Sunday, May 25, 2014


When I have the spare time, I enjoy watching television shows that cast a little light on what fishing is like in other parts of the world.

I’m not talking about the usual offerings in which a supposed angling “expert” flies off to an exotic resort to catch a few fish of some sort, and spends most of his time promoting his sponsors’ latest products.  Instead, I’m referring to foreign programs which depict day-to-day angling in a less commercial light.

The United Kingdom is particularly good at producing such shows, and one of my favorites is something called Boat Fishing with Barham.  It’s a World Fishing Network offering, which features its host, David Barham, fishing for various species of salt water fish off the coasts of England and Wales. 

Watching the show is almost like seeing ourselves through a pane of tinted and slightly flawed glass.

The anglers all speak American, although their accent makes them a bit hard to understand at times.  A lot of their gear is made by the same folks who make ours; the brand names are the same, but many of the models are just different enough to evoke that same kind of through-a-glass-darkly feel. 

The fish are familiar, too.  We share a few common species, such as cod and haddock, while other species closely resemble those we catch here at home.

The other thing that you really notice about the fish is that, compared to what we’re used to here in the United States, there aren’t very many of them.  You might compare it to fishing in Maine, now that the groundfish are scarce and the stripers declining.

And then you realize that, as bad as the fishing is, the anglers are no less ardent than we are.  They also clearly appreciate the opportunity to just go out on a boat and catch something.  

And maybe the very scarcity of fish in their waters that makes them appreciate what they do have far more than we appreciate our relative abundance, because they are truly respectful of their quarry, and always express their awareness of the need to conserve what remains.

For example, a large part of one Boat Fishing with Barham episode was taken up with catching and tagging “rays”, which are what anglers in the UK often call skates.  The fish looked like the clearnose skates that we catch here on Long Island, but instead of facing the ignominious fate that often faces a New York skate—roughly handled at best, and at worst, mutilated with a knife or tossed up on the beach to die—the English skates were carefully tagged and returned to the water, with the host of the show talking about the need to conserve the species after too many were killed in trawls.

While the anglers on the show, along with the show’s host, seem to be as enthusiastic about fishing as anyone else, they manage to avoid the high-fives and fist-pumping that plagues a lot of the shows made over here.  Everyone demonstrates a maturity, and a concern for the dignity of both their sport and their quarry, that American anglers—and television hosts—would do well to emulate.

Another episode depicted a group of fishermen who chartered a boat to go wreck fishing for conger eels in the English Channel.  They caught some impressive eels, fish as thick around as fire hoses and nearly as long as a man is tall, and then they them free.  Congers have long been popular foodfish in Europe, but no one on the boat expressed a need to stuff a cooler with eels in order to have “a big day.”  The captain didn’t insist on killing a pile of fish to display at the dock, in an effort to pump up his business.

Dead fish didn’t matter at all.

Even when Barham went fishing for bass, which resemble—and are closely related to—our American stripers, and some small fish were kept to the table, the big bass vital to the spawning stock were released as a matter of course.  The anglers naturally accepted the need to fish responsibly, unlike those patrons of our local party boats who are attracted by ads screaming “Striped bass slaughter!” or “Bassacres!”, which seems to be the newest foul phrase of the season.

Perhaps the Old World has something to teach us after all.

And perhaps we have something to teach them, too.

For it’s likely that the British angler’s respect for his quarry, and his pro-conservation attitudes, arise directly out of the fact that the United Kingdom—in fact, most of Europe—just doesn’t have very many fish left.  European fisheries have been mismanaged for so many years that the vast majority of stocks are overfished, and many are in a state of collapse.

Back when I was alarmingly young, Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi, with its refrain “Don’t it always seem to go/ that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” became the anthem of a nascent environmental movement.

Perhaps the English fishermen have learned that Ms. Mitchell was right. 

And in their respectful stewardship of the dogfish and skates that would be beneath the contempt of most American anglers, they serve as both an example of what anglers should be, and a warning of what our fisheries could be if we fail to be responsible and respectful stewards ourselves.

Their diminished fisheries illustrate all too clearly where we can end up if we forsake our current federal fisheries laws, unquestionably the most comprehensive and effective such laws in the world, and in the name of short-term convenience and profit, replace them with the sort of “flexible” management that has become a hallmark of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has already presided over the decline of so many inshore species along our east coast, and now threatens even striped bass.

And the English—indeed, all of Europe—can learn from us that even badly depleted fisheries can be rebuilt, if the will is strong enough and matched with a good law such as the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act, which forces fisheries managers to end overfishing and promptly rebuild stocks, even if some of the folks making money exploiting those stocks don’t particularly like the idea.

In the end, having fished all around this nation’s coasts for well over fifty years, I am an American angler.  I know the kind of fisheries that we have here, and I understand what other places have lost.

And though the English anglers are truly noble in the face of their adversity, I just don’t want our fishing to get that bad.

Joni Mitchell’s words to the contrary, I already know what we’ve got.

And I don’t want to see it gone.

Because once things are gone, the only thing we’ll have left is regret.

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