Thursday, December 11, 2014
WHERE HAVE ALL THE WILD MEN GONE?
I first got dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of fisheries management during the summer of ’74.
Striped bass were just coming off what was, at that time, the biggest year class in history. We were up to our kneecaps in four-year-old fish, and there were plenty of big bass around. I broke 50 myself that July.
I was working for a small tackle shop up in Cos Cob, Connecticut, where I packed sandworms, fixed reels and sold fishing gear to a mostly dilettante crowd who owned some of the thousand or so boats moored along the west shore of the Mianus River.
One day, a guy in late middle age wandered into the store.
He had a Massachusetts accent and a box full of jars; he talked for close to an hour without catching his breath.
When he finally finished his say, I was convinced of two things.
Striped bass were facing a serious problem. And this guy was trying to fix it.
It turned out that he was Bob Pond, famed along the striper coast for creating the Atom plug, one of the most popular and productive striped bass lures of all time.
Pond had noticed that striped bass spawning in Chesapeake Bay was not going well, and he feared for the fish’s future.
So he took a big chunk of the money that he made selling lures, and he spent it on efforts to help the striped bass.
The jars that he handed out by the dozen were for scientific samples; he was asking shops to collect the reproductive organs from bass caught by their customers, so a laboratory could analyze them for chemical contaminants that might be causing the spawning failures.
Some of the cost of the research, and Pond’s endless odyssey from shop to shop telling the striper’s story, was funded by membership dues to Stripers Unlimited, an organization that he founded. The rest came out of his pocket, and put a pretty big dent in his worth.
But Pond was too passionate to care. He intended to make a difference.
In the short term, he failed. His research went down a dead end, and the bass stock went down in collapse.
In the long term, though, he succeeded, inspiring a generation of anglers to enter the management arena.
Organizations, too, were filled with passionate people back then.
Just a little later, in the early 1980s, after the bass stock had already collapsed, New York City began moving forward with “Westway,” a huge development project that would have reshaped the shoreline of southwestern Manhattan.
Part of the Westway project called for destroying a lot of old and decaying piers that once supported Manhattan’s shipping industry, and pouring tons of fill in the place where they had stood.
If you were a developer, that sounded good, because the rotting pilings of abandoned piers don’t offer much chance for profit, but you can put up buildings on fill.
If you were a striped bass, the idea spelled disaster, because those same rotting pilings hosted an array of marine life, creating an artificial but nonetheless very important ecosystem that supported juvenile bass spawned in the Hudson River.
So sportsman’s groups, such as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, teamed up with environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, to engage in years of costly litigation against the project.
At the time, suits to protect salt water fish stocks were almost unheard of. Most folks didn’t think they could win.
But the organizations plowed ahead anyway, and defying the odds, they prevailed.
And striped bass anglers weren’t the only ones out making waves.
Down in New Orleans a good Cajun chef had found a new way to cook redfish.
Redfish might be called a “striped bass analogue,” for they live in about the same sort of habitats as stripers, can be caught using similar methods and attract the same hordes of passionate anglers.
One of the big differences is that, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, a lot of the effort targets immature fish in the surf and the shallows; big reds are offshore for a good part of the season. The meat of big redfish can also be coarse, and wasn’t much valued as food.
Until that chef, Paul Prudhomme, came up with the notion of “blackening” it.
At that point, “blackened redfish” gave birth to a craze, and commercial fishermen, attempting to meet the sudden demand, began to destroy entire schools of spawning-sized reds as the congregated over deep water offshore.
The population started to crash.
On the Texas coast, a number of anglers, among them Walter Fondren, didn’t want their redfish to disappear, and decided to do something about it. They formed the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, figuring that they’d get the problem fixed with a little bit of work and maybe $10,000 or so.
What followed was what some folks called “The Redfish Wars.” A number of years and many hundreds of thousands of dollars later, those wars ended with redfish fully protected in federal waters, commercial redfishing outlawed in most Gulf states and GCCA evolving into the Coastal Conservation Association, the largest and by far the most effective salt water angling advocacy group in America.
For conservationists on the coast, those years were a special time, that spawned a sort of wild men (and a few women) in the angling and conservation communities, who threw caution to the winds and risked time, treasure and reputation in their effort to protect declining fish stocks.
In form, it was almost reminiscent of the Cambrian Explosion, half a billion years ago, when life on Earth took advantage of a mostly empty space (and that marine conservation arena in 1970 was mostly empty space) to explode into a myriad of weird and wonderful forms.
Today, the angling and marine conservation organizations that date back to those times have big budgets and boards of directors. They have lawyers and lobbyists and experts on call.
They have friends in Washington and in the state capitols.
They have celebrity spokesmen, their own branded merchandise and in-house magazines, too.
Only the wild men, and their passion, are gone.
The upstarts of a generation ago have grown up. They have bills and mortgages now, and salaries to meet. They can’t afford to embarrass their friends.
Years ago—in fact, just before all of this fish stuff started happening—a former CEO of Avis, the rent-a-car folks, wrote a book called Up the Organization. If I recall right, his name was Robert Townsend, and he was in charge of Avis when it ran a national advertising campaign that launched the company into the general public’s consciousness.
The book sort of explained how he did it, and warned companies against “Becoming an institution.”
By that, he meant that a company had to avoid becoming one of those places where policy and procedure get in the way of innovation, and the same cast of characters do the same sort of things year after year after year.
Institutions don’t have any room for wild men.
We see that in fisheries today.
Angling organizations that once proudly put the fish first are now walking in lockstep with the tackle and boatbuilding folks. Their former goals of restoring and conserving fish stocks have been subordinated to promoting policies that will let the industry prosper, even if fish stocks stay small.
And environmental groups, which once had a vaguely hippie cachet, are now as buttoned-down and structured as any bank or law firm.
That’s not altogether a bad thing.
The folks who oppose conservation have pretty deep pockets, and friends on Capitol Hill. To have any hope of prevailing, anglers and environmentalists need the cash, contacts and technical expertise needed to play in the same league.
But alone, I don’t think that’s enough.
Over the course of my life, I’ve had the privilege of meeting both Bob Pond and Walter Fondren, speaking with them, and seeing what burned in the back of their eyes.
They were two very different men, with different personalities, from different backgrounds, who had very different ways of approaching the world.
Yet in their passion for the fish that they treasured, and their willingness to lead from the front, investing their hearts in the fight, they were both wild men in their souls.
Meeting them both changed the course of my life.
And their passing left holes in our world.
For we need a new generation of passionate leaders, who will inspire today’s anglers to fight for the health of our fisheries.
We need passionate advocates, who won’t be deterred by the odds against them, or the cost or the difficulty of the fight.
We need people who will do what is needed, and fight for what they know to be right, and not worry what the critics might say.
I see those needs and I wonder, where have all the wild men gone?