Richard Hittinger is an avid fisherman. He also believes in Rhode Island and feels the significance and potential of recreational salt-water fishing is being overlooked.
Hittinger whose business, Alliance Environmental Group, is located in Warwick, was the driving force behind the first Southern New England Recreational Fishing Symposium held Tuesday at the Radisson Hotel. The symposium was co-sponsored by the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, the NOAA Northeast Region Ocean Council, and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute.
Hittinger said the idea for the symposium was triggered by similar events conducted by commercial fishermen.
“Recreational fishing is very important. It will have a huge impact on the economy,” Hittinger said.
The intent of the symposium was to bring together representatives from Rhode Island and Massachusetts state governments, from the federal government, the educational community, the charter boat association and recreational fishermen, to discuss issues impacting saltwater fishing and to share information, identify issues and develop an action plan.
According to Scott Steinback, economist with the NOAA Fisheries Science Center and a presenter, recreational fishing has a $179 million annual direct and indirect impact on the state’s economy. In Massachusetts, it is $727 million.
“That’s part of the economy and it is something that can grow,” Hittinger said. “We’re looking to get all sides of the issue in one room and get some back and forth.”
Some of that back and forth came in response to a presentation on climate change and its impact by Mark Gibson, deputy chief of DEM Fish & Wildlife. As a result of warming waters, Gibson said, Rhode Island waters are seeing a shift of the mid-Atlantic fishery. As a result, he said, there are fewer cod, tautog and winter flounder [a species that has virtually disappeared]. However, other species are becoming more prevalent, including black sea bass, herring, butterfish, summer flounder, spot and scup.
“What we’re seeing are plenty of fish, just different kinds of fish,” Gibson said in a brief interview following his presentation.
And what about squid and the legislative bid to make calamari the state appetizer?
Gibson laughed. He doesn’t see that particular fishery in any danger of being depleted. He said the squid is a $100 million Rhode Island industry and his prediction is that, with continued good management, “we’re going to see squid [populations] going up.”
Some other commercial fishing has not been as fortunate. In his presentation, Gibson remarked on how the “bottom has fallen out” for lobster fishermen.
He doesn’t see that for recreational fishing, regardless of the relocation of species resulting from climate change.
In response to Hittinger’s question, what could the Saltwater Angers Association do in response to climate change, Gibson said, “Fishermen go for what they can catch.”
Hittinger said the association has 6,300 members. From those numbers, a select number were invited to participate in the symposium.
In table discussions following Gibson’s remarks, there were a number of suggestions on how to cope, including coming up with recipes to make “trash fish” like skate, rays and dog fish [that are increasing in abundance] more desirable; reducing the cormorant population that feeds off fish; increasing education on the effects of pollution on fisheries; improving data and research on fish species and the effects of climate change; and reduce the use of bay waters for the cooling of power generation plants, which is viewed as killing larvae and interrupting the natural cycle.
Robert Ballou, assistant to DEM director Janet Coit, offered another perspective.
“We can all do our part to slow the change,” he said, suggesting we all look to reduce our carbon footprint.
Hittinger was pleased with the outcome of the symposium.
“Now it’s a matter of putting all these ideas together,” he said yesterday.
Over the next two weeks, he said, the anglers would prepare a report listing action plans. He said those recommendations could include changes in procedures and regulations. Among suggestions is the publication of DEM angler information in multiple languages; differentiation in bag and size limits between shore and boat anglers; and the designation of “shore keepers” who would serve to self-police shore anglers and ensure good relations with neighbors.