Sunday, May 17, 2015


Today’s anglers are more dependent upon fisheries management and fisheries managers than they have ever been before.  Swelling coastal populations place additional pressures on local marine resources, and regulators respond by placing restrictions on commercial and recreational harvest.

Such regulations, in turn, put a lot of pressure on the commercial and recreational fishing industries, who respond by becoming politically active.  In their fight against laws and regulations that might put a crimp in their incomes, they spend a lot of money on lobbyists and public relations, and they seek to use anglers as pawns.

Since I was in college, I have written for outdoor publications, often focusing on conservation issues.  That was fine when striped bass collapsed back in the late 1970s and everyone was on the same page.  Magazines were filled with stories about saving the striper.

But starting about 20 years ago, with the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 and the beginning of real marine fish conservation, things quickly began to change as regulations began cutting into industry incomes.  Suddenly, conservation stories came with a price that the angling industry wasn’t willing to pay.

They began doing their best to dissuade writers and magazines from printing anything that supported recreational harvest restrictions—writing about commercial cuts was OK—while encouraging them to publish articles intended to undermine conservation efforts and make anglers suspicious of fisheries regulators.

Here on Long Island, I recall countless “conservation” columns filled with vitriol aimed at efforts to rebuild summer flounder and other species.  I sat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council back then, and am proud to say that I was the target of some of them.

But being the target of anti-conservation industry spokesmen means a lot more when you own the magazine.  Back in 2000 or 2001, the owner of a weekly fishing publication and associated website found himself in the crosshairs of a widespread industry boycott the morning after he spoke at an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission striped bass hearing, because he noted that a poll of his readers supported more restrictive regulation.

When his magazine came out the next week, there was a very prominent editorial explaining to everyone why killing striped bass was OK—particularly for charter and party boat passengers.  His cash flow was then restored…

I and other folks that I know have been blackballed at some publications for our conservation efforts, even when what we write is straight fishing how-to, and some industry folks have tried to get us blackballed at others. 

Back in 2013, I received a message from an industry representative (who will remain unnamed) who didn’t like a fairly innocuous Facebook comment, of all meaningless things, that I made on a regionally controversial issue.

“So how do you reconcile your stance with the advertisers who support your writing?
“…Your stance is not popular with a lot of folks on the rec side who are also well informed and whose businesses support many.
“You are certainly entitled to your position, but it galls some of us quite a bit that you promote it while being active in a recreational fisheries publication.  That is not opinion, it is fact.”
My response to him was pretty simple.  The first paragraph pretty much said it all.

“I write what I believe to be true.  Doing anything else, just to please a potential source of funding, is too close to prostitution for my taste…”
I would never be surprised if I was closed out of more markets, because some of these folks can be ruthless. Even so, I’m bound by one rule:

As a writer, whether of this blog or of something that is published elsewhere, I have an absolute obligation to tell the reader the truth.  Opinion is fine so long as it’s labeled, but anything dishonest is not. 

That obligation doesn’t change just because the truth is offensive to an advertiser or two.  Advertisers who, one might argue, shouldn’t really be trying to mislead their customers by limiting what they may read.

After all, one of the reasons that the United States Constitution guarantees a free press is so that people can learn both sides of an issue, and make up their minds for themselves.  Unfortunately, the First Amendment only prohibits governmental restrictions, and not censorship imposed by private persons.

Still, from a purely ethical standpoint, aren’t anglers entitled to a full airing of both sides of the issues?

That becomes a very important question as legislation reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act moves forward in the House of Representatives, and could begin moving in the Senate.
Because the big salt water advertisers—the boat and boat equipment manufacturers represented by the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association, and the tackle manufacturers and associated businesses belonging to the American Sportfishing Association—are out there actively trying to weaken America’s fisheries laws.

They are seeking legislation that would promote “flexibility”—the “flexibility” to not employ science-based catch limits, the “flexibility” to keep overfishing, the “flexibility” to delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks—in order to reap what they call “socioeconomic” benefits.

And if those “socioeconomic” benefits—some might call them “industry profits”—mean that the public will be denied healthy and fully-restored fish populations, well…that’s something they don’t want anglers to think about.
So they convinced the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to create a “Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management” co-chaired by—hopefully, to no one’s surprise—the CEO of one of the largest fishing tackle retailers and the President of a fishing boat manufacturer.  Ten organizations “contributed” to the Commission’s work, including both the National Marine Manufacturers’ Association and the American Sportfishing Association, five of their crony organizations from the Center for Coastal Conservation and the Center for Coastal Conservation itself.

That makeup pretty well assured that the result, a report entitled “A Vision for America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” would be very industry-friendly, and that it would say such things as

“…the 10-year rebuilding deadlines should be revised to provide greater flexibility than is currently allowed under the law.  Instead of having a fixed deadline under the law…the regional councils and fisheries managers [could] set lower harvest rates that would allow fish stocks to recover gradually while diminishing socioeconomic impacts.”
That’s a nice way of saying that, at least for a while, there will be fewer fish in the ocean so that the industry can have better cash flow…

Yet, if you pick up a magazine, you’ll probably read that the TRCP “Vision” report represents the future of sportfishing, and that anglers should all get behind it.

You won’t read a critical word.

And that makes sense, given that that the folks behind that report hold the magazines’ very survival in their hands.

There is no easy way to fix the problem.

And that, in the end, makes things very difficult for anglers to learn much about the issues involved.

I can only ask those who do dig a little deeper, and who take the trouble to understand both sides of any important fisheries debate, to share what they learn with their fellow anglers, fishing club members and such.

People try to control what anglers can read because they’re afraid of the truth getting out.

It’s our job—and the job of all writers—to set that truth free.

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