Sunday, February 8, 2015


You hear it all of the time, regardless of the species in question or the health of the stock.

“You shouldn’t criticize someone for keeping a limit of fish.  It’s not illegal, and they have a right to take them.”

The topic came up most recently in a long thread on the 1 @ 32 Pledge Facebook page, after an angler, disgusted with a charter boat captain’s disregard for the resource, posted one of the captain’s kill shots and used it as an example of what not to do.

Immediately, a New Jersey angler leaped to the captain’s defense, asking

“Was something about the above catches illegal?”
Which, of course, was not the case, because—if we believe the latest benchmark striped bass stock assessment and its December 2013 update—the law already allows anglers to kill too many bass.  What was depicted was perfectly legal but, given the current stock, it was also the wrong thing to do.

However, the captain’s defender kept on, arguing that

“It’s not the Capts [sic] job to set the season, bag, or size limits.”
Which is true, although it probably is the captain’s job to educate his customers a bit about sportsmanship and the health of the stock, if for no other reason than to keep some fish in the water so those customers have a reason to charter him next year.

But—and this is really the point of the story—the captain wasn’t merely following the law.  He was fighting very hard to keep a bad law from being changed for the better, and apparently encouraging others to fight changes as well by writing

“It’s all bs.  There’s millions of bass…Our only worry is the tree huggers who think the bass are going extinct.  These govt [profanity deleted] don’t even know one bit about the fishery whatsoever… 
“We all need to send an e-mail!!!!  It takes less than 5 minutes!!!   This can really hurt us full time fishing boats and surely hurt the recreational fisherman as well…
“I am for a status quo option for the Striped Bass Management Regulations…”  
So what we have is a charter boat captain with complete contempt for the science and the regulators, who celebrates killing limits of big, mature fish, being defended because his actions are not illegal and he does not make the laws—although he does try really hard to keep the law from being changed.

Does anyone see a problem here?

With the striped bass population hovering on, or perhaps already sunk below, the threshold defining an overfished stock, most serious anglers would agree that the right thing to do is to kill fewer bass, so that the population might start to rebuild.  So why shouldn’t people criticize folks who do the wrong thing, merely because it is legal?

Let’s think back a few years, to the 1970s and 1980s, when bluefish were everywhere and seemed to drive anglers into a frenzy of killing more intense than anything done by the bluefish themselves.  Far too often, when those anglers returned to the dock with a boat filled with blues, they’d realize that neither they nor anyone else wanted to clean and eat all those fish, so they’d dump them overboard. 

The same thing happened on party boats and charters, as fares killed far more fish than they could ever use, and then left them behind for the crew to sell, if they could, or tossed them into dockside dumpsters.

That waste was all perfectly legal—but does anyone even want to suggest it was right?

Not too many years ago, I was out in Montauk during late summer, in a marina that catered to the charter boat crowd.  The dumpster was filled with false albacore—all perfectly legal, and all perfectly wrong.

Which leads us to the offshore scene, that once saw sharks, billfish and—when the price was still under ten cents per pound—even bluefin tuna killed and hauled in to the scales to be weighed for tournament dollars or maybe just to bulk up someone’s ego, and then tossed on a landfill or dumped back out at sea.  That was legal, too, but was it right?

Today, angling ethics have evolved to the point that for most of us, such blatant waste of a finite resource is just plain unacceptable, even though it’s permitted by law.

So, now that we’ve reached the point when “It’s OK—it’s legal” does not offer cover to those who kill and waste the resource, we need to take the next step, and admit that the argument is also absurd when applied to less blatant abuses.

In other words, we need to start thinking like sportsman.

And what is a sportsman?  I’ve always liked the way the late Robert Ruark, an author, angler and hunter himself, once defined the term.

"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 pretty well says it all.

It’s fine to take a fish home for dinner.  But you don’t kill a striped bass, or anything else, just because it’s legal to do so, and you “don’t shoot that tame covey of quail down to less’n ten birds”—or take too many striped bass when the stock is declining, or try to catch the last winter flounder in the bay—even though there is no legal penalty if you do.

Because, as a sportsman, you have an obligation “to preserve the very same thing” that you take home and eat once in a while.  Even if that obligation isn’t enshrined in the law.

And that is why I take such exception to those who say that anglers shouldn’t criticize other anglers who’s are merely doing what the law allows.  For the law establishes a very low bar, the bare minimum standard for conduct.

We, as sportsman, can set a higher standard.

And we should.

A lot of the reason that folks post pictures in magazines, on Internet sites and on tackle shop walls is to gain recognition and perhaps admiration from their fellow anglers.  Criticism is the last thing that they want to hear.

So when we let photos of excessive fish kills, dead-and-dumped marlin or any other behavior that shows a lack of respect or concern for the resource involved, go without comment, we are implicitly endorsing such conduct.  We’re giving the angler in question positive reinforcement, and encouraging him or her to do the wrong thing again.

Instead, it is our responsibility to make it clear to such anglers that their behavior falls short of those accepted by the community of sportsmen, and far from giving them the approval they seek, provide measured criticism instead.

This is nothing new.

The phrase “Limit your kill, don’t kill your limit” has been heard on the nation’s fresh waters for years.  Why is still alien to salt water anglers?

Largemouth bass are the most popular gamefish in the country.  They support a multi-billion dollar fishing industry, tournaments and television shows.  And all of the hype is built around catch and release.  Anyone who showed up at a popular bass-fishing lake with a stringer of bigmouths stiff and dead in their cooler would meet a very hostile reception from fellow "bassmasters."  Using “It’s legal” as a defense might lead to an unscheduled swim…

The late Lee Wulff is famous for writhing that “A good gamefish is too valuable to be caught only once,” and spawned a catch-and-release ethic that led to no-kill trout waters all across the United States.  And he did it at a time when filling a bamboo creel was both legal and the accepted norm.

For the standards of the angling community are only as good--or as bad--as the majority of anglers want them to be.

We need to work hard to change fisheries laws so that they will restore our fish stocks and keep those stocks healthy for the benefit not just of us, but of generations yet to be born.

We need to work equally hard to create an angling ethic on America’s coasts that is just as rigorous as the ethic that already thrives along the nation's trout streams and on the lakes where largemouth bass swim. 

And in building that ethic, we must point out what’s wrong, even when the law fails to do so.

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