Sunday, December 18, 2016


Less than two hundred years ago, a single American bird was so abundant that, when it flew, it literally darkened the sky.

They were called passenger pigeons, and according to reports recently published in The New Yorker magazine, 

“In 1813, John James Audubon saw a flock—if that is what you want to call an agglomeration of birds moving at sixty miles an hour and obliterating the noonday sun—that was merely the advance guard of a multitude that took three days to pass.  Alexander Wilson, the other great bird observer of the time, reckoned that a flock he saw contained 2,230,272,000 individuals…
“In their wake, passenger pigeons left behind denuded fields and ravaged woods; descriptions conjure up those First World War photographs of amputated trees in no man’s land.  ‘They would roost in one place until they broke all the limbs off the trees,’ one old-timer recalled, ‘then they would move to Joining timber & treat it likewise, then fire would break out in the old Roost and Destroy the remainder of the timber.’  Their droppings, which coated branches and lay a foot thick on the ground, like snow, proved toxic to the understory and fatal to the trees.”
Yet just one hundred years after such a riot of abundance filled the skies over the United States, they were completely gone.  

The last passenger pigeon on Earth, a bird named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

Arguably, the collapse of the passenger pigeon population wasn’t caused by recreational hunting, although back then hunters killed birds, and everything else, in numbers that would horrify a modern sportsman.  But it was market hunters, who shipped untold millions of passenger pigeons to urban markets, that did the real harm.  As Helen James, curator of the bird division of the Smithsonian Institution, explains,

“There was no major colony that wasn’t heavily disrupted during the breeding season.  It may have looked like quite a few in number, but they were all an old age cohort, so it just collapsed.  I think that’s part of it.  This heavy, heavy disruption and harvesting of breeding colonies.”
So the question I want to ask is, if Martha hadn’t lived at the zoo, but remained a wild bird, and if you were a hunter in 1914 and saw Martha fly by, or if you were out in the woods a few years earlier and one of the last passenger pigeons in the world careened over your head, would you try to shoot the bird down?

You probably want to say that you wouldn’t, because something just feels wrong about killing the last of a species, even if that species is already doomed.  

I think that most hunters would feel the same way.  

And if a species is in really bad shape, but still has a chance to survive, many hunters would not only refrain from shooting, but would also go further, investing substantial time and money in efforts to restore that species to something approximating its former health and abundance.

That has happened time and again in the United States.  

Today, hunters support a plethora of organizations that seek to maintain the health of wildlife populations.  Big game hunters founded groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Wild Sheep Foundation and the Mule Deer Foundation.  Upland game hunters formed the Ruffed Grouse Society, the National Wild Turkey Foundation and Pheasants Forever, while waterfowlers can proudly point to the conservation advocacy and on-the-ground work that they have done through Ducks Unlimited and the Delta Waterfowl Foundation.

If those folks had been around in the late 1800s, Martha’s 
descendants might well still be flying over our eastern forests today.

On the other hand, if the folks who purport to speak for today’s salt water fishing community had anything to say about it, passenger pigeons would probably have been wiped out before Martha ever popped out from her egg.

Many individual anglers have a well-developed conservation ethic, but the big salt water angling organizations are closely tied to the tackle and boatbuilding industries, which lean toward fillet and release.

Think about it.

While hunters have founded an array of conservation organizations, and freshwater anglers have embraced advocacy groups such as Trout Unlimited and the Atlantic Salmon Foundation, there is not one national, angler-based conservation group that focuses on salt water fish.  There are angler-based organizations, but far from promoting conservation, they tend to emphasize “anglers’ rights” and the economic health of the angling industry.

Consider the latest blowup over Pacific bluefin tuna.

Right now, Pacific bluefin are in a tough spot.  NOAA Fisheries clearly states that

“The Pacific bluefin tuna is overfished and subject to overfishing…
“NOAA and [the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species] scientists can not precisely estimate how few spawning Pacific bluefin tuna would be too few to sustain the population, but agree there is a high risk that the population has reached that point
“Scientists are concerned because most of the spawning adults in the Western Pacific appear to be the same age, about 20 years old, and because so many juveniles are now caught that few reach adulthood.  In addition, Japanese scientists report that Japanese juvenile fisheries have recently seen and caught fewer juvenile bluefin tuna, which may be a sign that recruitment is in fact declining.  Japanese scientists are also observing spawning bluefin in a smaller and smaller area and finding no spawning bluefin where they used to be abundant.  [emphasis added]”
Reading that last paragraph—not many juvenile bluefin surviving, all of the spawning adults about 20 years old, the area of the spawning grounds declining—it’s hard not to think of Helen James’ comments about the health of the passenger pigeon population, just before the bird disappeared.

So you’d think that, conscious of other extinctions that occurred not so long ago, people might want to take a precautionary approach to Pacific bluefin management.

But if you thought that, you’d be very wrong.

“Pacific Island nations and environmentalists have expressed concern after talks on measures to save the North Pacific bluefin tuna from a near-catastrophic collapse in stocks ended in deadlock. 
“An annual multinational fisheries conference held in Fiji was presented with scientific reports showing the species at dangerously low levels, but Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China questioned the need to take new measures…
“Japan, the major fisher and consumer of bluefin in the region, is resisting further conservation moves, but Pacific Island nations have backed a call by environmentalists for a two-year moratorium on fishing for bluefin…
“[Amanda Nickson, the Pew Trusts’ Global Tuna Conservation campaign head] said that Japan had defended the existing position, adding ‘It was very much about the hardship their fishermen will face if there are any more catch reductions.  They say they have to take that into account.’
“Japan also questioned the need for further measures, Nickson said.  ‘They say that the [northern bluefin] population has existed at a very low level for some time without disappearing, and while [fishing] is maintained,’ she said.  ‘Their argument is that they do not need to go any farther.’”
Anyone familiar with Japan’s approach to marine resource matters, whether the resources involved are whales, bottlenose dolphins or pelagic fish, should hardly be surprised by that nation’s opposition to further restrictions on Pacific bluefin harvest.

However, people may be surprised to learn that representatives of America’s recreational fishing community are taking about the same position.  Instead of being opposed to the proposed two-year moratorium,  they are up in arms over a proposal to list Pacific bluefin tuna under the Endangered Species Act, but their words are about the same.

“The American Sportfishing Association, the Coastal Conservation Association, the Coastside Fishing Club and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation argue in a letter that an ESA listing is not applicable, would be ineffective management policy and would unfairly harm sportfishing and related industries on the West Coast, especially in Southern California.”
The groups argue that foreign commercial fishermen kill far more Pacific bluefin than do American anglers, and that listing the fish under the Endangered Species Act would “penalize” United States anglers and the angling industry.

While I’ve been a critic of petitions seeking ESA listings for species that are largely out of the control of United States fisheries managers, believing that agency resources could be better employed elsewhere, once such petition is filed and the necessary resources have been committed, the species in question deserves a fair hearing.

“Pacific bluefin tuna are not listed in the Endangered Species List.  One reason that they may not be endangered is that they are very productive—females can spawn millions of eggs in one year.  This is also why scientists believe that if fewer were caught for even a short period, maybe five years, the population could recover and again reach sustainable levels.  [emphasis added]”
However, when provided with a recent opportunity, the relevant international body did not reduce harvest in order to give the fish time to recover.  Thus, it’s worthwhile to note that “inadequacy of existing protection” is one of the grounds for listing a species pursuant to ESA…

With respect to the United States' Pacific bluefin fishery, NOAA Fisheries’ has observed that

“While the quantity of spawning bluefin tuna is very low, California fishermen are seeing and catching many more juvenile bluefin than they have in years...
“All North Pacific bluefin are born in the waters off Japan and some portion migrates to the U.S. West Coast each year.  So, it is possible that a larger proportion of the juvenile bluefin migrated from the spawning grounds off Japan to the West Coast in the last few years than in previous years…”
If that’s true, then United States anglers may be landing a larger proportion of the juvenile population of Pacific bluefin than it has in the past, at a time when too few of those juveniles are being recruited into the spawning stock.  

While a far, far greater number of juveniles are still being killed outside of United States waters, an ethical question remains:

When there is a “high risk” that there are already too few adult Pacific bluefin to sustain the population, is it conscionable for anglers to catch any Pacific bluefin at all.

My answer is no.  But then, I would not have shot Martha, or any of her ancestors, once it was clear that the population was under real stress.

However, Bill Shedd, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association’s California chapter, in a statement that could have come right out of the Japanese fisheries ministry, said that

“If this ESA listing is successful, recreational fishermen, guides and companies along the West Coast face possible negative impacts, including loss of revenue.”

So we can be pretty sure that he, along with the other organizations opposing the petition, would have had no problems at all if a hunter shot Martha.

They’d probably strongly support it, if one of their colleagues sold shotgun shells… 

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