The Last Days of the Ocean

Where Are Sport Fishermen on Marine Conservation Issues?

They skew conservative--but more than a few are conservationists.

| Wed Mar. 1, 2006 4:00 AM EST

Among major groups concerned with our marine resources, everyone would like more fish. Duh.

But they don’t all want more fish for the same reasons. Allowing for some oversimplification, one might say that commercial fishermen want to sell fish, sport fishermen want to eat or use (but not harm) them, and environmental advocates want to protect them.

Of course, there’s some crossover. Many sport fishermen, for instance, are staunch conservationists, and most of the NGOs that represent them share concerns with purely environmental groups--concerns about overfishing, bycatch, pollution, habitat loss, and the health of the ocean generally. This makes sense: with no fish, we’ll have no sport.

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I think the biggest single conservation concern for sport fishermen at present should be the federal government's failure to prioritize the protection and restoration of our oceans’ health. That the Bush Administration received a D+ grade from its own appointee on its own oceans commission speaks volumes. That report card listed grades in several areas, all mediocre to failing save one. And in critical funding for essential oceans programs, this administration earned an F.

Sport fishermen and the groups that represent them must apply their efforts to balancing both preservation of the resource and its allocation--ensuring the receipt of a “fair share" of fish stocks--and the opportunity to pursue their sport, which is under threat from, among other things, regulations limiting access to protected marine areas.

Those are not necessarily the concerns of strict environmental advocates, and in fact they may give rise to more head-butting between interest groups than is ultimately productive. However, like conservation advocates, anglers can and generally do concern themselves with the health of fish stocks.

I think at least some well-intentioned environmental advocates fail to appreciate this last point, or to make the necessary distinctions when they worry about “overfishing.” Commercial fishing is a business that relies, by definition, on the killing of fish. The more fish caught, the more successful. Sport fishing can be very successful with few or no fish caught. In recent decades, as regulations have tightened and attitudes have evolved, sport fishing has become less and less consumptive. "Catch-and-release" fishing, for example, is now more prevalent than "catch-and-keep."

(“Less consumptive” of course doesn’t mean nonconsumptive. Recreational fishermen can and should be able to keep some fish for food, and there will always be some fish killed in catch-and-release angling. That said, specialized hooks and a better understanding of how to release fish have in most cases kept those numbers below 10 percent, though there are sport fisheries where release mortality remains too high.)

Going more on gut feeling than hard data, I'd say recreational fishermen are somewhat more conservative that the general public. Editorial opinion in the sport-fishing press typically aims considerable criticism at federal fisheries managers, often with good reason. But that same press has been shy of criticizing the Bush administration, despite its poor performance on oceans-related issues.

Those of the recreational-fishing groups that emphasize allocation issues often pit themselves against commercial fishermen, environmentalists and the National Marine Fisheries Service. However, groups that focus as much or more on resource protection have been more willing to criticize the administration for its lack of commitment to the health of fish stocks, and they worry as well about other large issues such as re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act--the primary federal fisheries law and establishes critical parameters for coastal and high-seas fisheries management--now moving through Congress.

Attempting in a short space to explain to the general public where recreational fishermen stand on issues of conservation is not easy. I would say that all sport fishermen want one thing: the chance to pursue their sport with a realistic chance, though not a guarantee, of hooking fish. Beyond that, I would suggest a spectrum running from those, at one end, who think short-term or simply don't concern themselves with conservation issues, to, those, at the other, willing to think long-term, make necessary sacrifices, and place the health of the ocean and of fish stock as the top priority.

On a personal note, I place myself in the latter camp and hope that over time more and more sport fishermen begin to feel similarly. Simply being activists for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie may ultimately leave us with a very large--and very empty--plate.

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