Thursday, April 27, 2017


For more than seventeen years, I was very actively involved in a big, national grassroots conservation organization.  For most of those years, it was one of the finest times of my life.

I worked with paid staff, and with a host of volunteers, all dedicated to the concept that “The fish come first.”  I worked on some committees, and ended up chairing one.  I sat on the national board.   And most importantly of all, I learned how the fishery management process worked, and how to effect change.

All decisions we made were ultimately put to a vote of the board’s volunteers.  There’s no question that the paid staff steered us more than a bit, but in the end all decisions were in volunteers’ hands.  No policy was adopted without their approval.  All press releases were subject to volunteer oversight.  Any proposed legislative action had to pass volunteer review before action was taken.

Perhaps as a result of all those things, the organization was able to influence policy, on the state and national level, relating to everything from striped bass to blue marlin.

Then, in later years, things changed.

Some key leaders grew ill and passed away, leaving a huge vacuum that was never completely filled.  Chairmanship of one committee thus shifted from a charismatic and cynically knowledgeable leader to someone who was, at heart, a good man, but lacked essential moral courage, and was more interested in the organization looking good on editorial pages and Internet chat boards than doing good in the regulatory and legislative arena.

Such attitude became contagious.  Instead of leading in the field of fisheries conservation, as it once did, and staking out bold, resource-oriented positions regardless of the criticism received, the organization became cautious, reacting to the whims of magazine editors and the underemployed minions trolling in cyberspace, more concerned with money and membership than its mission.

The final blow came when the organization, once almost arrogantly independent and jealously defensive of its good name, formed a formal alliance with a consortium representing the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries.

After that, the fish didn’t come first anymore, and the volunteers lost their clout.  While the grassroots were still supposed to handle fundraising tasks, policy was now directed by an “advocacy team” that coordinated with the consortium.  Press releases came from the consortium’s pen.  Proposed legislation, too, became a consortium responsibility.  The volunteers could still take a position on such things, but were informed that any position that they took might have to be changed a bit—if the consortium disagreed.

It’s hardly surprising that under such arrangement, “fish first” was discarded in favor of “socioeconomic benefits” and “anglers’ rights.”

Recognizing that there would be no going back, I reluctantly walked away from the table, convinced that grassroots fishery conservation was dead.

That was four years ago.  Since then, I learned that I was wrong.  At least, I was wrong about grassroots conservation being dead.

I was reminded of that just the other day, when I heard about a group called Save Our Cobia.  It’s a new organization, apparently operating on a shoestring and a dream.  According to its website, the group was formed

“because numerous anglers along the Northern Gulf of Mexico have come to the realization that cobia, ling, or lemonfish, whatever you may call them, stocks are in trouble and that we need to acknowledge it and take action before it gets any worse.”
The last stock assessment of Gulf of Mexico cobia was performed in 2013, and didn’t do much to further the management process.  Instead of providing clear guidance, it merely reported that

“Due to a lack of consensus amongst the [Council of Independent Experts] reviewers responsible for evaluating the assessment, point estimates of population benchmarks cannot be provided at this time.”
Thus, the state of Gulf cobia don’t seem to be getting much attention from my former colleagues in conservation at the big national group, who are in any event pretty fully occupied down in the Gulf, trying to find new and creative ways to overfish red snapper—which do benefit from a peer-reviewed assessment—and frustrate the federal management system.

But, in the spirit of folks who truly do care about putting the fish first, the folks at Save Our Cobia aren’t waiting for bad news from biologists who may eventually decide that the fish are well on the way to perdition.  They want managers to invoke precautionary management measures now, to prevent any further declines.

In that way, they remind me of another grassroots group, Save the Tarpon, which was concerned that the tarpon around Boca Grande Pass, on Florida’s western coast, were being abused by unethical charter boat captains and tournament operators.

They started as a rag-tag group, too—just a bunch of folks who didn’t want to see guides intentionally foul-hooking tarpon with jigs designed just for that purpose.  They were local guides and anglers who were soul-sick at seeing tournament anglers mishandling fish that later washed up, dead, on the shore.

Putting the fish first, they dug deep into their own pockets to take on a big-money tournament and its corporate sponsors even though, at the beginning, they were David faced with not just one, but a host of Goliaths.  They waded out to do battle, asking the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to ban the jig that made tarpon snagging relatively easy to do.

Yet Save the Tarpon—who cared about the fish, rather than about advertisers or, perhaps, folks who donated trips or merchandise to fundraising events—persevered.

And they won.

It was a win for the good guys—who put the fish first.

We had another such win here in the northeast, back in 2014.

After a benchmark stock assessment confirmed what anglers had been saying for the past few years—that too many striped bass were being killed, and the population was headed downhill—the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission started a process to consider reducing the harvest.

Striped bass anglers, concerned with the health of the resource, demanded that harvest be reduced.  In New York, one angler, Ross Squire, took it upon himself to form the 1 @ 32” Pledge, an informal, Facebook-based group that eventually attracted over 2,000 anglers and helped organize them into a coherent force that turned out at public hearings and advocated for the striped bass.  Similar groups, up and down the striper coast, did the same.

They didn’t get everything that they wanted—in the end, ASMFC recommended recreational regulations that included a 1 fish bag, but kept the size limit at 28 inches, rather than raising it to 32—but despite fervent opposition from some members of ASMFC’s Striped Bass Management Board, they helped to convince a majority of that Board to reduce landings by 25%--enough to reduce harvest to the target level.

Today, opponents of that harvest reduction are trying to increase the striped bass kill.  They have convinced the Management Board to move forward with a draft addendum that, if ultimately adopted, will relax current regulations.

So it looks like it’s time for the grassroots to again gird for a fight.

I have no doubt that they will.

“Keeper-sized fish are relatively rare for us, but when they do come along, aside from the very large outliers, it is likely that a 28- or 30-inch fish has never spawned in its life before it is caught.  And so, with the health of the overall population at stake, killing it is an even more brazen robbery of the stock…
“[W]e all have a vested interest in the stock of stripers being as robust as possible, and we should at least ask ourselves if the fish flopped in front of us needs to die to fulfill our mission, whatever that may be.”
Those are the sort of sentiments expressed by anglers who care—who care about the health of the resource, and who care about generations as yet unborn, and want them to enjoy the same pleasures that we have enjoyed at the edge of the sea.

Anglers who put the fish first.

They are the sort of sentiments that have always fueled the grassroots conservation effort on every coast, for every species that might be in peril.

And so long as there are folks willing to express them as clearly as Mr. Wright did, grassroots conservation will always remain alive and well.

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