In the Mid Atlantic, there are so many unsung heroes
Last night, I was reading the obligatory story to my twin 5-year-olds as part of the ritual struggle to get them to go to sleep. The book that I randomly grabbed was David Elliot’s Here’s to You. Like a lot of the books I’ve read to them so many times, they pretty much read it to me now. If you have young children you may already know this book. It’s kind of a silly poem and not terribly significant. Each page is a “here’s to” something. Here’s to the birds, here’s to the bears, here’s to the fish, etc. A celebration of the diversity of animals and how awesome they all are: “Oh, I love the fish.” And at the end is the “Here’s to the people,” “Oh, I love the people” part.
Why am I boring readers with the contents of a trivial children’s book? Well, because it gave me pause last night. Yes, it made me think about our paradoxical relationship to animals or, in our case, fish. I mean, sure, “oh, I love the fish,” but I also want to catch and in some cases kill those fish. Try explaining that one to a 5 year old. But perhaps more importantly it made me think hard for a few minutes about all the awesome fish-people I know and work with in the Mid Atlantic region – and how diverse yet critical they are. “Oh, I love the people.”
For almost 20 years I’ve been involved in some way, shape or form with trying to keep more fish in the water. I’ve pretty much always been a fish-head, since I was 9 years old, I think. No, I didn’t have parents who fished or some omnipotent individual in my life who inspired the addiction. It just happened. But I guess what inevitably got me into this line of work is how pissed off I always used to get seeing the striped bass poaching that would and still does occur in broad daylight in Jamaica Bay/Breezy Point (lower New York Harbor). It was like they were taking those fish from me – and from everyone. It used to drive me nuts. To some extent, I suppose it still does. But the point is that it got me focused on wanting to do something about that sort of wanton “tragedy of the commons” killing. The “F the other fishermen, F the resource, I’m gonna kill as many fish as I can, to hell with everything and everyone else,” was incredibly offensive to me back then. It still is.
Yes, my interests have always been parochial, particularly since I made a business out of fishing. And having kids has certainly strengthened my opinions – and perhaps given me more drive and purpose. I just desperately want enough fish in the water so that I can easily find them, catch them, and in some cases kill them, sometimes for paying clients, sometimes for my kids, sometimes for myself. That probably doesn’t qualify me as a left wing live-and-let-live liberal type, although the usual opponents of conservation generally want to characterize anyone who wants to protect/conserve fish and habitat that way.
The point is that I’m not terribly unique in this respect. Certainly there are many others like me, who believe that the general public is entitled to a diversity and abundance of marine life and who are simply unrepresented in management circles, politics, etc. It’s no secret that in those worlds, most people are pro-harvest because they are driven by the money to be made from a dead fish … and that sucks. But there are plenty of people that think like I do – and a few who feel so strongly about this stuff that sitting on the sidelines just isn’t an option. I’m talking about the passionate and dedicated people. The real advocates. The doers, not the sayers. The ones who work behind the scenes so that there will be enough living things in the water so that my kids may catch them. These are the people who do the heavy lifting, and very few people know about it. They are the ones who rarely get credit, and in most cases they don’t appear to care about such recognition. Yet they greatly deserve it. The people who are so critical to those of us that fish. “Oh I love the people.”
Given the little space I have, I’m gonna mention a few such people here, although it’s by no means a comprehensive list. Having spent almost six years on the council, these are the folks who first come to mind, who I believe truly represent my/our interests, which I define, simply, as abundance. These are the people critical to the public process. And I don’t think the recreational fishing public understands that without them, we’d be F’d.
Perhaps my favorite person in that respect is Charlie Witek, who was the chairman for Coastal Conservation Association New York for an awful long time before leaving based on a clear change in national’s “conservation first” policy. Today, in his role as a blogger and advocate, he brilliantly represents first the fish and then those conservation-minded fishermen who still believe that the needs of the fish should come before the needs of those who want to kill them. If you don’t already read his weekly blog, you should: One Angler’s Voyage. Charlie has been a staunch conservation advocate for the last three decades. Not only is he unique in his understanding of often intricate fishery management plans, but he is completely honest and true to his beliefs in a way that’s hard to describe. His voice in fisheries management has been and still is unparalleled in my mind. He is definitely the most insightful person I know. Yes, I depend on Charlie regularly for advice. Over the years he has made me sound much smarter than I actually am. If that kinda stuff can rub off, well … it has. I’ve got a ton of respect for that guy, and really, he’s responsible for the career path I’ve chosen. I’m a better person for having him around for the last 15 years. Without a doubt, he’s an unsung hero.
Moving on, I want to mention the “good” folks in the ENGO (environmental non-governmental organization) side. And there are lots of them. I won’t get into the details – to do so would take at least a few thousand words. From my perspective, a handful of ENGO folks have had more impact on forage fish conservation in the Mid Atlantic over the last few years than anyone else out there.
I mean, it’s damn hard not to acknowledge all the work they’ve done with menhaden at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and river herring and shad in the Mid Atlantic and New England regions.
Most of them work for the Pew Charitable Trust’s U.S. Oceans Campaign. The name “Pew” tends to get some folks frothing at the mouth, claiming that Pew is “anti-fishing” and part of a huge conspiracy to force anglers off the water. But from what I’ve seen, that’s not true. In fact, the whole Pew/anti-fishing/black-helicopter stuff is irritating, and it’s just misdirected. Really, most of the people who say that Pew is anti-fishing are either not very bright or simply have an agenda of their own, which likely includes managing for max harvest, rather than abundance. As far as forage fish go, the entire focus of the Pew effort is predator/prey relationships. In other words, Pew wants to ensure that all those striped bass and bluefin tuna have stuff to eat and, perhaps more significantly from my perspective, so those forage can congregate and attract predators for us to catch. I mean Christ, it may go without saying, but without forage fish abundance, we simply don’t have fishing opportunities. Even the most staunch right-wing anti-enviros must acknowledge that. In reality, anglers should be thanking such ENGOs.
I’ve got mad respect for those people who work on the Pew forage fish campaign. If I thought that they were anti-angling I’d make it a point to regularly bash them here. Instead I consider them allies and some of the best conservation advocates. Yes … unsung heroes. And it ain’t just Pew. Wild Oceans (formerly National Coalition for Marine Conservation) has been engaged in a meaningful way since day one. And there are certainly others.
But getting back to the grassroots, I gotta mention Capt. Paul Eidman here, for his work on menhaden. As far as grassroots organizing goes, that guy has done a good job. And speaking of grassroots, I have to give a shout out to Capt. Patrick Paquette. That dude has been engaged as a “recreational fishing advocate” at both the Councils and ASMFC for an awful long time. During council meetings, his public comment is, most of the time, the only voice from the recreational fishing community. Without Patrick, there often would be no discernible recreational support for river herring conservation.
As far as our beloved striped bass go, I’m a fan of the advocacy coming out of the CCA MD shop. I really like some of the stuff Tony Friedrich and Shawn Kimbro have been saying. I’m a big admirer of the “my limit is one” program. Without a doubt, we also should acknowledge Ross Squire for initiating the 1&32 Pledge. Conservation-minded anglers like these, not ASMFC or state managers, are really the ones who deserve the credit for keeping the bass fishery even somewhat viable. If everyone was out for meat, bass would have been overfished years ago. All three of these guys are “unsung heroes” in my book. Dean Clark and Brad Burns also have been good advocates for striped bass conservation, although I must admit that the tendency of Stripers Forever to put all the blame on the commercial folks is sometimes irritating. But the focus is on managing that resource conservatively so, yes: unsung heroes.
I suppose we need to talk about summer flounder. Capt. Tony DiLernia recently did a lot of the heavy lifting on getting us a more equitable distribution and better science. He deserves a lot of credit for that.
As far habitat issues go, and I’m thinking about deep-water corals, NRDC certainly deserves mention. The Pew folks have been engaged here also. Would be nice to see some angling orgs get involved, but I’m not holding my breath. As far as clean water goes, Cindy Zipf from Clean Ocean Action is a great advocate, and without-a-doubt an unsung hero.
Finally, we should recognize council and ASMFC staff. It’s always been easy to throw stones at those management bodies, and, yeah, man, I’ve been throwing lots of stones at ASMFC lately because they kinda deserve it. But in my experience, the staffs of both management bodies are generally composed of good professional scientists/biologists who want to do the right thing. We need to keep in mind that, in the end, it really isn’t up to them. They only can provide thoughtful analyses and management advice. In my opinion, all of those guys/girls are unsung heroes. We also should acknowledge those council members and commissioners who often go out on a limb and stake out courageous and unpopular positions. Certainly, there are those who have balls, and they are most certainly unsung heroes, although I do wish there were more.
Lastly, the state reps, such as the Department of Environmental Conservation folks here in New York, deserve some props. Again, they are generally professional biologists who want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, a lot of them work for politicians who don’t. And, of course, there’s usually a lot of pressure from a constituency of pro-harvest fishermen, both commercial and recreational, who they have to answer to if they want to keep their jobs. They generally have to strike a difficult balance, always walking a fine line. I think that, for the most part, most of them do pretty well. Definitely unsung heroes in my book.
Getting back to the ironic relationship anglers have with fish – “Oh, I love the fish,” and, man, I really do love the fish, so much that I desperately want there to be enough of them around for my own reasons. I’ve built a living and a lifestyle around those stupid fish, and so have lots of others. Yes, there are people in the conservation advocacy world who work really hard and put a lot of energy into protecting the resource because of such a selfish need to have these fish around for their own enjoyment and, at least in my case, my own sanity. However, there are also those around who just f’n like fish and want them to stay in the water. And that’s OK. It doesn’t matter why you want to preserve and protect fish – just that you want to do it. And anyone who wants to do it, in my mind, is an ally, whatever their ultimate motivation. And, no, there isn’t an army of enviros out there trying to end fishing … crazy person. Just lots of good, hardworking, passionate people who want abundant marine resources. Lots of unsung heroes …
Certainly more than I’m able to cover here. I only mentioned the ones who have had a particular, recent impact on my region. From where I sit, they are all incredibly relevant. Without a doubt, I’m a better person for having these people in my life. The resource is certainly better off for having these people around. … And, without getting too deep, I believe the entire human race is better off with good populations of wild things in the oceans. Sure, there are some who are fine with their 9 to 5s and never setting foot on a boat or getting their feet wet, but I’m betting there are very few readers of this column who are. Some of us need these fish … without them we are nothing. And I feel like we owe a great deal to all those unsung heroes who work so hard to maintain, or restore, their abundance.
“Here’s to the People. Oh, I Love the People.”