Thursday, February 12, 2015


You hear the word at all sorts of times, and most people think that it’s good:


In the world of fisheries management, we have plenty of “Conservation” associations, “Conservation” partnerships and the like, and even clubs that don’t have the word in their names mention it often in bylaws and mission statements. 

States have adopted it, too.  Here in New York, our fisheries are managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation.

But exactly what does "conservation" mean?

For too many folks, it means making the other guy kill fewer fish, without reducing their own harvest at all.  We typically see this with recreational folks trying to cut down the commercial guys’ kill, and calling for “gamefish” and such, although in the past year or two, we’ve seen the commercials using “conservation” as cause to cut downor cut out—recreational landings.

To others it means just not wasting fish; to them, anything that’s legal and eaten is fine, regardless of the health of the stock that they’re caught from.

Last Sunday I quoted author, hunter and angler Robert Ruark, who once wrote that conservation is trying to

preserve the very same thing that [we kill] a little of from time to time.”
That’s starting to get close to the core of the matter, although the fact that Ruark was already speaking of sportsmen who only kill “a little” of the resource in question probably means that conservation efforts were well underway before anyone began to “preserve” things.

Earlier this week, I received a message from a group called “Save the Tarpon” that might have gotten it right.  It didn’t exactly define conservation, but rather described what it’s for, saying

“The purpose of conservation:  The greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time.”
That’s not a new statement.  It didn’t come from an angler or modern-day advocate, but rather was spoken a bit over a century ago.  The speaker was Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the United States Forest Service.

It seems to reflect plain common sense.  Yet, in reality, how often is it applied?

To answer that question, we should take a long look at Pinchot’s statement, and figure out just what it means.

That’s a deceptively difficult thing to do, and probably the hardest part of all is defining “the greatest good.”  If you asked, it’s pretty likely that a gillnetter, a scuba diver and a once-a-week angler would provide three very different answers.

So maybe we should start with the end of the quote, and work our way backward from there.

If we do that, we learn that “conservation” is all about passing the test of time.  We conserve something—like a fish population—to make it last, rather than using it up all at once.  The best conservation measures are the ones that keep our fish stocks healthy the longest.

In other words, for a management measure to have conservation value, it must promote long-term sustainability.

So far, so good.

But the next step is a little trickier, because it says that conservation measures must benefit “the greatest number of people.”  Thus, the quick fix—shutting down a fishery or closing off waters to access—won’t quite fill the bill.

While such heavy-handed alternatives might well sustain fish stocks, and perhaps make a handful of divers and other folks happy, their benefit to large numbers of people is up for debate.  Fishermen—recreational or commercial—wouldn’t like it, and neither would folks who turn fish into meals.

So now the regulators’ jobs get a lot tougher.  They don’t only have to conserve the fish for the long haul, but they need to do it while figuring out how to let a wide array of folks derive benefits from those fish as well.

That’s pretty tough to do with a scanty and overfished stock.  

If regulators are going to get the job done, they need to restore stocks to abundance, just to give themselves something to work with.

Because healthy, abundant stocks are good for us all. 

And there can be little doubt that healthy stocks provide a greater good than those that have been depleted.

So when we apply Gifford Pinchot’s quotation to fisheries issues, what we get is hardly surprising.  Conservation means managing stocks for long-term abundance, rather than short-term gains.

What may be surprising is that twenty years ago, here in New York, the State Legislature actually instructed our Department of Environmental Conservation to achieve Pinchot’s purpose.

They did that by enacting Section 13-0105 of the Environmental Conservation Law, which begins

"It is the policy of the state that the primary principle in managing the state's marine fishery resource is to maintain the long-term health and abundance of marine fishery resources and their habitats, and to ensure that the resources are sustained in usable abundance and diversity for future generations.  Utilization and allocation of available resources will be administered consistent with the restoration and maintenance of healthy stocks and habitats."

By making long-term sustainability—not just for those living today, but for “future generations”—the “primary principle” of fisheries management here in New York, the law clearly meets Pinchot’s “for the longest time” standard.

But it doesn’t stop there.

The law also recognizes the need to manage for the “greatest benefit for the greatest number of people” when it says

"The state shall optimize the benefits of resource use so as to provide valuable recreational experiences and viable business opportunities for commercial and recreational fisheries."

It really is a very good law.

The problem is, it’s completely ignored.

The political reality is that short-term economic concerns are elevated above the long-term health of fish stocks, contrary to both the law and common sense.  Fish don’t donate cash to politicians, while folks out to kill those fish do.

Nor do fish hire lawyers, to fight bad regulations and enforce that good law in court.  And no one has acted in the fish’s stead.

So the law is an orphan, bereft of protection, unable to achieve its true goals.

That’s unfortunate.  For if the law is ever applied as intended, New Yorkers will finally get to learn for themselves just what "conservation" means.

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