Thursday, June 12, 2014
A WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN
When I was growing up along the Connecticut shore, there was one thing that we all knew was true:
Anglers were the good guys.
Commercial fishermen, on the other hand, were not.
When I was young, and one of my father’s friends caught me doing something that was deemed unsporting—say, adding a third hook to my flounder rig or deploying a handline to augment the catch from my rod and reel—the standard admonishment was “What are you, a commercial fisherman?”
As I grew a little older, and showed a glimmer of admiration for some "sharpie" known for bringing big stripers back to the dock, all my father had to say was “He sells his fish to the Clam Box,” to turn my admiration into contempt.
It’s pretty fair to say that, among anglers of that time, commercial fishermen had a bad reputation.
And, to be honest, they generally deserved it.
For that was the age when the New England trawlers were reaching that critical mass of harvesting power they needed to collapse groundfish stocks, and were also reaching that critical mass of political power they needed to keep on overfishing.
It was a time when purse seiners, displaced from Pacific fisheries, slaughtered the Atlantic's school bluefin and sold them for pet food; a time when longliners pushed the harpoon boats out of the swordfish fishery, and then pushed the swordfish out of our nearshore seas.
Here on Long Island, it was the day of the baymen, who launched dories from the open beach and dragged back nets capable of killing entire schools of striped bass, along with anything else that they encountered along the way.
And, on every coast, it was the time when no one cared about bycatch, when undersized fluke were stabbed with a “fish pick” and tossed over the side, when dying bluefish—worth only a few cents per pound—were left to rot on the beach so they wouldn’t live to fill up nets again the next day.
It was also a time when salt water anglers were beginning to embrace the concept of conservation, and adopting the same sportsmen’s ethos that had long been a part of the waterfowlers’, the trout fishermen’s and the upland bird hunters’ souls.
Once that happened, changes came hard and fast. They included The Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (now known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act), the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006. Every one was intended to conserve coastal fisheries, and rebuild overfished stocks.
And then…something happened.
Like one of those great geologic events when the Earth shifts magnetic poles, some commercial fishermen became conservation’s champions, just as the largest of the groups that speak for anglers abruptly abandoned that vital and traditional role.
Last week, a new commercial fishermen’s organization, Seafood Harvesters of America, burst into our world, intent on promoting commercial fishing while fighting to assure that strong conservation provisions remain a part of federal fisheries law.
At a time when recreational fishing organizations, along with the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries, have come together to weaken the Magnuson Act and prolong overfishing in the name of short-term profit, a time when such groups seek to strip management authority for some species from the federal government and hand it over to the states, in order to shirk their conservation and rebuilding obligations under the Magnuson Act, we have a commercial fishermen’s group that is saying
“Both chambers of Congress are now circulating draft MSA bills, and one of the Harvesters’ top priorities will be to ensure that the law maintains strict catch limits and does not erode any of the progress commercial fishermen have made with rebuilding fish stocks.”
Sure, anyone who has been around fisheries issues for more than a few years knows that a coalition of conservation and angling groups, and not the commercial fishing industry, can claim credit for most of ”the progress made…with rebuilding fish stocks.”
But it’s still hard to deny that the Seafood Harvesters’ statement, even with such a factual flaw, is a lot more palatable than what we’re hearing from the recreational side these days; things such as the American Sportfishing Association’s Michael Nussman praising Doc Hastings’ “Empty Oceans Bill” for
the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s comment that
“The TRCP and its sportfishing partners are advocating for some flexibility in rebuilding timeframes of fish stocks”
and Jim Donofrio of the Recreational Fishing Alliance saying
“The ‘Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act’…would provide greater deadline flexibility in rebuilding fish stocks, modify annual catch limit and accountability measures to allow anglers access while fish stocks improve, better distinguish between overfished and depleted fisheries, while providing improved transparency and public process.
Yet, despite all of their support for the Magnuson Act, the Seafood Harvesters make me uneasy. Because—let’s be honest, here—it’s still a trade organization that looks out for its members and their businesses, and not for anglers like you or me.
They may have figured out that rebuilding and maintaining healthy fish stocks is good for business, but otherwise, they could represent the angling community’s worst nightmare.
Two weeks ago, I warned that recreational fishermen were taking a big risk when they surrendered the high ground of conservation advocacy, and made this reauthorization of the Magnuson Act all about money. I warned that trying to weaken the Magnuson Act in the name of short-term economic gain was a foolish thing to do, and tarnish anglers’ image in the public eye.
I didn’t see the Seafood Harvesters coming when I wrote that. Honestly, I didn’t know…
But now that they’re here, I understand the despair of Cassandra. For the angling rights groups and their industry allies haven’t merely abandoned the high ground, they’ve let the commercial folks seize it.
Today, the Seafood Harvesters say that
“We need to make sure, as we always have, that we are doing the best we can to hold commercial fishermen responsible and that catch systems are really followed across the country. In addition other user groups should be held to the same standards that commercial fishermen are. We don’t want to erode the progress commercial fishermen have made in rebuilding stocks.”
But the folks who claim to represent anglers say that
“Recreational fishermen…need relief from the rigid annual catch limits, and the accompanying accountability measures, which became part of the [Magnuson] Act during its last reauthorization in 2006…The creation of these measures forced the councils to take drastic action in some circumstances to meet a previously adopted 10-year rebuilding schedule.”
Down in the Gulf of Mexico, the commercial fishermen have already bested the anglers in a court of law. Now, after reading the comments above, who do you think will prevail in the court of public opinion?
Will it be the people who want to be held responsible, really insist that “catch systems are really followed” and who “don’t want to erode the progress” that has been made “in rebuilding stocks"?
Or will it be the folks who whine about needing “relief from rigid annual catch limits,” don’t want to be subject to “accompanying accountability measures” when they exceed their quota, and complain when fisheries managers actually adopt measures intended “to meet a previously adopted 10-year rebuilding schedule”?
Or, to put it briefly, who looks like the good guys now?
And who, very clearly, doesn't?
I noted months ago that red snapper fishermen down in the Gulf of Mexico, with their intransigent and irresponsible efforts to keep overfishing the stock, were embarrassing anglers everywhere. I noted that their opposition to any measures that had a reasonable chance of ending such overharvest was handing commercial fishing interests a potent weapon that could and almost certainly would be used against anglers everywhere on the coast.
Now, it appears that the commercial industry, in the form of the Seafood Harvesters, has grasped that weapon firmly, and is using the Gulf red snapper anglers’ defiant battle against rebuilding measures as an argument in support of commercial catch share programs and in opposition to a reallocation of fisheries resources.
I don’t think that I have to explain how catch share programs that exclude private recreational fishermen, coupled with unchanging allocations, would place a nearly unbearable burden on the shoulders of the recreational fishermen at a time when more and more people are moving to the coast and becoming salt water anglers.
Throughout most of my life, anglers were the good guys who walked proud and tall on the high road, trying to do the right thing and putting the interests of our fishery resources above their own. From their lofty height, they looked down on the rest of the world, and particularly on the commercial fishermen who had demonstrated their willingness to deplete our coastal seas in return for a few dollars more.
But some cataclysm happened, and rolled us all on our heads, so that anglers now look up from some dark vale where they try to justify overfishing by citing “socioeconomic impacts” while commercial fishermen call for “strict catch limits” and strong fisheries laws.
It is a world turned upside down, inverted by the strategic errors of the anglers’ rights groups, the industry’s lust for more profit and the perception and political agility of some commercial fishermen who came to understand that healthy, rebuilt fish stocks benefited them.
I’m not sure that we’ll ever get the world back in balance again.
Equilibrium lost is hard to regain.
But anglers, and those who speak for them, must at least make the effort to regain the heights that once were , and act like the good guys once more.