For this installment of “Organization of the Month,” we sat down–virtually, of course–with the American Saltwater Guides Association (ASGA). ASGA represents guides, tackle stores, and other recreational fishing stakeholders and operates under one simple idea: “promoting better business through marine conservation.” While only in their second year, ASGA has become a powerful voice for the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast in the halls of Congress and the world of fishery management. Follow along for more on the American Saltwater Guides Association!

Flylords: How did ASGA start?

ASGA: Well, simply put, we started the American Saltwater Guides Association in late 2018 because it was needed. Conservation leaders have taken a beating in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast for a very long time. John McMurray and I (Tony Friedrich) have been working on fisheries policy together for over a decade. We got sick of the situation and decided to start ASGA to fill the massive void in our region. There was a lack of unified leadership on marine conservation issues in our area, especially within the recreational fishing community. So, we asked ourselves, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” That’s it. We started calling people from North Carolina to Maine and telling them what we were doing, and the response was overwhelming. Fishermen desperately wanted some direction and a formal group to get behind. That was when we realized it could actually work.

Photo courtesy of ASAG member, Kyle Schaefer of @SoulFlyOutfitters

Flylords: Can you summarize ASGA’s mission and how you all work to accomplish that mission?

ASGA: First and foremost, we believe in “Sustainable Business Through Marine Conservation.” It is our belief that our business thrives through marine conservation. The current fisheries narrative is “the more fish you kill, the greater the economic benefits.” We see the economic value of fish left in the water. We work with the regional fishery management councils, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and state and federal legislators on a daily basis so that we can leave a lasting legacy for our kids and grandkids.

Flylords: What makes ASGA a unique organization?

ASGA: We are unique because we are all fishermen. Almost every other national recreational fishing association has people at the top that are membership gurus or fundraising experts. We fish. That is what we do and who we are. Maybe some will see that as a flaw. We see it as a benefit. Our first concern is standing up for the resource, not adding to our membership through a banquet. We put the resource first and that is less common than you would think.

Flylords: Tell us a little more about the behind the scenes work that ASGA does to protect our fisheries.

ASGA: Hey now! No peeking behind the curtain. Just kidding…Behind the scenes, we never stop developing and expanding our network. We definitely punch above our weight class on Capitol Hill. Our credibility as real fishermen has served us well. Our grasp of the science and consistency in policy while protecting the environment speaks volumes towards our commitment to the cause, and elected officials have taken notice. If you get a look behind the scenes, you will see a bunch of folks working their asses off to give the next generation a chance to be a guide or own a tackle shop if that is their dream. We don’t work 9-5 and we don’t take weekends off. We work constantly. When we do have downtime, we fish together. We have a bond that I have never experienced. There are no egos involved. We put the Association and the resource first.

ASGA member, Abbie Schuster of @KismetOutfitters, giving some casting tips

Flylords: COVID-19 seemed to come out of nowhere, but unfortunately, it’s here and severely affecting many of your members—whether it be guides or fishing-related small business. Obviously, COVID-19 and the mitigation practices are harming these people and business. How is ASGA working to help all the guides and businesses losing their spring fishing seasons?

ASGA: These are unprecedented times. We are working closely with both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to make sure that we, members of the recreational fishing community, aren’t forgotten. We’re also working to ensure that folks know what benefits are available and how they can access them. The recent $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included several helpful provisions. For example, it allows the self-employed to receive unemployment benefits, which normally isn’t an option. Now, these folks can collect an additional $600 per week in addition to what their respective state would contribute. Additionally, there is over $300 million available in fisheries disaster relief. On top of this, there are Paycheck Protection Program loans available to small businesses. Unfortunately, the money is already drying up and the banks are overwhelmed with loan requests. From what we are hearing, there will be a 4th and possibly 5th stimulus package.

No matter which way you slice it, it is going to be a rough spring for our guides. The one thing readers can do is book a trip with a guide right now for the late summer or fall. We are salt of the earth. We just want to pay our mortgage and provide for our families.

For our tackle shops, pick up the phone or go online and order something from them or get a gift card. Every little bit helps.

The fishing community is pretty awesome. We have seen it time and time again with post-hurricane support. It is time once again to help this special community, but this time it is all of us–not just one area.

We are the little guys. We are also the first ones who would help you out on the water. We don’t want handouts, but a hand up would sure as hell be appreciated right now.

Flylords: On a related note, is COVID-19 affecting the management of our fisheries?

ASGA: Great question! The answer is not simple. Our number one fear is that there will be an outcry to roll back marine fisheries regulations to compensate for the recent economic losses. We are working at the highest levels of government to stop that effort. You have to remember that marine fisheries are totally different from freshwater fisheries in terms of who uses them. Not to minimize the efforts of freshwater advocates, but just imagine if there was a commercial market for native trout and largemouth bass. We have to share our resources with other stakeholders and figure out a way to coexist.

Many of the large commercial vessels require independent observers on the boat while fishing. Those observers aren’t on board right now due to virus transmission concerns. The same is true for data collection efforts for the recreational sector, as it’s impossible to do dockside surveys and comply with social distancing guidelines. We are in a crazy place right now. Like everything else, the resource is in a very bad place. But we fight on–our kids deserve it.

Flylords: What are some of the biggest threats facing saltwater recreational fishing?

ASGA: The number one issue is overfishing. Resource users have become insanely efficient as a result of cell phones, social media, 3-D sonar, better engines, and better tackle. We have to manage the resource for the future, not just for today. We need strong federal laws that give us the muscle to hold people accountable. The main fishery law in the country is the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Since 2006, it has held the line and even recovered many species. Rolling back MSA would be devastating for us.

Right behind overfishing is warming oceans. Fish stocks are shifting north. We are consistently catching giant red drum in the Chesapeake Bay, which is also experiencing an explosion of cobia, white shrimp, and even other warm water species like tarpon. Up and down the coast, anglers are encountering species that they never used to. Consequently, there will be winners and losers, and we need to make sure that our fisheries governance structures are ready to handle these shifts.

Finally, our nearshore waters are losing grassbeds, shellfish, and other habitat due to polluted water. We are getting hit from all sides and are 100% at a tipping point.

River herring are an important baitfish in the Atlantic Ocean, but the population is currently at historic lows

Flylords: I’ve been seeing some headlines about reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act—what exactly is MSA and what are some key points ASGA is fighting for?

ASGA: MSA is our nation’s fishery law that governs all fisheries from 3-200 miles offshore.  It dictates things like annual catch limits for saltwater species and rebuilding timelines for overfished stocks. The original law goes back to the 1970s. The intent was to protect our waters from foreign fishing vessels. MSA has been reauthorized several times over the years to adjust to the ever-changing nature of saltwater fishing. There was a strong effort to roll-back many of the most effective safeguards in the law in 2018. Most of the folks at ASGA were fully engaged in protecting MSA on Capitol Hill during that time. Eventually, an amendment called “The Modern Fish Act” passed. By the time we were done fighting against it, we helped strip it down to a few studies—nothing that would be detrimental to the resource.

The good news is that Congressman Huffman (D-CA-2) is trying to do a meaningful reauthorization of MSA right now. He is the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, which puts him in the perfect position to make this happen.  ASGA members have served as panelists on several of the Congressman’s roundtables. We are very hopeful that something great will come out of this in the near future.

ASGA’s Vice President/Policy Director, Tony Friedrich, and President, John McMurray, meeting with Congressman Huffman

Flylords: ASGA seems to be centered around Atlantic coast fisheries, such as striped bass and bluefish. Are there regions/fisheries that ASGA is looking to expand to or bring more awareness to?

ASGA: We are always looking to expand. The next logical step would be the Gulf of Mexico and then the West Coast. We share many of the same issues. The fish just look a little different. Right now, we have so much to do in the Atlantic and feel like we would be doing the resource a disservice if we focused on growth. That said, if any of your readers want to reach out, please don’t hesitate. We are growing and we have momentum on our side. If you need help or want to be a part of ASGA, send us an email at  info@saltwaterguidesassociation.org.

Flylords: You guys do so much for protecting our fisheries and are very passionate about that, but ASGA alone cannot carry the entire burden. How can conservation-minded anglers help further ASGA’s mission?

ASGA: We aren’t just guides. We represent tackle shops, small tackle manufacturers, and conservation-minded private recreational fishermen. We are a home for anyone who cares about marine conservation. Making a donation would be huge. We are a 501(c)(3), so donations are tax-deductible. We don’t charge for membership. Guides are not independently wealthy. We do have donation drives, so be sure to keep an eye out on our social media platforms: Instagram, Facebook, and website.

Photos courtesy of @SaltwaterEdge and @SoulFlyOutfitters.

Nonprofit of the Month: Elevate Youth

Organization of the Month: Fly Fishing Collaborative

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