Sunday, July 26, 2015


A while ago, I was browsing the message board on a popular Internet site when I came across a discussion on keeping striped bass.  There was the predictable gamut of comments, with some folks saying that they keep their fish, and many others promoting catch and release.

But one comment really stood out.

An angler stated that it was his right to keep as many fish as the law allowed, and that it was no one’s business whether he ate them, gave them away or used them to fertilize his tomatoes.  Another person quickly chimed in, agreeing that a person had a right to keep every fish permitted by law, and to use them—or not—in any manner they wished.

Throughout the debate, the word “right” was frequently used.

The word “responsibility,” however, was notable only for its absence.

That pretty well describes the current fisheries debate.

We see the Recreational Fishing Alliance state declare that, among other purposes, it exists to “To safeguard the rights of saltwater anglers.”  A statement on its webpage notes that

“RFA was the first national, grassroots political action organization established to represent the rights of recreational fishermen and the recreational fishing industry as a whole on marine fisheries issues,”
which is probably true, although a now-defunct (I think) outfit down in New Jersey that never grew legs, called the National Fishing Association, might have contested the “first” claim if it was still around.

But the funny thing is, if you read that RFA page, there is no talk about anglers “obligations,” “responsibilities” or “duties.”  

Only multiple references to “rights.”

And RFA isn’t alone.

There is the Fishing Rights Alliance, a group primarily focused on fighting conservation measures for various southern reef fish, that assures members and potential members that it is

George Poveromo, an outdoor media personality who has apparently been named the Coastal Conservation Association’s “Offshore Spokesperson” notes that

“They are fighting for the rights of recreational anglers to fish,”

“for standing up for the rights of recreational anglers”
after CCA’s Florida chapter opposed a state effort to outlaw a type of fishing lure used to intentionally foul-hook tarpon in Boca Grande Pass.

To be fair, CCA was once a very effective voice for marine conservation (I became a life member and was an active volunteer back in those heady days), and a few of the state chapters are still outstanding advocates for enlightened conservation measures.  But at the national level, while it still talks the conservation talk, it now walks a very different path, dedicating much of its resources and advocacy efforts to weakeningfederal fisheries laws and even undermining federal managers’ ability to managevarious stocks of fish, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico and, to a lesser degree, the South Atlantic.

The bottom line is that whether you’re talking about RFA, CCA, FRA or any of other organizations with similar messages and objectives, there is a lot of talk about “rights,” and not a lot of talk about the “responsibilities” that go along with those rights.

And that’s a pretty striking violation of the social contract that should bind all of us together, for in modern society, the only folks who are exempt from having responsibilities accompany their rights are children and the mentally deficient—both of whom are only granted qualified and limited rights, as well.

So for the nation’s salt water angling organizations to argue that they have rights without accepting the full plate of responsibility that goes with them can reasonably be deemed childish, or at least not completely rational, behavior.

For as anglers, we all have a very clear and, if we’ve been brought up right in the sport, a very well-defined set of responsibilities.

First and foremost, there is our responsibility to the resource.  

As people who depend on living marine resources for our sport and, in many cases, for some portion of our food, we have an obligation to treat those resources with respect and to accept our role as their stewards.

In the simplest terms, that means that we should not abuse them.  If we decide to take home a few fish for dinner, we shouldn’t take more than we know we can use, and we shouldn’t kill anything—say a big shark or marlin—just to show it off at the dock (and maybe collect a tournament check) and then toss it into a dumpster.

As stewards of the resource, it is our responsibility to not only obey the law, but at times to go beyond the law when regulations don’t adequately protect fish stocks.  The recent trend in the northeastern striped bass fishery, that sees anglers releasing the largest and most fecund females and keeping a smaller fish for dinner, in order to maintain the stock’s spawning potential, is a good case in point.

On the other hand, the weasel words used by those named organizations, whoclaim that they only seek “reasonable access” to a fishery, when what they truly desire is the freedom to overfish various stocks in clear contravention of current science and law, present a good case of folks shirking their obligations.

Second, anglers have a responsibility to the public, which includes other anglers.  

Neither anglers nor angling-related businesses own the fish.  Fish, like all wildlife, are a publicresource, held in trust by the state and federal governments for the benefit ofall citizens, with use governed by the exercise of the state’s police powers. 

When an angler takes a fish, or merely tries to catch one, he or she is exercising a privilege (yes, a privilege, not a “right”) granted by the state as part of its duties as trustee of such resources.  Removing fish from a population reduces the number that remain available to the public for recreation, food or merely passive appreciation (all of which, viewed objectively, are equally valid uses), and such removals must not be capricious. 

It’s clear that unsustainable rates of removal can do long-lasting harm to a fish population, but even removals that fall within sustainable limits can lead to local and temporary reductions in availability, which can diminish other anglers’ enjoyment of the shared fishery.  So while there’s nothing wrong with taking, say, two or three bluefish home, killing a full limit just because it’s legal, and then trying to give away, or even dumping, the fish is not ethically defensible.

Finally, there is anglers’ responsibility to future generations

“I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that that world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”

Hunters and anglers must all be such men.  The fact that they aren’t is puzzling, as in the course of our lives, we have all seen what irresponsible stewardship brings.

In my own case, it was what caused me to become an advocate for fisheries conservation.  Some fish are more available now than they were in my youth—and I caught my very first fish fifty-nine years ago—others have all but disappeared.

So while I enjoy the scup and black sea bass that abound on local wrecks, in numbers I did not see over the course of nearly six previous decades, I mourn for the cod and the pollock, winter flounder and tautog, rainbow smelt and bluefin tuna that I once caught in their abundance and now see in much diminished numbers—if I see them at all.

As someone who grew up on the northeast coast, I find it indescribably sad that the current generation of children will not enjoy the simple pleasure of meeting up with their friends to catch a few flounder off a local dock when school’s not in session or, when they’re a bit older, to join their father and this friends on a party boat cod trip, a simple coming-of-age rite that I enjoyed when young.

Current efforts to gut federal fisheries laws in the name of “reasonable access” and “diminish[ing] socioeconomic impacts” may, on their face, appeal to many.  But we must always understand that such things are not without price, and that price is the diminishment of the world that only children yet unborn will know.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest irresponsibility of all:  Not paying the debt that is owed to the future.

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