Thursday, May 22, 2014


About five years ago, I wrote an article for Tide magazine, the in-house publication of the Coastal Conservation Association, entitled “Pioneers of Wildlife Management.”
The article described the trials and tribulations of sportsmen and wildlife managers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as they tried to restore and conserve America’s waterfowl, then suffering from the twin perils of overharvest—largely at the hands of market hunters—and habitat loss. 

The never-quite-stated message of the piece was that salt water fisheries managers were a century or so behind the times.  There was no reason to reinvent the wheel and try to come up with novel ways to conserve and rebuild America’s salt water fisheries.  The problems that fisheries managers face today are very similar to those that waterfowl managers faced in 1900, and are amenable to similar solutions.

Although I wrote the piece on assignment from Tide, the notion that salt water fish are just another form of wildlife, and that traditional modes of wildlife management will work just as well in the oceans as they do in the forests, marshes and fields is one of my deeply held beliefs.

I liked the way the article came out, and I liked where it led its readers.

The other day, as I was perusing the most recent edition of Tide, I noticed that its editor had revisited the “managing fish like waterfowl” theme, although this time, he made the connection explicit.

The impetus for the article was (is there ever any other reason to pen a fisheries management piece these days?) the red snapper and grouper fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.  It was entitled “The Road Once Taken” and, as the context might suggest, was basically a long lament that fish, unlike waterfowl, can still be commercially harvested, that catch shares “cement commercial [harvest] into existence forever,” that allocations between the commercial and recreational sectors are unfair, that federal fisheries managers favor the commercial sector, that…

Well, no need to go on.  We’ve all heard that “pity poor me” song before.  Commercial fishermen in the northeast sing it all the time, with just a few different words and different folks in the chorus.

The piece asked anglers to think about what fisheries would look like if fish were managed like ducks, and ends with the sentence

“Whenever you hear or read of someone extolling the virtues of current federal fisheries management and the brilliance of catch share systems, ask them to imagine what recreational fisheries could be like if they were on a different road…a road once taken.”
I read the article, and that last sentence caught me as surely as the sharpest hook. 

I am “someone [who extols] the virtues of current federal fisheries management” (although I’m not all that sold on catch shares, at least in fisheries with a significant recreational component), and as the guy who first broached the “manage fish like ducks” concept in Tide half a decade ago, I do think about “what recreational fisheries could be like if they were on a different road” that more closely resembled the way waterfowl—and wildlife in general—is managed.

And I agree with a number of the points raised in “The Road Once Taken”, although I deplore the whiny manner in which they were presented.

But the problem with the piece is that it doesn’t go far enough.

Sure, market hunting was outlawed, but that just a part of how ducks are managed.  Folks such as Theodore Roosevelt, Ding Darling and George Bird Grinnell—all mentioned favorably in the newest Tide piece—didn’t merely put the market hunters out of business.  They reduced their own kill. 

And they certainly didn’t outlaw market hunting just so they could take the commercial kill for their own.

For those folks were sportsmen and conservationists, who were willing to limit their own take for the good of the resource, and place real restrictions upon themselves.

Which made them a little different from the red snapper and grouper anglers who fish down in the Gulf these days…

So what would recreational fisheries look like today, if we really managed fish like ducks?

To begin, fish would be professionally managed.  Biologists would make their best assessment of the stock, then set the regulations based on what they knew—and what they didn’t know—with adequate buffers to account for scientific and management uncertainty. 

There would be no panels of folks, with economic or other interests in the fishery—call them “councils,” “commissions,” “boards” or anything else—with the power to challenge, water down or otherwise frustrate the professional managers’ judgment calls. 

Harvests would be relatively low, based on concepts such as compensatory mortality rather than maximum sustainable yield.  No one would even consider allowing overharvest for whatever transient economic benefit it might provide.

Federal rules would be applicable everywhere.  Today, no state—not even Texas—can set its own seasons and bag limits for the ducks that fly through its airspace.  

If we managed fish the way we do ducks, every state would have to strictly abide by all of the regulations set by the feds.  The days of Texas anglers being able to land four 15-inch red snapper per day, every single day of the year, while the poor folks fishing the Gulf off Alabama get two 16-inch fish, and only nine days to catch them, would be over.

That would be good for the resource, because regulations would be set by scientists concerned with the fish, and not by political appointees concerned with the fishermen.  

It would benefit enforcement, since fisheries enforcement officers would no longer have to prove that fish were caught in waters where the most liberal state rules did not apply.  

And folks such as the red snapper anglers in Alabama would get a break—at least a little longer season—if the fish currently hogged by the Texans (and, to a lesser extent, the Floridians and the residents of Louisiana) were returned to the common pool.

So yes, there are good things that could come out of managing fish like ducks…

Of course, if fish were managed like ducks, you’d have to find something else to do for much of the year.  Here on the Atlantic flyway, waterfowlers get just a 60 day season.  If fish were managed like ducks, the season might be a little longer than that, but it would still be closed when fish are spawning (and, for species such as grouper probably as they begin to aggregate ahead of the spawn).  Short seasons intended to minimize disturbances to inshore nursery habitat, anchor damage to offshore reefs and discard mortality caused by catch-and-release could also be imposed.  

Anglers might be given just enough time to land their annual catch limit before the season is shut down.

Fishermen probably wouldn’t care for that.  I know that I wouldn’t like it; the fishing season’s too short as it is.  But if anglers want to walk the duck hunters’ road, they’re going to have to learn to live with the potholes…

And speaking of potholes, the waterfowl model prohibits the intentional waste of a duck.  You can’t just kill one and let it rot in the marsh.  Applying that model to fisheries would be the death knell for tournaments which see billfish and shark brought back to the dock, hung on the scale and then tossed into the dumpster just for the dollars—often very big dollars—that go to the winner.  

Killing other fish viewed as inedible—tarpon, bonefish, and such—for prizes or records, and then discarding the remains, could also be rendered illegal.
Although, I have to admit, I’d gauge that a good thing.  Killing fish just for a prize, or to stoke someone’s ego, strikes me as wrong.  Keep them for food, or let them go free.

And,  just maybe, give them some refuge.

National wildlife refuges form one of the keystones of waterfowl management.  From the rich Gulf shorelines of Laguna Atascosa, running along both coasts and up through the heartland, a network of refuges provide waterfowl places to winter, to rest, to feed and to shelter throughout the course of their seasonal migrations.  The refuges aren’t no-take preserves or national parks.  Folks hunt there and fish there all of the time, but they’re required to do so in a way that won’t interfere with the birds’ basic needs. 

Thus, it’s somewhat surprising to read, in the same issue of Tide that suggests that fish should be managed like ducks, a “Capitol Ideas” column entitled “Runaway MPAs”.  

In that piece, CCA’s National Government Relations Committee Chairman decries the creation of marine wildlife refuges, intended to protect overfished speckled hind and warsaw grouper, off the South Atlantic coast, even though at least some of those refuges would protect “known spawning sites”. 

Such refuges wouldn’t be no-take “sanctuaries”; bottom fishing would be prohibited to protect the grouper stocks, but anglers would still be able to access the upper reaches of the water column, where billfish, tuna, dolphin, wahoo, sharks, mackerel and such all reside.

CCA argues that any such grouper refuges should be supported by data, which seems logical on its face.  It notes that

“…there has been very little monitoring or research done at the current MPA sites.  There is a troubling lack of documentation to support the idea that new sites will provide the necessary protections for speckled hind and warsaw grouper.  There is not even information on the effectiveness of the ones currently in place, as required under federal law.”
Yet, how much data supported the creation of any of the great wildlife refuges on our coasts? 

When we look at the places that help to protect our waterfowl today, refuges such as Cameron Prairie, Pea Island, Blackwater and Brigantine, did we condition their creation on monitoring and research done at other sites? 

Did we make extensive documentation a prerequisite to their creation? 

Or did we merely recognize that good duck habitat was getting harder to find every day, and decide to protect what we could, and let the ducks eventually pass judgement on the wisdom of our decisions?

If what is good for the ducks is good for the grouper, as “The Road Once Taken” suggests, then shouldn’t we establish our marine refuges in just the same way that we set up wildlife refuges on land?  

And let the fish tell us if we were right?

I could go on, equating steel shot with circle hooks, and thinking up angling equivalents for plugged shotguns, the sinkbox ban and prohibitions on live decoys and “rallying” birds.

But the main point has already been made.

“The Road Once Taken” offers a tantalizing glance at an important truth:  We could all benefit if basic wildlife management approaches—which have already proven their worth when applied to waterfowl and all sorts of terrestrial game—were used to manage marine fisheries, too.

But then it goes astray.

For waterfowl managers weren’t successful merely because they eliminated the market gunners. 

If all they had done was reallocated the birds killed by the meat hunters to the recreational gunners, they would have accomplished nothing at all.

Too many birds would have died, too many marshes would have been drained, and the canvasback and the pintail might have joined the Labrador duck on the rolls of life that has been swept from our world.

Waterfowl management was successful because it did more.

It elevated the needs of the birds above those of bird hunters, and created a uniform, integrated, science-based approach to conserving ducks and geese wherever they might be, throughout every day of the year.  Breeding grounds were protected, and refuges established, across the breadth of the nation.

That is the true ‘road once taken,”  and it was embraced by sportsmen because it was right, and because it benefited us in the long term, too.

If such a comprehensive, science-based approach, free of petty politics and the clamoring voices of those who want to kill fish today, was ever adopted for our federal fisheries, it would surely mark out a road worth taking again.


  1. Great piece!
    "But if anglers want to walk the dick hunters’ road, [...] probably didn't come out as intended though...

    1. Thanks.

      For both the complement and for pointing out a needed edit.