Sunday, January 7, 2018
A BREACH OF TRUST
As I’ve observed before, anglers have now been propagandized for nearly four years by the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industries that, working together with some anglers’ rights groups, are determined to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, in order to glean greater short-term benefits for themselves and their members.
It’s clear why the industry is taking that path. They believe that if anglers can bring home more fish, they will buy more fishing tackle, more bait, more boats and more of the costly electronics that are appearing on even the most humble fishing vessels these days. And if catching too many fish now causes fish to grow scarce in the future, the industry can always depend on their shills in the press to convince anglers that, if they only buy more expensive gear and electronics, and put those electronics on bigger, faster boats that allow them to travel farther each day, they will still be able to find and take home whatever fish may be left.
It’s a win-win strategy for industry, who should be able to maintain healthy cash flows even as the health of fish stocks decline.
It’s a little tougher to see where the anglers’ rights groups fit into the picture, as they’re essentially mortgaging their members’ future fishing opportunities in exchange for somewhat bigger kills over the next couple of years. Their leadership probably knows this, as most of them still at least give lip service to the concept of conservation, but that leadership is probably tired of getting beat up on websites and in the press for doing the right thing. So instead of being true leaders, and maybe losing some members and donors as a result, they apparently decided to follow the crowd and beat the drum for bigger kills, even if that means smaller fish stocks down the road.
After all, moral courage usually comes with a cost, while practicing situational ethics can bring valuable industry partnerships and donations...
The problem with all this is that anglers tend to trust organizations that they believe represent them, and magazines published with anglers in mind. When such entities shape their message to please advertisers and donors, rather than to present the whole truth to members and readers, that trust is badly betrayed.
Nothing illustrates that better than the current campaign to weaken Magnuson-Stevens, through passage of something officially titled the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, but more commonly called the “Modern Fish Act.”
The campaign leading up to the Modern Fish Act began early in 2014, when an industry-friendly “Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management”—chaired, not coincidentally, buy Johnny Morris, a mega-retailer of fishing tackle, and Scott Deal, founder of a multi-brand boatbuilding company—issued a report entitled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries.”
That report was a hypocritical and internally inconsistent document.
It clearly and cynically appeals to anglers’ sense of stewardship and responsibility; it opens with the line
“America’s sportsmen and women are the backbone of aquatic resource conservation,”
a line seemingly calculated to make anglers feel good about both themselves and the report, and make them more receptive to the report’s message.
The report then goes on to use the word “conservation” 28 times in just 14 pages, giving the impression that conservation mattered to its authors, but when it declares that
“The commission envisions a marine fisheries management system that conserves fishery resources, provides consistency in regulations, and produces the full range of saltwater recreational fishing’s economic, social and conservation benefits for the nation,”
an astute reader might note that when the benefits of angling are listed, “economic” leads the list, while “conservation” resides at the end, something that probably says more about the authors’ intent than they actually wished to convey.
But the real problems begin to arise when the report claims that
“What recreational anglers want and need is wide-ranging, dependable access to healthy and abundant fish stocks,”
for while that statement is undoubtedly true, it is just as true that
what dieters want and need is the ability to eat as much as they want, of whatever they want, and still keep losing weight.
And while both may be true, both also ignore reality.
For “access,” as used by Modern Fish Act proponents, doesn’t merely mean catching fish. It means killing them and taking them home. And just as the “wide-ranging, dependable” consumption of too much food would frustrate any hopes of losing weight, the “wide-ranging, dependable” access to—that is, harvest of—too many fish will frustrate any hopes of maintaining an abundant stock.
But like the cheesy diet-food infomercials on late-night TV, the Modern Fish Act’s supporters have been selling the dream that anglers can have their cakes—or their fish—and eat them, too, without any adverse results.
Thus, Mike Leonard, the so-called “Conservation Director” of the American Sportfishing Association, an angling industry trade group and enthusiastic supporter of the Modern Fish Act, praised last summer’s extension of the private-boat red snapper season, saying
“[The] announcement providing additional Gulf red snapper days is a welcome relief for the thousands of tackle shops, marinas, equipment manufacturers and other businesses who have suffered from decreasing public access to Gulf red snapper in recent years. [emphasis added]”
He praised the reopening even though the Department of Commerce, when it took that action, acknowledged that it would cause “substantial” overfishing, and could push back the ultimate recovery of the Gulf red snapper stock by as much as six years.
Since neither substantial overfishing nor the delayed recovery of an overfished stock promotes “healthy and abundant fish stocks,” and also fails to promote conservation, the industry reaction to the season reopening makes it pretty clear that when given the choice of access versus abundance, or economic versus conservation benefits, the Modern Fish Act folks are likely to opt for dead fish and dollars every time.
Yet the American Sportfishing Association, like other Modern Fish Act supporters, still tries to convince the public that
“This new bill will give federal managers the tools and data they need to both improve access and promote conservation of our natural marine resources.”
That is, of course, when they deign to tell the public anything at all. One of the most notable things about the Modern Fish Act propaganda campaign is how intensive, yet how uninformative, it really is.
It’s based on images such as the Center for Sportfishing Policy’s emotionally graphic photo of a father and two kids staring out at the water, with the message
“Don’t leave American families stranded at the dock…Pass the Modern Fish Act.”
It’s based on the American Sportfishing Association telling its members that
“We need our entire industry to stand behind it and promote it to the recreational fishing public,”
and providing a sample letter to anglers that says
“On December 13, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Natural Resources passed H.R. 200, a bill aimed at improving federal marine fisheries management.
“Even better news is that H.R. 200 incudes language from the Modern Fish Act.
“The Modern Fish Act is a comprehensive package specifically aimed at addressing the needs of the nation’s 11 million saltwater recreational anglers. It will improve access to America’s federal waters and promote conservation of our natural marine resources.
“Send a message to your Members of Congress today and encourage them to bring this landmark legislation to the floor for final passage.”
It’s not based on letting anglers know that, while H.R. 200 may improve access (meaning more dead fish on the dock), it certainly won’t promote conservation of America’s marine resources.
The bill includes provisions that some of the most destructive elements of the commercial fishing industry—such as the New England groundfish fleet that wiped out the cod stocks, and the Mid-Atlantic pair trawlers who remove tons of forage fish from the sea in a single tow—have supported for more than a decade, provisions that would make it easier to overfish and harder to rebuild overfished stocks.
Provisions so bad that true conservation organizations are calling H.R. 200 “another ‘Empty Oceans Act.’”
The sort of provisions that the Coastal Conservation Association, back in 2010, said
“are simply designed to drag out recovery in order to allow the highest level of fishing pressure to continue.”
Of course, the Coastal Conservation Association praised the Committee’s approval of H.R. 200, with its Modern Fish Act provisions, too, so it seems to be sending its members a different message these days…
But perhaps the greatest breach of trust occurred when the group Bass Anglers for Saltwater Conservation was launched in 2015, in a collaboration between the Bass Anglers Sportsmen’s Society, which promotes freshwater bass fishing and tournament competition, and Yamaha Motor Company, which produces motors for fishing boats, was formed.
The site tells freshwater bass fishermen, many of whom seldom if ever fish in salt water, that
“If you love fishing, boating, politics, or the outdoors, then you’ve come to the right spot. Please have a look around, and make sure to contact Congress about your right to fish through one of the prewritten engagements found above.”
Thus, the Modern Fish Act supporters (including the American Sportfishing Association, Recreational Fishing Alliance, Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Sportfishing Policy, Yamaha Marine Advocacy, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, all listed as “Our Partners”) have used the bass fishermen’s trust in their own association to convince them to send comments supporting bills such as the Modern Fish Act to inland legislators, who might otherwise not be concerned with saltwater fisheries issues.
The various pro-Modern Fish Act organizations give the bass fisherman no specifics on the merits of the legislation, but simply make emotionally charged statements such as
“the greatest threat to our sport today comes from those who wish to deny our right to fish by closing access to our nation’s oceans, bays, lakes, rivers, and anywhere else that we love to throw in a line. We must continue to fight for our right to fish recreationally in America’s waters, and keep our beloved public resources public!”
Such statements are then followed up with requests to contact legislators, such as one to
“Tell Senator Cruz to support the Modern Fish Act!
“Join your fellow anglers in the fight to defend our right to fish. By sending this prewritten letter to Senator Cruz, you are sending a message to Washington D.C. that anglers in Texas will not be ignored! Join the fight today!”
No mention of what the Modern Fish Act is, no explanation of why it would benefit anglers. Just rhetoric crafted to appeal to emotions, rhetoric crafted with the hope that it, coupled with the bass fishermen’s trust in the venerable Bass Anglers Sportsmen’s Society, will be enough to convince them to forward the industry’s message to targeted legislators.
It is a brilliantly cynical political move on the part of the Modern Fish Act’s supporters, though a gross betrayal of the bass anglers’ faith.
But that pretty well sums up the Modern Fish Act fight.
It’s an industry effort, backed with substantial industry assets, to push through legislation that might help to fill industry coffers, even though it may also help to empty America’s seas.
It is a massive effort to hoodwink saltwater anglers by engaging their emotions with vague statements and graphic images, while keeping their intellects disengaged by avoiding any discussion of verifiable and quantifiable facts.
It is probably the greatest breach of trust ever perpetrated against the angling community. It sees far too many writers, publications, organizations and companies that have, over many years and, in some cases, many decades, gained anglers faith, use that faith to further their own short-term interests, regardless of the harm done to the long-term interests of their readers, subscribers, members and customers.
Yet despite of, or more probably because of, such cynical and self-serving actions, it is an effort that may well succeed, unless enough anglers manage to see through the veil of pretty words, to the ugly reality beneath.