In the mid 1990's a professional captain and passionate angler by the name of Jim Donofrio began a dialogue with Bob Healey, cofounder of Viking Yachts. The two discussed their mutual frustration with what they saw as the complete lack of attention being paid to recreational fishermen—and the issues they face—on Capitol Hill. Out of those early conversations was born the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), which over the past decade has blossomed into the nation's preeminent lobby for saltwater anglers. Today this New Jersey-based advocacy group is in a position to effect real change, not only in recreational fishing but in the marine industry at large.
The stated objectives of the RFA are threefold: to champion the rights of recreational fishermen, to protect marine-industry jobs, and to ensure the long-term sustainability of our nation's fisheries. In order to pursue its aims politically, the RFA employs a full-time staff that includes a contract lobbyist on Capitol Hill, a scientific researcher, and a grassroots organizer. In addition the alliance has regional and state directors who concentrate on their specific geographic areas and the issues that are of immediate concern to them.
Donofrio is a registered lobbyist who serves as the RFA's executive director. He explains that the founders' decision to file for 501(c)(4) exemptions when establishing the organization was a calculated one. It meant that the organization would be not only a nonprofit, but one permitted to lobby for legislation. "We became a 501(c)(4) because we recognized that every issue that faces us is essentially political in nature," he says. With its full and capable staff and ability to lobby, the RFA believes it has equipped itself to tackle those political concerns head-on.
According to Donofrio, the chief matter currently facing the RFA is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, which President Bush signed in January 2007. According to a statement from the Office of the U. S. Press Secretary, in signing the act, President Bush "reaffirmed our commitment to protect America's fisheries and keep our commercial and recreational fishing communities strong." The bill aims to achieve those goals by setting a firm deadline to halt overfishing in American waters. It directs Regional Fishery Management Councils to set yearly quotas at fisheries under federal control and to put an end to overfishing of depleted stocks by 2010 and of all other federally managed fish stocks by 2011.
The RFA is at the forefront in calling for increased flexibility in the Magnuson Act. It believes that the "firm" deadlines called for in the bill, which enjoys heavy support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent non-profit that according to its Web site strives to "improve public policy" and "stimulate civic life," are, in fact, quite arbitrary. The RFA's effort to revise the bill is supported by many in Congress, including Walter Jones (R-NC). Jones recently introduced the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2007, which calls for extensions to the Magnuson Act's stock-rebuilding schedules when fishing restrictions won't necessarily result in improved fish stocks. The RFA believes this new initiative will help produce healthy and well-managed fisheries based on the actual biological condition of the fish populations rather than on the schedules they see as arbitrary.
Donofrio, a fiery orator who makes no bones about his distaste for what he sees as extreme environmentalism, says, "The Pew is the enemy of the recreational fishing industry. We absolutely support conservation. To say we don't is ridiculous. No one wants to catch the last fish in the ocean. But the fear is that fishing will become so restrictive that it turns people off from buying boats. I mean, it has already taken a toll on the tackle industry."
In addition to the RFA's current efforts to revise the Magnuson Act, Donofrio says it is constantly working to contain "little fires." At present those include an initiative to help get New Jersey's Artificial Reefs clear of pots and traps and a plan to push the New England Fishery Management Council to make herring management a top priority in 2008. But the RFA is putting the bulk of its energy behind fighting for changes to the Magnuson Act. As Donofrio sees it, "If we can't change this, nothing else will really matter."
Those who agree with the RFA can join its ranks or give a donation. The organization offers one- and three-year memberships ($35 and $90 respectively). Members get a quarterly newsletter called Makin' Waves in addition to what Donofrio describes as a very tangible presence in Washington. He explains, "What I mean by that is that when there's an issue on the table, you'll immediately get a package from us with information on where you can send letters and what you can do to help. So the RFA gives you a direct voice. We say no nonsense, no gimmicks." There is strong evidence that this straightforward approach is working: The RFA currently has close to 50,000 direct, dues-paying members, and when one includes affiliate members in that count, the number hovers near 90,000. Donofrio believes that the alliance will have as many direct, dues-paying members in the near future, citing the RFA's high membership-retention rates.
High numbers of passionate supporters will certainly help the RFA, which foresees a long, hard fight ahead when it comes to maintaining the rights of sport fishermen and the marine industry in this country. But it is a battle the organization is confident it can win. Donofrio has said, "As individuals, our complaints will simply not be heard, but as a united group, we can and do stand up to anyone who threatens the sport we enjoy so much."
This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.