Way back in 1883 an English scientist, Thomas Huxley,opened the first London Fisheries Exhibition with a speechin which he declared that
“I believe that it may be affirmed with confidence that, in relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of the most important sea fisheries, such as the cod fishery, the herring fishery, and the mackerel fishery, are inexhaustible. And I base this conviction on two grounds, first, that the multitude of these fishes is so inconceivably great that the number we catch is relatively insignificant; and, secondly, that the magnitude of the destructive agencies at work upon them is so prodigious, that the destruction effected by the fisherman cannot sensibly increase the death-rate.”
Sad experience has taught us that he was very, very wrong.
But his way of thinking, as wrong as it is, is still very much alive.
That became apparent last week when I, along with another 200 or so anglers, attended the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s hearing on Addendum IV to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan.
The striped bass stock has been steadily declining.
Addendum IV was drafted to impose new catch restrictions that will hopefully stem the decline. We all came out to make sure that it did.
I looked out across the packed theater, and I saw a lot of good folks that I knew, dedicated striped bass fishermen and conservationists who I have worked with, on various issues, for more than twenty years. And then there were the folks who I didn’t know, some gray-haired and sun-dried veterans, others a little younger, all looking for their first big fight in defense of what we all knew was an all-too-fragile resource.
But we were not alone.
Scattered throughout the crowd were other veterans of the striper wars, folks that I knew all too well. They, too, were gray-haired and sun-blasted, their faces familiar from dozens of hearings and meetings spread out over maybe two dozen years.
But unlike the rest of us, they weren’t there for the striper.
Or, more properly, they were there for the bass, for as many of the bass as they could kill, in person or by proxy, for so long as the killing might last.
Most were from Montauk, although other ports were also represented. They were professional captains, who ran “six-pack” charters and party boats; most, if not all, also held commercial licenses and were allowed to sell bass (although not, if regulations are followed, bass caught when they were carrying passengers for hire).
To them, striped bass mean money, and not a lot else; conservation is never high on their agendas.
Like Huxley, they seem to believe that marine resources are inexhaustible, and that, no matter how many bass they kill, more will always take their place.
The Fisherman magazine had reporters at Stony Brook, and interviewed various stakeholders after the meeting. The resultant tape shows the clear split in folks’ opinions.
While anglers and light-tackle guides were unanimous in their support of harvest cuts, the bigger for-hire boats opposed the management plan’s requirement that fishing mortality be reduced within just one year.
Paul Forsberg, owner of the Montauk-based Viking Fleet of party boats, denied that there was any problem at all, saying
“Nobody mentioned that fish have tails. They move around…It’s not like they’re overfished. I don’t believe that at all. The striped bass, there’s plenty of them around.”
Apparently, he disagrees with the conclusion of the recent peer-reviewed stock assessment, which came to a very different conclusion.
One of his colleagues, Joe McBride, representing the Montauk Boatmen’s and Captains’ Association, made an equally fatuous argument, saying that for-hire boats need to kill more fish because they carry people who only fish a few times a year, while surfcasters and private boat anglers can fish every day, and can thus kill fourteen bass every week.
Of course, he never mentioned the very big difference between “can” and “do”; the number of anglers who kill that number of fish can readily be counted on the fingers of a double amputee’s hands. Nor did he acknowledge that there is a very big segment of the striped bass fishing community that doesn’t kill as many bass in a year as one of his customers may legally take in a one trip.
But to be fair, it’s very possible that the Forsbergs and McBrides of this world really can’t wrap their minds around the concept that a person might go striper fishing just for fun, and not to kill bass or make money.
It’s just too far outside their personal frames of reference.
Back in ’95, when the striped bass stock was first declared recovered, most of the bass fishermen on Long Island wanted to keep the size limit at one fish and the bag limit at 36 inches. The general philosophy was that if such rules were good enough to nurse the stock back to health, they were good enough to keep it healthy, too. Anglers weren’t particularly interested in killing more fish.
But the Montauk crowd, along with boats from Captree and Huntington and Sheepshead Bay, insisted that they “needed” to kill more and smaller stripers, saying that their customers wanted to take dead fish home, and wouldn’t go fishing if they couldn’t kill bass.
And the State of New York, not wanting to hurt anyone’s business, rewarded for-hires with two 28-inch fish.
That made them happy—for a while.
And then, about a dozen years later, at a meeting of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council, a representative if the Montauk boats came up with a little different story.
The boys from Montauk wanted relief from the regulation that prohibited them from selling any striped bass caught by their customers.
Apparently, a lot of their customers were tourists who stayed at Montauk hotels, had no way to keep or cook their catch, and really didn’t “need” to kill any fish at all. The old salts apparently wanted to do their fares a favor, and help them avoid the trauma of releasing their catch, by taking the unwanted fish off their hands and putting them up for sale. The Montauk captains would also be willing to sell any bass their fares caught that measured between 24 and 28 inches in length, fish big enough to be legally sold commercially, but smaller than an angler might keep.
The idea of just letting fish go, and conserving the stock, never seems to enter their mind.
That’s something I’ve noticed for quite a long time.
But lately, I’m noticing something else.
These guys are all old.
The young ones are my age.
The old ones are…older. They come up to the microphone slowly these days, and their voices can catch on their words. They say the same things that they’ve been saying for years, but these days, at least for some of them, the old vehemence is gone.
As I sat in my chair at the Stony Brook meeting, I started getting the feeling that they knew they were wrong, but just said the old words out of habit. There was a lack of…call it confidence..in too many voices to think anything else.
Because the winds of eternity never stop blowing, and we all turn to dust in the end.
Could it be that they’re feeling the breezes, and want to leave more than nothing behind?
For when you look behind them, you realize that nobody follows.
There are plenty of younger captains, but they have mostly rejected Huxley’s beliefs. Some came of age in the hard times, and know how bad things can be. The others have heard all of their fathers’ old talkes, and don’t want to see hard times themselves.
The great hope for the future of our fish and our fishermen is that the next generation seems, by and large, determined not to make their elders’ mistakes.
They probably never even heard of Thomas Huxley.
Even so, they know he was wrong.