Thursday, May 29, 2014


For the past three months or so, I’ve been watching a slow-motion battle between spokesmen for the recreational and commercial fishing industries.

The first shots were fired by a coalition of boatbuilding, tackle industry and anglers’ rights groups inaptly named the “Center for Coastal Conservation”, which provided the ideological backbone for what became the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries”.

That “Vision” report made gratuitous use of the word “conservation,” repeating it often, but when you read through to the nuts and bolts—the proposed changes to federal fisheries law that would delay rebuilding overfished stocks and eliminate recreational quotas, all in the name of “socioeconomic” benefit—you realize pretty quickly that, in the end, the TRCP “Vision” is really all about money, and keeping it flowing to—you guessed it—the boatbuilders and tackle industry folks who effectively wrote the report.

Disguised in nice talk about conservation being important to anglers…

Still, it’s hard to blame the industry folks for proposing such things.  They’re in business to make money, and if they believe that they’ll enjoy greater profits by prolonging overfishing and delaying the recovery of overfished stocks, they can fight to promote their interests, regardless of how much they might hurt the rest of us.

Businesses do that every day.

But it’s a lot easier to find fault with groups representing anglers, when they jump on that pro-profit bandwagon instead of safeguarding the sportsman’s traditional role as guardian of our shared natural resources.

I think that I may have used Robert Ruark’s words in an earlier post, but I’ll use them again because they do say it all.

“A sportsman, is a gentleman first.  But a sportsman, basically, is a man who kills what he needs, whether it’s fish or bird or animal, or what he wants for a special reason, but he never kills anything just to kill it.  And he tries to preserve the very same thing that he kills a little of from time to time.  The books call this conservation.  It’s the same reason why we don’t shoot that tame covey of quail down to less’n ten birds.”
 That notion of what makes a “sportsman” defined waterfowlers more than a century ago, when they pushed for a federal “duck stamp” for hunters, to fund the protection of critical habitat.  Back in ’05, it defined striped bass fishermen here on Long Island, when we banded together—ultimately unsuccessfully—to fight the recreational fishing industry’s drive for relaxed regulations and a bigger bass kill. 

And it has long been a part of the trout angler’s heritage, with Art Neumann, one of the founders of Trout Unlimited, noting,

“Take care of the fish, and the fishing will take care of itself.”

Thinking that way is what sportsmen do.  As stewards of the resource, always with an eye to the future, we know that of all the measures of a creature’s worth, profit is the very least of them.

He was not speaking for sportsmen.

If commercial fishermen take too many fish, their landings should be reduced.  And if anglers take too many fish, their landings should also be cut, even if that pushes down gear sales for the next year or two.  But despite all of the talk in TRCP’s “Vision” report about “conservation,” “abundance” and other good things, we should never forget that the gumball show was all about moving around fish to maximize income.  Nothing more.

It has been a spring full of sound and fury, all of it over dollars.

The fish just got lost in the din.

That wasn’t right.  It was not right at all.

If anglers are to win the current fight to conserve and restore our coastal fisheries, we aren’t going to win on our own.  We will need broader public support, to offset a strong industry drive to reverse two decades of progress.  And the only way to win public support is to emphasize the public benefits conferred by healthy, restored marine fish stocks not only to anglers, but to divers and beachgoers and to folks who just want to eat local fish every now and again.

Do any of us believe that a net ban campaign built around industry profits would have done nearly as well?

Yet that is exactly the route CCA, and others, are now taking.

Pat Murray is the president of CCA, and clearly supports its current position. 

That wasn’t always the case.  Just seven years ago, when he was still Vice President and Director of Conservation, he penned an article entitled “The Last Fish,” which appeared in CCA’s in-house publication, Tide.  In “The Last Fish”, Murray noted that

“There was also a smaller but very vocal group of anglers who thought that their sport would not survive with bag and size limitations of any kind…The defiance of this greedy recreational faction seems so shortsighted when compared to the modern voice of marine conservation, but if you listen, you can still hear those same calls when the management decisions get personal.
”The ‘resource first’ ethic that drove the early saltwater conservation movement is slowly being corrupted by a doctrine of ‘fishermen first.’
“It has often been said that commercial fishermen want to catch the last fish.  But are we recreational anglers trying to stop them simply because we want to catch the last fish?
“Some of the very people who first pushed the ‘resource first’ ethic are now arguing for greater poundage and more liberal limits, even in the face of troubling stock assessments.  They cry that it will limit anglers’ interest and may damage the industry, but won’t killing the last fish not decisively kill the industry?”
No sportsman can easily disagree with Murray’s sentiments, and they are as valid today as when first put on paper.  

They’re sentiments that a broader public can understand and support.

“…as Capt. Tom Buban, skipper of the Atlantic Star out of Atlantic Highlands puts it, ‘My people just want to take home a fish to eat.’  Is that too much to ask when fluke are more plentiful today than they were in the 1950s?...
“The shrill charge that recreational anglers are bent on killing the last fish, when they protest harsh regulations that increasingly shut them out of…fisheries, is nonsense designed to protect a broken fishery management system…
“…recreational anglers who took trains and drove cars to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting…were not asking for the last summer flounder…They went to protest a broken fisheries management system that will slash the…harvest this year to its lowest point since 1993…they are fishermen who understand that a renewable marine resource can be harvested as it grows…”
If you look at the press releases coming out of CCA’s office these days, they echo the words of Murray's formenr critics, and make it sound as iff CCA wants to “kill the last fish” too.

That matters, because, out of all the angler-based organization dealing with broad salt water fisheries issues, CCA is the big dog—a bull mastiff standing in a kennel filled largely with ankle-biters, including one rabid toy poodle that yaps and snaps at anyone who crosses its path but is, in the overall scheme of things, inconsequential.

Which means that CCA’s abandonment of the “resource-first” high road, and its enthusiastic engagement in the “socioeconomic” tug-of-war over gumballs and cash flow has left coastal sportsmen in a pretty bad place.

There is no one left to champion the traditional values of conservation, who is willing to make sacrifices to assure the resource’s health.

There is no association of anglers who value the fish for their inherent worth, and don’t seek to manage them as commodities put on earth merely to channel more dollars to industry coffers.

Why should the general public—the folks who don’t fish, but support conservation—give a good damn about who kills the last fish and so makes the last dollar?

In warfare, one of the most elementary principles of strategy is to take and to hold the high ground.  For years, sportsmen did that, placing the good of the resource ahead of their own.

In abandoning that resource-first posture and engaging in a debate over dollars, today’s recreational fishing organizations have abandoned the high ground, electing to fight on industry’s chosen terrain. 

Letting someone else choose the place of a battle is always a bad idea.  It may be a particularly bad idea now.

For in this current America—this post-Lehman collapse, post-Great Recession America—bigger corporate profits aren’t always viewed as the greatest good.

The recreational industry may stand smug in its certainty that the gumballs—excuse me, the economic data—are all on their side.  But the public may just disagree.

They may decide that a publicly-traded corporation—even one that makes boats—shouldn’t profit at the expense of a family-owned fish house.  They may believe that an American man, who risks his own life at sea to put food on his table, deserves a few more fish—and thus a little more money—than a company that imports Chinese fishing reels.

A head-to-head fight based on profits alone is a fight that we anglers—and our fish—could well lose.

Fish have a value that transcends economics, and cannot be measured by cash flow.  There is a rightness to restoring our marine ecosystems that cannot be measured by dollars alone. 

Although Aldo Leopold dealt with the land, not the sea, he described that rightness precisely.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Economics wasn’t mentioned at all.

It is time for salt water sportsmen to do what is right.  Time to reclaim the high ground as well as ourr heritage. 

From the high ground, one can see what the future can be. 

And one can realize, again, that a future filled with a healthy and abundant sea is the only future worth fighting for.

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