Controversial Boat Rest and Rotation Adopted for the Madison River

In 2017 Madison River fishing traffic reached an all time high. A proposed solution has now been adopted.

Controversial Boat Rest and Rotation Adopted for the Madison River

January 2021

We've previously written about how angling pressure causes fish stress, and influences their behavior. Check out our article here. It's an expanding subject in fisheries research, specifically looking at how to manage a catch-and-release fishery that minimizes fish stress, injury, and mortality (to maintain or improve the quality of the fishery). Scientists have run some cool experiments to measure how fish actually respond to angling pressure, and whether or not you'd care to hear it, our angling is changing how fish live. This has lead to many scientists calling for action, to find strategies that anglers and fishery managers can implement that help sustain our fishable waters. Some researchers have even drawn some dramatic conclusions about what solutions might look like. As we discussed in the linked article, one solution (albeit controversial) may be to restrict access in order to regulate angling pressure (Young and Hayes, 2004).

The issue of angling pressure is common on Montana's Madison River, an area extremely iconic amongst devout fly anglers. In 2017, river traffic reached an all time high, with 270,000 angling days recorded over the year. (Think of angling days as a proxy for fishing pressure.)

Needless to say, Montana's Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) has been looking for ways to address the overcrowding. A proposal was brought to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2018, but proved wildly unpopular with guiding outfits as it would have metered guiding trips on the Madison, even prohibiting guides to access certain areas at certain times. The proposal was canned. Yet, public opinion polls have reinvigorated the commissions interest in finding a solution, and the newest proposal brings back a controversial rest and rotation schedule for commercial float trips. And as of 12/24/2020, the proposal has been adopted, kicking in starting in 2022.

First, what was adopted? One of the ideas re-proposed by Montana FWP is to restrict the daily number of guide trips, and restrict those trips from using certain sections along the river at certain times. Specifically, between June 15 and September 30th, commercial trips will be prohibited between Lyons Bridge access point and the Palisades day-use area on Sundays. On Saturdays, guided trips are restricted from Raynolds Bridge and Lyons Bridge. This is the rest and rotation system. There are also changes to the walk and wade sections for those same days. Boats will continue to be prohibited from Ennis FAS to Ennis Lake and from Quake Lake to Raynolds Bridge. So if you're fishing from a boat on Saturday or Sunday between June 15th and September 30th, you'll have to float the sections from Raynolds Bridge to Lyons Bridge. Wade anglers will now need to utilize a permit system for fishing, used by FWP to track and better understand river use. No charge is required for permits. Finally, future riverside development may be tempered by restricting land development acquisitions on the lower river. (The actual document is attached in the bibliography below, if you want to read it for yourself).

But this adopted solution has some opposition. Montana Angler posted a well-written counterargument to the proposal and outlines some of the main sticking points for commercial outfitters. They suggest that by capping use based on the 2019 levels the rest and rotation concept doesn't address population growth or increased angling interest for the future. They also argue that commercial outfitters are unfairly targeted by this proposal, and the rest and rotation would actually increase boating density on their regulated sections of river caused by bottlenecks. Finally, they suggest that FWPs own data shows that although outfitters are more likely to guide out of boats, the guided boating traffic only makes up 50% of the rivers boat use. The ultimate argument is that the rest and rotation disturbs the natural dispersal of anglers across the river system. No longer would the boats diffuse naturally across the river, but now more would be forced into a smaller less diffuse route. Their article is worth a read, the guys who wrote this article also developed a spatial representation of boat dispersal in several scenarios that is worth checking out.  

I feel obligated to highlight an important concept to generalize the issue at hand. This shared resource (the Madison River and it's excellent fishery) can be considered a shared common good, available to all. Over time, shared common resources tend to get exploited, as each individual (or guide service or whoever) try to maximize their utility from the resource. After all, if I'm not using it to the fullest extent, someone else might be. But as everyone tries to take more and more, the shared common good is prone to rapid exploitation as each tries to make the most out of the shared resource for themselves. In the end, everyone degrades the shared resource out of self-interest. This is the tragedy of the commons, and has been seen over and over throughout history. Cattle overgrazing on shared lands, commercial overfishing in the open ocean, etc. The only way to solve this type of exploitation is to find something that can work for everyone, and that will probably require some constraints, or some kind of regulation... otherwise we already know the outcome. Fortunately, both sides came forward to compromise leading up to the adopted changes. However some kinks will likely need to be worked out, like how to best allocate the commercial floats, how new outfitters are added, ironing out rules for walk/wade and boat rest/rotation, and the consequences for permit violations.

What do you think of this new system? Do you hate it?

If you do then I'll close by reminding you about another controversial regulatory decision Montana made regarding its fisheries. In 1974, Dick Vincent, a Montana state biologist, conducted fisheries studies that convinced Montana's Fish and Game department halting the introduction of stocked fish into their state's waters. At the time, anglers and shops we're outraged (sound familiar), as the leading paradigm promoted stocking for greater fishing opportunities. But we now know better, that stocked trout outcompete and interfere with wild trout populations. So once the stockers were removed, wild trout populations soared. Dick Vincent's work solidified Montana as a premier trout state.

Even though the rest and rotation system for the Madison might not be a favorable idea in the eyes of commercial outfitters, neither was the idea of halting Montana's trout stocking program. Only time will tell.

This rule is likely still developing, and changes may not yet be reflected in the article: Updated 12/20/2020.

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