The desire to point the finger without acknowledging our own impact is endemic in the angling community
So… It looks like there are quite a few people who have their panties in a bunch over my recent column in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters: Deep Diving (is spearfishing the blood-sport we think it is?). If you are on Facebook, you will see the well over 100 comments on the article which I posted on my page, most of which are from people who appear to be greatly offended, and well… angry. (Please do “friend” me if you’d like to see those comments). Believe me, I get it. It’s beyond infuriating to see some knucklehead holding a big, fecund dead and bloody fish, which had likely lived for two decades before this bonehead decided it would be fun to put a spear in it. But if you could have made it past the knee jerk reaction, and, uhm, read the article, you would have probably seen a different picture.
If you are too busy/lazy to read the article, I’ll summarize it in a couple of paragraphs. Spear-fishermen in Louisiana have been shooting tarpon (29 in the last 3 years according to the Louisiana Council of Dive Clubs) so that Dr. William Stein (an ardent tarpon angler turned marine biologist) may dissect and analyze the fish with the intent of finding out more about them, and with the end goal of providing relevant information that may ultimately help us protect them.
Unfortunately, a spearfishing club unwisely posted photos of dead tarpon/hero-shots as well as video of the act itself. Yes, it was offensive, yet pretty much harmless, and in fact beneficial when you consider the scientific use of such fish. Yet, there was a reverberating reaction as editorials popped up everywhere and internet forums lit up. In response, there were some who rightly pointed out that recreational release mortality (whether it’s 10% or 4%) simply dwarfs whatever damage such speared fish might cause, even if you were to assume spear-fishermen kill “hundreds” of tarpon a year (which they don’t, simply because, as anyone who has ever fished for them knows, tarpon are big, strong, fast animals). In other words, it’s really freak’n dangerous. And, despite whatever preconceived notion folks might have of spear-fishers, they generally don’t like to kill simply for the sake of killing, and you really can’t eat tarpon without having a gag reflex.
None of this apparently mattered to a lot of people who read the piece. That’s assuming they did read the piece in its entirety (given some of the comments on my Facebook page, I have to believe a lot of people didn’t bother to read the entire article, at least not initially). Killing a tarpon was wrong in any case, they claimed. Yet when anyone, including me, pointed out that, well, anglers inadvertently kill a lot more tarpon, and that perhaps we shouldn’t throw stones.… Well, it got a little ugly. There were folks who simply denied and continue to deny the well-established fact that release mortality is significant. And there were people who claimed that they deserve no blame and that the perceived reduction in tarpon over the last two decades was simply due to habitat loss. The latter may be true; however, natural mortality due to habitat loss, plus fishing mortality, of course equals total mortality, so you really can’t point to habitat loss and say you are not responsible at all. Because you are. And, well, individually, there isn’t much we can do about habitat loss, while there are indeed steps we can take to reduce fishing mortality. I listed such steps in my article, no need to rehash here.
Moving on, there are those folks who surprisingly believe that Dr. Stein is not really using these fish for science at all. They claim his documented research is simply an excuse to allow blood-thirsty divers to shoot tarpon. Well, this is just silly. Those divers are entitled to shoot as many tarpon as they want as there are no regulations (gear type, seasons, bag/size limits) in either state or federal waters. Why on earth would they need to use Dr. Stein’s work as an excuse?!
What was perhaps most disturbing, however, were the deeply personal attacks from both sides, some of which came from supposedly unbiased scientists. Frightening given that I had always thought that marine biologists were supposed to be objective. In this case, they certainly weren’t.
The bottom line is this. Anglers more than likely kill orders of magnitude more tarpon than Louisiana spear-fishers. To deny this is intellectually dishonest, self-serving and scientifically inaccurate. I don’t like to see dead tarpon either, but given the facts, I’m certainly okay with some being killed via spear for science. And, of course I like to throw flies at tarpon just as much as anyone else. And in no way did I or would I suggest we stop. I made what I thought was a very valid point; that we probably shouldn’t throw stones at the innocents when we might be living in glass houses, because, in the end, a dead tarpon is a dead tarpon. I followed up by suggesting some things we should be focusing on rather than those fish killed for science by spear-fishers.
The point of this blog is not, however, to simply rehash that debate. It is that, unfortunately, this sort of finger-pointing has become endemic in the recreational fishing community and particularly the flyfishing community. There is often a complete denial that we have any impact, and we frequently act as if we are simply above it all, because we release most, if not all, of what we catch, and we promote conservation in our magazines, etc. Yet most of us are loath to attend a public hearing, or to otherwise actually do something constructive; instead, we just complain about “those guys”. I’m not saying that being a conservationist (e.g. releasing “keepers”, carefully handling fish, educating other anglers etc.) or that promoting conservation isn’t significant. It is! But the supposition that it’s “those guys” or even, in this case anyway, “habitat destruction” has become a distraction from doing what’s best for the fishery, which is in most cases is reducing total mortality. I touched on this during a recent striped bass blog. Such finger pointing to some extent has taken our community’s eye off the ball, and in several cases has severely reduced anglers’ credibility amongst fishery managers. I know this to be true, because I’ve sat with such managers and they’ve told me point-blank that this is the case. And we wonder why we are always being accused of being elitist, snobs, and/or why managers simply don’t listen to us.
Believe me, I’m on your team here, but we have to be real. We really need to work at thoroughly understanding the issues, provide useful solution-oriented comment, and be willing not to rule ourselves out as part of the problem, because in many fisheries we likely are! We have to remember that despite the fact that we, as anglers, may be the best stewards of the resource, that resource does not belong to us. It belongs to the public. And unfortunately, that includes the guy in Wisconsin who might want a fresh fish fillet without having to drive out here to catch it.
As anglers and conservation advocates, we have to work within the system, making compelling arguments that take all sides into account. Not simply come out, guns blazing, that these fish are ours, we don’t have an impact, and we’re more economically important or something. Unfortunately that seems to be the track most recreational opinion leaders want to take. And it isn’t working. .
The take home message here is that we can be part of the solution if we, for one, acknowledge that we may be part of the problem and two, educate ourselves on all aspects of the issue at hand, instead of shooting off with knee jerk reactions similar to the one we saw here with the speared tarpon. In the future, I’ll do my best to educate readers on what the aspects of such issues are. So stay tuned!