Thursday, April 5, 2018


Perspective is important.

Without it, it’s tough to see how things tie together, and events can easily seem to be either more or less important than they actually are.

That’s certainly true in the fisheries world, where rational dialogue is too often replaced by an unreasoned emotion that fuels angry crowds, every time a management decision doesn’t turn out the way someone might prefer.

Here in New York, we’ve come to expect at least one blowup each spring, as regulations for fish such as fluke (a/k/a “summer flounder”), scup and black sea bass are reviewed and revised, and the new rules for at least one of those species inevitably upsets someone.

This year, black sea bass triggered the blowup, as a combination of a bad allocation decision at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, high harvest levels, the decline of the dominant 2011 year class of fish and, perhaps, managers’ failure to take adequate account of what looks like another good year class in 2015 caused tightened regulations in 2018.

But here’s where the perspective comes in.

The blowup seemed to be big, but only occurred in one state—New York—even though the three other northeastern states, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, were looking at similarly tightened rules.  And almost all of the loud voices and assorted vulgarity belonged to a small sector of New York’s angling community—mostly members of its party boat fleet—with representatives of other sectors either more politely unhappy with the situation or, in the case of most, not caring enough to come out and complain.

So while many newspapers carried stories of fishermen’s discontent, and various appointed and elected officials made the necessary acknowledgement of the complainers’ concerns, there was a lot more sound and fury than substance to the entire event.  And even if the party boats win a concession this year, it will likely come at the price of greater restrictions—which will spawn even more complaining—in 2019.

But—and here’s where perspective plays a role once again—that would be nothing new, not only in the context of fisheries issues, but in the context of America’s ongoing war over how to manage its natural resources.  

In the end, although the fight is over resources, it is primarily about philosophy.  It pits those who effectively believe, whether they realize it or not, in Aldo Leopold’s assertion that we should

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right; as well as what is economically expedient.  A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise,”
against those who, with adjustments for the particular resource and means of extraction, are ardent supporters of “Drill, baby, drill;” people who see fish, land and timber, and everything else, as nothing more than a vehicle for personal and corporate profit.

For a very long time, that was the only way that natural resources were valued.  

From the time the first European colonists sunk roots into the New World’s soil, they began to fill in Manhattan’s extensive marshes, built dams that blocked shad, herring, and salmon from their spawning grounds and killed and marketed anything that could swim, walk, or fly, from cod and Atlantic right whales to canvasback ducks and American bison.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the Eskimo curlew and passenger pigeon, after a few too many were shot, packed in barrels, and shipped to the cities; east of the Mississippi River, elk, gray wolves, mountain lions and bison were wiped from the earth.  Ancient forests were cut down for timber, thousands of years of prairie soils eroded away and, in Cleveland, Ohio, the Cuyahoga River caught fire.

Some of those things might have been inconvenient, but they all made someone money, and so were deemed good.

But not everyone felt that way.  Beginning in the late 1800s, people began to see the need to conserve the lands, the waters and the life that remained, and with their efforts, the natural resources wars began.

Outside the parks, the fighting heated up pretty quickly.  One of the biggest battles was fought over market hunting for ducks and geese.  

On one hand, such market hunting was a tradition that dated back to the earliest settlers, and the commercial gunners strongly resented anyone who tried to end the practice; on the other hand, the number of ducks was steadily declining, even though abundance was still fairly high, and sportsmen saw that the days of unrestricted gunning were over.

Even so, the market gunners weren’t willing to give up their trade; anyone who tried to compel them to do so was likely to be physically threatened, if not attacked.  In Arkansas, market hunters twice burned down a sportsmen’s club, and shot the club’s game warden no less than twelve times.  But, eventually, those who wanted to see ducks in their future prevailed, when Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 and gave waterfowl needed protection.

Since then, there have been other battles, and no obvious end to the war, which arguably entered its “modern phase” in the late 1980s, when loggers in the Pacific Northwest threatened that region’s last old-growth forests, which were the home of the endangered Northern spotted owl.

The logging industry was already struggling to survive, and loggers claimed that they had to cut down the old trees to stay in business, while biologists argued that such cutting lead to the owls’ extinction.  The timber companies rejected efforts to reach a compromise that would leave some stands of timber untouched; they claimed that any such compromise

“tied up too much forest and would impose major economic hardships.”

“Given that the industry had slowed its rate of clearing trees, and has even attempted to sell back logging rights to the Forest Service, this is a curious claim.”
The loggers were also facing the reality that, if they continued to cut the old-growth forest, they would run out of the big trees in no more than 15 years; even so, they refused to accept the long-term truth.  They clung to the claim that their business depended on cutting the old-growth timber, seemingly denying the fact that, whatever happened with the owls, change was inevitably going to come.  It was almost as if they had made a conscious decision to ignore the future, and focus only on the short term.

Of course, the fact that they didn’t want anyone telling them what they could and couldn’t do was almost certainly part of the picture.

That sort of stubbornness certainly played a role in one of the more recent resource war battles, the standoff at the Bundy ranch in Nevada.

Cliven Bundy, owner of the ranch, doesn’t like anyone—particularly the government—telling him what to do.  That attitude brought him into direct conflict with the federal authorities, beginning in 1993, when the Bureau of Land Management began buying back outstanding grazing leases in order to protect habitat needed by the threatened desert tortoise.

Bundy refused to sell his grazing rights back to the feds, continued to graze his cattle on what is now federal land, and refused to pay any fines imposed for such illegal actions.  And he was not alone in his displeasure.  According to a story published in USA Today, and quoted in the Washington Post,

“ranchers who say that they can’t afford to graze livestock without access to public land are taking matters into their own hands—setting up what some officials fear is an inevitable and dangerous confrontation.”
The dispute went on in the courts, in the BLM and on the land for over twenty years.  Finally, in 2014, the BLM had had enough, and began preparing to confiscate Bundy’s illegally-grazing cattle.  Bundy family members and armed, self-proclaimed “militia” members gathered on the Bundy ranch to confront the government agents.  Hoping to avoid violence, the government backed down for the moment, although Bundy was eventually arrested, then freed after the judge declared a mistrial.

In both the Bundy case and that of the loggers, individuals demanded to access public resources, and incidentally put species at risk, in the name of a dubious economic necessity.

Which brings us back to black sea bass here in New York.

While New York got a bad deal at ASMFC, the data supporting the overall catch limit is sound, and based on a benchmark stock assessment that was completed less than 18 months ago.  So the only choices that New York really has is to accept ASMFC’s action, or to appeal it in accordance with ASMFC policy and current law.  To do anything else would risk overfishing, and not be in the long-term interests of fish or fishermen.

However, folks who live in the short-term don't care about the impacts of overfishing at all.

“No reduction is acceptable!”

“None of the options currently suggested are anything that we can work with,”
even though all were designed to allow the largest permissible harvest, without overfishing the stock.  As noted in one Long Island daily, Newsday,

“They rejected the state’s plan to choose one of the seven options to manage the black sea bass fishery under the [required] reduction.  Instead, they demanded that officials do more to increase the quota—even if it means violating the regulations.  The room broke into raucous applause at the prospect.”
They applauded because violating regulations designed to maintain healthy fish stocks would represent a big win in the resource wars.  At least, it would if you believe that the best way to promote recreational fishing is to advertise a “sea bass and ling beat down,” (or, on another boat that apparently found fewer ling, an “offshore sea bass beat down”) and thus let your customers know that they should value a big short-term kill above a sustainable fishery.

Folks who believe such things have typically

Laws’ effects on the health of fish and game stocks are given far less consideration.

And that’s ultimately what ties it all together, and makes it clear that bison poachers in the newborn Yellowstone Park, market gunners who’d rather burn down a clubhouse and take shots at a warden  than stop killing ducks for pay, old-growth loggers, Cliven Bundy and the folks who curse and carry on  about fishery rules don’t represent isolated incidents of outrage and/or bad acts, but are instead are all linked together by a philosophy that discounts the future and places all value on short-term gain.

None stand alone.  Each is a skirmish, a battle in the greater war for the future of America’s natural resources or, all too likely, the war that will, in the end, determine whether those natural resources will have any meaningful future at all.


  1. A fisherman not a poacher like ypu call usApril 6, 2018 at 3:23 AM

    Charles witek maybe ylu should have had BALLs and been at the meeting instead once again hidimg behind a computer

    1. Would have liked to have been there, but I was in the Washington, D.C. area attending fisheries meetings, and couldn't be in two places at once.

      It's the first meeting that I've missed in years, which makes the "hiding behind a computer" a curious comment--particularly when it comes from someone who uses a screen name instead of their own.