American comedian Steve Wright once said “there’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.”

The same is true of fisheries policy. When it comes to those seeking to shape the complex task of managing our nation’s fisheries, there are countless fishermen and fishing groups–many with diverse and often opposing perspectives–who participate constructively in the public policy process. And then there’s the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

Let’s get something straight: fishermen are conservationists. They cherish the resource that defines their lifestyle, and they are willing to do the hard work it takes to sustain it. Many of the most significant marine conservation advances are driven by commercial fishermen concerned by what they see on the water, and by recreational anglers whose love of the ocean fuels their sporting passion. Their interest in securing healthy oceans and productive fisheries isn’t abstract or merely intellectual. For fishermen, it’s personal.

All the more surprising, therefore, that some lawmakers take their lead on fisheries issues from a fringe group lacking popular legitimacy–one that specializes in conspiracy theories and truly vile rhetoric. As they stage their ‘Keep Fishermen Fishing’ rally on March 21, it’s timely to ask: who is the RFA and why would anyone listen to them?

RFA was formed in 1996 with a goal of becoming the premier political voice for America’s recreational anglers. To listen to the pronouncements of their leadership you’d think they had come close to succeeding. But the truth is that they’ve never attracted any meaningful base of popular support. In contrast with myriad other recreational fishing groups that have been built from the ground up through the shared commitment of individual anglers and small businesses, RFA was established by a big dollar investment from Viking Yachts. That single donor acknowledges having funneled over $7 million to RFA coffers, allowing the organization to stay afloat and masking their spectacular failure to attract grassroots support.

Let’s take a hard look at the numbers. The United States has over 12 million recreational anglers. RFA was founded with the stated aim of mobilizing 1 million of them as members. They now claim to represent 50,000 anglers. But their latest tax filing exposes even this number as pure fantasy: after 15 long years, the truth is they received a $35 annual membership fee from fewer than 6,500 people nationwide in 2010. That’s dwarfed by the six-figure membership rosters of groups such as Coastal Conservation Association and Trout Unlimited, and barely 1% of Bass Anglers Sportsman Society’s membership.

But furthermore, RFA shouldn’t be confused with any of the more mainstream ‘astroturf’ outfits that proliferate in DC. The time-honored sin of faking a base of support is compounded in RFA’s case–by policy prescriptions that exacerbate rather than attempt to grapple with the serious challenges our fisheries face; and by the adoption of a caustic tone that poisons America’s inventive system of stakeholder-driven fisheries management. They flail against all government regulation; promote such fiction as that there’s a huge “greenwashing conspiracy” to force all anglers off the water; and urge consumer boycotts of mainstream retailers such as Walmart and Safeway in vitriolic terms.

Take, for example, the rantings of RFA’s Florida Division Director. He denounces the “treacherous act of treason” represented by imagined efforts to force American anglers off the water as part of a United Nations fiat; and posits that our preeminent fisheries law, authored by Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Warren Magnuson (D-WA) and reauthorized in 2007 under the signature of President George W. Bush, is “based upon Agenda 21.” He vilifies public servants such as the NOAA Administrator as a “grinchy ole hag”–and worse. The public statements of RFA’s Managing Director generally appear designed to foment fear. His recent Facebook posts include a tirade against former senior Bush administration official and current Romney advisor Jim Connaughton for a litany of perceived evils, including “helping put through draconian ‘anti-overfishing’ language”; and musings that firing NOAA chief Dr. Jane Lubchenco would only “sever the rattle, you still have to deal with the fangs … get rid of the head of this agenda-driven snake or the anti-fishing ideology will continue!”

The emergence of RFA has not happened in a vacuum. Their unpalatable brand of bomb-throwing, fiction-based advocacy has many peers in other corners of our polarized and cacophonous polity. In DC terms, we should think of them less as a respectable interest group and more in the mold of an extremist SuperPAC. Underwritten by a single large donor, a few self-appointed leaders hunch over their laptops and bombard us with bile. But their virulence belies a detachment from a constituency of any size or significance. We would all do well to treat them as the peripheral irritants that they are.

With many coastal economies still weak, however, and the damaging legacy of overfishing still necessitating difficult fishery management choices, RFA will be joined at this week’s rally by a number of well-meaning and hard-working commercial fishermen and recreational anglers. Some will come to voice legitimate grievances, others to convey directly to lawmakers the economic challenges they face. Rebuilding and sustainably managing federal fisheries–while weighing individuals’ immediate economic needs, providing for access, and securing the long-term prosperity of coastal communities–involves inherently contentious policy choices. Certain Members and Senators who take their representation of fishermen seriously will be tempted to grace the RFA with their presence and weigh in on these complex issues with an easy applause line. That’s too bad. There are literally millions of conservation-minded fishermen around the country who stand ready to share substantive and considered views with those lawmakers who take the time to seek them out. Those who prefer instead to tick the box at RFA’s rally and give this fringe group credibility might consider bringing their long-form birth certificate. There may very well be some idiots from the RFA leadership demanding to see it.

Follow Matt Tinning on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MattTinning

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  • Bob Bryant

    As one who as participated in the process and sat on the National Research Councils review of NOAA/NMFS  recreational data, I see you have failed to bring to light the many failings of NOAA/NMFS whcih has given voice to groups such as the one you targeted in this piece.
    Maybe if NOAA/NMFS weren’t such a miserable failure, following failed policy and embracing groups like PEW and EDF, there would be much less conspiracy.
    But when NOAA/NMFS moves forward with draconian rules, based not on the facts nor the input from the users, but blindly following an agenda of managing fishermen and not fisheries, we the user group who are suffering at the hands of these rules must react.
    Instead of wasting this space to purely produce a hit piece on the RFA and I guess any other group that is not CCA (inshore) or BMA (freshwater and not under the purview of NOAA/NMFS),
    maybe you could have used those crack investigative reporting skills to take a serious look inside NOAA/NMFS management of the fisheries and brought to light some of their failures.
    The RFA may not speak for the majority of  anglers and I do not subscribe to many of the conspiracy theories, but I do know this; NOAA/NMFS is a failed agency with a failed policy based on a failed piece of legislation.  THe MSA of 2006 is nothing like what was originally passed and carries much of the EDF’s agenda, which it illegally used its influence to “materially change” the MSA.
    As an outdoor writer, you may want to listen to those in the out of doors, on the water and spend less time googling facts on groups that may or may not represent the views of the mahority of fishermen.
    Regardless of your writings….there is something seriously wrong with our current management process and the masses are getting restless.

    • Matt Tinning

      Thanks for your comment Bob. I’m committed to working with you and others to improve fishery management in the US, including by improving how the agency operates. This piece doesn’t represent my exclusive focus, just what I thought needed to be said in the context of last week’s rally. RFA damages our fishery management process and, as a result, the health of our fisheries. But you’re right: that doesn’t mean they’re the only problem.

  • Jaybird279

    Every once in awhile, I get confused over who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. This article did nothing to change my opinion about that. This article completely misses the point and looks more like the negative ads that we are seeing in this primary season. Instead of blaming the other guy, Matt Tinning should be telling us why his group are trying to eliminate recreational fishing. 

  • Capt Gary Jarvis

    Got to love the rock throwing I get quite a few thrown my way every time I make comments so let me put my helmet on . This article is factual and accurate and depending on what side of the fence you sit on is going to be your take pro or con. There has been plenty of negative press written on the ENGO’s some of it very accurate and true and some of it totalaly untrue filled with out right lies which seems to be fine for some folks but for some reason it is off limits to evaluate and comment upon the scope, motivations and history of the other side. As a stakeholder in recreational fisheries and commercial fisheries who is caught in the middle of these groups I consider it a benifit and neccesity to try and evaluate both sides to every story and then equate that to my experiences dealing with the groups in question.That approach allows me to try and find common ground and try to take a inteligent approach to the problem and apply it to the positions these organizations are taking, their stratagies, thier motivations and how they impact my life and especially my fishery. Both of which effect my pocket book. The issues facing fishermen are problematic but not unsolvable. The NMFS and NOAA have many short commings and yet are the agency responsible to pereserve the Nations resources under federal law and they have to be dealt with in a manner that actually will develope solutions verses rock throwing and conspiracy theories..The positions from RFA and other groups to only make blame and to point fingers fuels my suspicion that they are not really motivated to solve the problems they are quick point out but only to create enough chaos to drive membership and income.The positions of some of the enviro community especially those that have no basis in biological needs make me suspect that there is a disconect between conservation and reality concerning our fisheries.Well then it becomes a issue of who leads who ,the heart or the wallet. Do you become emotional and cry foul never offering plans or solutions to the short commings of NMFS ? Or do approach fisheries like a businessman or leader of men and develope plans, stratagies and ideas that can meet the goals of conservation,fair and increased access without destroying other user groups historical participation accessing this nations resources,and developing  long term solutions to short term difficulties.Open minds are difficult while wearing helmets 

    • Jpapciak

      I recall the era when RFA referred to the commercial fishing industry as “search and destroy” and now we see them working together in Washington, trying to take down Magnuson. I have Ben reading their press releases since the beginning, always waiting for that one day when they do the right thing and take a position that means the fish win. Winter flounder? Weakfish? What do you say RFA, throw us a bone!

  • With small “Fringe” groups like CFa, having $$$ backing from big green, like EDF and Pew, its not surprising that a large majority of fishermen are outraged by the mismanagement of our fisheries, and the attempt by a small number to privitize what is a Public resource. These issues are no conspiracy, but a well doccumented in progress work. I am not a member of any of the groups you mentioned, but see first hand how the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on a Market Based management system know asn Catch Shares, has put the needed budget to perform the much needed stock assesments on the back burner. CFA, sitting next to EDF has testified before congress that the MSRA should remain as is…they prefer the “Status-Quo”! They also have opposed lesilative measures aimed at MANDATING reliable science in setting ACL’s. That is disgusting! NOAA/NMFS has data on less that 25% of their managed fisheries, and claim that “budget” prevents them from doing more, yet Catch Shares spending continues at a record pace. Imaging how much valuable, needed data we could have to manage our fisheries with if the hundreds of millions were spent of fishery science and research!!!

  • fishntexas

    Catch Shares DO NOT
    belong in a fishery that is recreational inclusive, period. NOAA needs to cut a huge
    percentage from the commercial Snapper and Amberjack TAC and give it to the recreational fisherman! Recreational only fisheries
    ARE healthy! Anyone who wants the
    IFQ bureaucratic crap in our recreational
    or Charter for Hire fishery should excpect
    a Fight!

  • fishntexas

    An interesting point
    was brought before me the other day…the quota is being filled more rapidly than
    ever…recreational people are catching a lot BIGGER fish which mean it takes
    fewer to reach the quota…which means that the fishery is better, good or has
    gotten a heck of a lot better…however they recreational angler gets PUNISHED
    because it takes much less time to catch these plentiful much BIGGER fish…this
    does NOT make sense to me!

    The CHF (Charter For Hire) is and should be a
    recreational sector because it is the license buying, tax paying, public access
    guy who is keeping his share of the bounty, however granted it should have more
    than 80% of the TAC! Commercial fishermen have lived off our fish for too
    long! SOS is not for a recreational fishery, if a fishery is so depleted it has
    to come to this then commercial fishing should be stopped…period…and
    especially if it is also a recreational fishery! Too much government money is
    being spent to try to get everybody a little bit and no one is happy! Ban
    commercial fishing for Red Snapper and Amberjack to save the economy of the
    fishing communities…recreational fisheries take care of themselves without greed
    of profit!

    I feel that as a
    charter captain I’m a recreational liaison, not a commercial fisherman… I still
    can’t believe the amount of trouble/money the government goes through to mange a
    depleting fish stock…it seems as simple as Red fish and Speckled Trout…as
    technology, fishing pressure, popularity of cuisine changed commercial fishing
    was eliminated to save the species and the larger economy of the communities…why
    is that an off limits discussion from our government for Red
    Snapper, Amberjack and Grouper…. I’m sure there is a species, however I can’t
    think of one off the top of my head that has been disrupted solely by
    recreational efforts, however I can think of many more that have made a
    significant come back due to the conservation nature and financial assistance of
    recreational anglers…it boils down to when you make money for fishing by any
    means (mass entrapment not Rod & Reel) to gather fish, no matter what
    restrictions are placed greed or the need to pay bills will make people do
    things that are illegal thus the down fall of the Red Snapper, Amberjack and
    Grouper… we had seen this happen in other fisheries to that are booming now
    after the any means available fishing (not single hook and single line) was
    banned…i.e.…Speckled Trout and Red Drum…the commercial fisheries quotas were
    established years ago when the fishery was more viable, technology was
    different, the world was different…the demographics have now changed and so
    should the quotas to reflect a more sustained use of the fish stock going to the
    growing recreational sector and not the stagnant or receding commercial industry
    who are just becoming big companies and will get bigger with catch shares and
    only a few people enjoying the fruits of profit from the mass resource…even
    though I am not and Snapper/Grouper fisherman I’m not for IFQ’s for single hook
    and line fisherman which included charter for hire which I already stated is
    basically only a liaison for the recreational fisherman so they can enjoy a
    little more of their sport …I believe if we let IFQ’s into our sector this type
    of government regulation will run rampant…therefore I’m trying to be proactive
    before it hits my fishery…I believe as the NRA one more regulation will lead two
    more and two more regulations will lead to 4 more and so on…recreational only
    fisheries are well managed for charter and private individuals and conservation
    within that group has excelled! They should stop wasting money on all the
    regulation meetings, data gathering for their own interpretation, politics and
    start putting that wasted money into reef building, stocking programs or
    whatever idea that actually help PRODUCE more fish!

    Last but most
    important if you are a CHF charter captain you should not listen to ANY
    commercial fisherman (even if he has a secondary CHF business too), they are
    used to the bureaucracy, regulations, special equipment…they have people who
    keep up with those records and permits and paper work…they are betting that you
    don’t have the time or the knowledge to deal with all that and WILL take your
    share…me personally I do NOT want too deal with the added regulations and
    bureaucracy…nor do I have time for it…I’m a single man operation…heck I don’t
    have even have a wife to cook dinner at the end of a long day…LOL…but that is
    another story…the environmentalists and the commercial groups want to SPLIT CHF
    and Recreational groups, divide and conquer…then it will be CHF, recreational,
    environmental and commercial all fighting each other for their own shares…the
    only one who wins here is the government (in this administration liberals)
    because they get bigger trying to regulate all of you…I’m a CHF and I like
    having help from the recreational sector in lobbying…it’s the longer road for
    the CHF guy…but it will be the one worth traveling for our CHF future!
    Remember…if it happens for snapper…then it could happen for every other fish you
    fish for…would you like splitting away from recreational fisherman…YOUR
    clients…with Cobia, Billfish releases, Wahoo, Dolphin…then Redfish and Speckled
    Trout…I think not!

    The CHF is and should
    be a recreational sector because it is the license buying, tax paying, public
    access guy who is keeping his share of the bounty, however granted it should
    have more than 80% of the TAC! Commercial fishermen have lived off our fish for
    too long! SOS is not for a recreational fishery, if a fishery is so depleted it
    has to come to this then commercial fishing should be stopped…period…and
    especially if it is also a recreational fishery! Too much government money is
    being spent to try to get everybody a little bit and no one is happy! Ban
    commercial fishing for Red Snapper and Amberjack to save the economy of the
    fishing communities…recreational fisheries take care of themselves without greed
    of profit!

    I feel that as a
    charter captain I’m a recreational liaison, not a commercial fisherman… I still
    can’t believe the amount of trouble/money the government goes through to mange a
    depleting fish stock…it seems as simple as Red fish and Speckled Trout…as
    technology, fishing pressure, popularity of cuisine changed commercial fishing
    was eliminated to save the species and the larger economy of the communities…why
    is that an off limits discussion from our government for Red
    Snapper, Amberjack and Grouper…. I’m sure there is a
    species, however I can’t think of one off the top of my head that has
    been disrupted solely by recreational efforts, however I can think of many
    more that have made a significant come back due to the conservation nature and
    financial assistance of recreational anglers…it boils down to when you make
    money for fishing by any means (mass entrapment not Rod & Reel) to gather
    fish, no matter what restrictions are placed greed or the need to pay bills will
    make people do things that are illegal thus the down fall of the Red Snapper,
    Amberjack and Grouper… we had seen this happen in other fisheries to that are
    booming now after the any means available fishing (not single hook and single
    line) was banned…i.e.…Speckled Trout and Red Drum…the commercial fisheries
    quotas were established years ago when the fishery was more viable, technology
    was different, the world was different…the demographics have now changed and so
    should the quotas to reflect a more sustained use of the fish stock going to the
    growing recreational sector and not the stagnant or receding commercial industry
    who are just becoming big companies and will get bigger with catch shares and
    only a few people enjoying the fruits of profit from the mass resource…even
    though I am not and Snapper/Grouper fisherman I’m not for IFQ’s for single hook
    and line fisherman which included charter for hire which I already stated is
    basically only a liaison for the recreational fisherman so they can enjoy a
    little more of their sport …I believe if we let IFQ’s into our sector this type
    of government regulation will run rampant…therefore I’m trying to be proactive
    before it hits my fishery…I believe as the NRA one more regulation will lead two
    more and two more regulations will lead to 4 more and so on…recreational only
    fisheries are well managed for charter and private individuals and conservation
    within that group has excelled! They should stop wasting money on all the
    regulation meetings, data gathering for their own interpretation, politics and
    start putting that wasted money into reef building, stocking programs or
    whatever idea that actually help PRODUCE more fish!