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Environment: Local anglers join D.C. rally for fisheries

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

In the dark, quiet hours of Wednesday morning — so early many would still consider it Tuesday night — a bus load of fishermen left Georgetown for Washington, D.C.

They were headed up to be part of a history-making show of solidarity as recreational and commercial fishermen came together to rally for reform. The two sides don’t come together often, but they’re united on the need to reform the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act.

Signed into law in 1976, the law “most notably aided in the development of the domestic fishing industry by phasing out foreign fishing,” according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. But in recent years, it was altered from its original intent to the detriment of commercial and recreational fishermen, said Stuart Ballard, president of Tailwalker Marine, which was one of the bus sponsors.

“It was instrumental in rebuilding America’s fisheries and bringing back all our marine resources in terms of fisheries,” Ballard said. “But in 2006 some self-serving interest groups changed some of the wording in the act.”

The act has to be renewed every 10 years he explained. The purpose of the act was completely changed with the new wording, and most people didn’t realize the effect until it was too late. When the law was changed, power was taken away from local fishery management councils.

The way the act reads now, if a fishery is in trouble, a radical correction has to occur within a year or the fishery is closed.

“That really puts coastal communities in jeopardy,” said Ballard. “Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand benefit from the fisheries, not just because of restaurants and the seafood industry, but also because of recreational activities. Boating is a very big thing here in Georgetown County.”

He blamed the situation with the act on extremist preservation groups and big business representatives who want to privatize American fisheries.

“People on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are vehemently against it,” Ballard said. Privatization of fisheries might work in Alaska, he conceded, but “here it doesn’t function well. Our fisheries are made up of mom-and-pops — thousands of them — not two or three industrial fleets.

“What is going on is a political agenda,” he said. “In essence they’re trying to eliminate all the small mom-and-pops. We want access to the fisheries and science to be the determining factor in the health of the fisheries, not politics.”

Billed as Keep Fishermen Fishing, the rally drew thousands and was a follow-up to an event in February 2010, that brought some 5,000 recreational, commercial and party/charter vessel owners, fishermen and people in fisheries-dependent businesses together from all over the country. At this week’s rally, every coastal state in the nation was represented from the Carolinas, Louisiana, Texas and California, on up to Alaska and Maine, according to Ballard.

About 35 people were on the bus sponsored by Tailwalker and the Ocean Isle Fishing Center out of North Carolina, but more took their personal vehicles to Washington for the rally. Most were from the recreational side, but the majority at the rally were commercial fishermen.

“When your livelihood is directly affected, there’s a little more incentive to stand up and do something,” Ballard said.

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