Bay.
“There is a bias against outdoor recreation,” one insider says bluntly
Meanwhile, anglers typically are not strident activists on their own behalf, as are other constituencies.
But we will need to be so, through outlets such as Keep America Fishing, if we want to protect and enhance out fisheries and, by extension, our waters, through SFR and FWS Fisheries.
What does the latter provide besides laboratory expertise?
Well, fish, of course. Dozens of hatcheries grow trout, salmon, and other species as “mitigation” for the damage caused by dams to free-flowing waterways. For example, that’s why we have a world-class trout fishery in Arkansas.
These facilities also provide sanctuaries for threatened and endangered species, and they help the states with put-and-take fisheries.
“We have used advanced-sized channel catfish produced at the federal hatcheries to support our Neighborhood Fishing Program,” says Terre.
“The federal fisheries biologists provide support and work collaboratively with our state fisheries biologists on research projects and, most recently, on threatened and endangered fish issues and watershed-scale fish habitat improvement projects.”
Fish Passage provides yet another benefit. In 2011 alone, Fisheries and its partners removed or bypassed 158 dams, culverts, and other structures, opening up 2,180 miles of streams to native fish populations.
These efforts “contributed to improved water quality, provided additional recreational and economic opportunities, and even addressed serious threats to human health and safety,” FWS says.
Additionally, Fisheries coordinates the Aquatic Nuisance Species Program, analyzes and approves new drugs and chemicals for aquatic species, monitors population levels and responses to environmental changes, and more.
“It’s impossible to enumerate all that Fisheries does and not wise to prioritize,” Clough concludes. “They’re all important functions that the states cannot perform alone.
“And we can’t afford to lose them.”
(A shorter version of this piece appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)