Don’t believe the hype… Conservationists/environmentalists are the good-guys.

I suppose it’s nothing new these days for the fishing community to blame all their troubles on environmentalists, but indeed the intensity of the blame-game has been ramped up in recent years. “Radicals”, “extremists”, “socialists”, “elitists”, “antis” etc… You know… Those people who want to “end all fishing.” Recently, some folks have gone so far to claim that the environmental community is really part of a grand conspiracy by “Big Oil” to abolish all fishing so it can drill wherever and whenever it wants. If would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic.

For too long, fishermen harvesting marine resources exhibited very little restraint, and refused to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It is far easier to place blame elsewhere: “The data isn’t reliable”, “there’s too much development” and “there’s too much pollution…” While such claims contain some truth, they do not justify continued overfishing. When fish populations face stress from changing climate, pollution, habitat loss or other factors, it’s plain stupidity to continue to catch them faster than they can reproduce, yet fishermen routinely point their fingers at such problems, and try to use them as excuses for overfishing collapsed stocks (e.g. New England winter flounder and Gulf and South Atlantic red snapper). Really, such additional stresses should be addressed by reducing harvest, for while many factors can contribute to a stock’s decline, fishing is the only factor that managers can realistically affect enough to promote a recovery.

Fishing is clearly part of the problem, and it’s a part we can solve. And this is exactly what the fish-focused environmental and conservation NGOs are trying to do. The fact of the matter is that these groups exist because of the historic lack of foresight in the industry-dominated management system. History is pretty clear in showing that such a system doesn’t work.

Since the late 1970s, the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act gave fishermen substantial authority to manage their own fisheries through a Regional Council System. On the whole, they failed, producing management plans that put a lot more emphasis on protecting short-term jobs rather than fish. With few exceptions, Councils dominated by commercial and recreational industry interests have historically done everything they can to maximize harvest, even in the face of stocks that are declining or not rebuilding.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has always had the power to overrule the Councils, but has only begun to exercise it in recent years, after NGOs won the landmark lawsuit National Resources Defense Council v. Daley. The decision in that action required NMFS to adopt fishery management plans that had at least a 50% chance of success; previously, “rebuilding” plans far more likely to fail than succeed were routinely implemented. Even after the court decision, the fishing community goes berserk every time new catch restrictions are even mentioned, and too many management plans still represent the Councils’ creative efforts to maintain high harvest levels while appearing to comply with the strict requirements of the law.

Politicians with fishing communities in their districts add greatly to the problem, putting pressure on NMFS and pulling strings behind the scenes to avoid the unfortunate but necessary short term pain that is required to rebuild stocks. They use the promise of short-term economic benefits to buy their constituents votes, and in doing so doom the fishing communities that they purport to protect to a long, slow, painful death. Northeastern congressmen are masters of the dance, earning high praise from the environmental community for blocking oil drilling in Alaska and restricting mining in the Rockies, and thus earning a pass when they clear the way for their constituents continued destruction of fish stocks in the north Atlantic.

While there are some fisherman who do care tremendously about the resource, their voices are lost in the tumultuous debate when the tough decisions need to be made that will cost jobs. At such times, when the livelihoods of their friends and neighbors are on the line, even such folks will reject conservation provisions in favor of continued exploitation. The fabled culture of brave hardworking fishermen seems to have devolved into a one that places its highest vales on continuing overfishing and resisting any meaningful change.

Whether we consider the commercial or the recreational sector, it has become quite clear that an industry that profits from the harvest of a public resource is not capable of self-regulation.

And that leads us to the recent Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council appointments. A few weeks ago three folks with ties to the environmental community were appointed to the Council. Fishing industry reaction was predictable. “Through policy and appointments, the Obama Administration is advancing an anti-fishing agenda consistent with groups like Pew, Environmental Defense Fund, Ocean Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Marine Fish Conservation Network,” said Jim Hutchinson, Jr., Managing Director of the New Jersey-based Recreational Fishing Alliance.

That’s pretty funny. I know two out of the three folks who were appointed… because I’ve fished with them! Both of those folks are avid anglers and I’m told the third one, whom I’ve yet to meet, is as well. One appointee, Steve Schafer, is actually the Director of Retail Operations for Wild Edibles, a seafood market in NYC. Does that sound like someone who would advocate an “anti-fishing” agenda?

Yes, the new Council Appointees do have ties to the environmental community. So what? This is a good thing. In the interests of full disclosure, I have ties to the environmental community as well. Regular Reel-Time readers know that I work full time for the Norcross Wildlife Foundation, running their grants program, which provides equipment grants for folks working to protect marine fish and their habitat. I’ve even done some consulting work for EDF! Yet I also run a profitable charter fishing business, and am an active recreational fisherman even when I’m not guiding anglers. I see the two careers as complimentary, as my business relies on sustainable resources. (Frankly, I’m a little offended that these folks didn’t make such a ruckus when I was appointed to the Mid Atlantic Council!)

Getting back to the point, it looks as if more and more folks who call themselves environmentalists or conservationists are clawing their way into the fishery management world, whether it’s though the Council appointment process or though their advocacy efforts. The reality is that such folks are being brought into the fisheries management fold by necessity. And it’s a good thing, because we need such people to balance the Councils.

With the continued over-exploitation of ocean resources, and the resulting collateral damage to fishing communities, the public has begun to take notice. The shift we’re seeing now represents the People, not just “environmentalists”, seeking to represent the public interest in the public policy decision-making that takes place at the Councils. Such folks are coming off the bench to assert the public’s rights as owners of ocean resources, which has too long been subordinated to the industries’ private economic interests. If the fishermen had been able to set aside their self-interest, and represent the public instead of themselves, when making Council decisions, we wouldn’t see the environmental/conservation community taking such an active role.

There’s no doubt about it in my mind that “environmentalists”, “conservationists” or whatever you want to call them are the good guys here. They aren’t trying to shut down fishing; they’re trying to put fisheries management on the right track so that commercial and recreational fisheries exist well into the future. You can’t have fisheries without fish. The real “anti-fishing” groups, are the industry representatives who demean managers, attack the NGOs and dismiss the science in their selfish attempt to catch as many fish as they can today, and your kids and your grandkids be damned…

Tougher fishery management provisions were incorporated into the Magnuson Act in 2006 and councils are now struggling to implement them. We now have a NOAA Administrator in place that seems quite serious about stopping overfishing. Things are changing. The pro-exploitation crowd is going to kick their feet, throw a tantrum and call everybody names. But are we in danger of having those scary “radical environmentalists” and “anti-fishing” folks end fishing? No way… It won’t happen. The People won’t stand for it. Recreational fishing will continue. Commercial fishing will continue. But we will move toward a system where we catch what is reasonable, and leave a few in the water for tomorrow—which is really nothing more than the ethic that our fathers or our grandfathers taught us when we first wet a line. That means stopping overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks, using science to make conservation decisions, and managing with more precaution. We are all stakeholders in ocean policy, it’s not reserved just for those folks who profit from a public resource… and that’s the way it should be.



After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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  1. My 2 cents…I hope I don’t make too many people mad!

    I don’t think that recreational fisherman have a problem with limiting harvest, however they do not like commercial fisherman getting the larger percentage of harvest…it doesn’t make sense to me either…there are way more recreational anglers than commercial…and if you are too much of a city slicker to know how to fish or want to fish for yourself you shouldn’t have the ultimate right to have someone else mass harvest them for you…heck…learn how to use a rod and reel if you want to eat fish! As with politics anything with money attached can influence the bending of laws, I see this problem on the water a lot…so now the commercial guys are taking even more of their already larger percentage. I tell you what…the sale of redfish and speckled Trout got stopped…I would not like to be in the business of catching any fish in large scale (who stocks are tough to maintain) that the recreationalist like to target…that is just common sense…that is why I stopped doing Snapper trips over five years ago…considering the huge group of people that represent recreational anglers and the much smaller group benefitting from the commercial mass harvest side I AM amazed with how long it has taken to shutdown some fisheries to commercial fishing and/or recreational fishing…but then again somebody in politics is benefitting financially somewhere! It just makes sense to go to a fair chase method of fishing PERIOD for fish that are showing signs of depletion…if it still gets worse then ban all fishing!

  2. avatar Henry Hauch says:

    Being in the fishing business (Offshore Florida Charter Fishing), I can firsthand tell
    you that the Red Snapper issue is more politics than science. I as well as most Anglers that fish these waters (covered by SAFMC) have never been contacted by the SAFMC or your PEW foundation which you support. The NOAA dierctor, and her appointment of her
    commerece director both being PEW members is certainly a conflict of interest, which
    answers many of the questions raised by the Anglers involved.

    WHY does it have to be an “All or Nothing” solution to this matter? Closing all bottom fishing, so as to threthen tens of thousands of working class jobs (Yes these are real people’s lives, not just ‘tough decisions’, and ‘short term econimic considerations’), was not needed to bring Red Snapper in the Gulf, from a “dire” situation, to what I and thousands of others have personally witnessed as a “Nusience Fish” because of their over abundance. So why are the PEW and SAFMC willing to ‘Sacrifice’ these current Generation(s) for some down the
    raod future generation? What makes the current generations so less worthy of surrorting their families and putting a roof over their head?

    You fish in the NE, where this fishery is not an issue. As such I would speculate that
    you have not come down and personally involved yourself with those that are involved, and who’s lives are affected by these decisions which you support. You may employ ‘catch and release’, but what is being proposed and supported by PEW is NO FISHING..Period! We
    would not have the option to run sport fishing charters even as ‘catch and release’. Maybe PEW did not explain this to its supporters, nor that literalls tens of thousands of people would end up out of work!

    Mismanagement has ked to many problems, but the SAFMC recently showed it’s true face, and ultimate support for PEW and it’s funding of the studies to support their cause. When mortality rates were claimed as a reason to support closing ALL bottom fishing, the manditory use of circle hooks was brought up as a sucess in the Gulf of Mexoco, and sugessted that same for the Atlantic. The SAFMC however suddenly removed this from the rule which requires Venting tools and De-Hooking devices to be used. There can be only one reason for this given the overwhelming evidence of circle hook use minimizing mortality.
    I use them for amm bottom fising, and a lot of trolling. The use of circle hooks would not support the PEW’s contention that high mortality rated mean that all fishing must be stopped to allow a 15 to 35 YEAR rebuilding to take place. Even the motality studies claimed of standard mustard hooks is beyond what science really supports, but circle hook use would cut it to levels not supporting their agenda.

    What is a rule telling you that No Fishing will be permitted in your area for 15 to 35 years. What would you do for a lliving? What about the thousands of others that fish both for a living and recreational in your area, what would they do? Your support of PEW, may someday come to this very issue. If you have not investigated both sides of the actual issue at hand, and not just the “enviormental” controversy, then I suggest that before throwing you support on one side or another, you actually get involved with the real people that are involved daily in this. Now one from PEW or the SAFMC has ever contacted me or any or the other fisherman, both commercial and recreational I know, nor have I heard any reports of such.

    Fisheries management can take place without eliminating the fisherman. The MSA has
    fundimental flaws, despite a “good” premis. This act does nothing to consider the effect on peoples lives that depend upon the fisheries. Humans are also part of the enviorment, and to make rules to protect one spesis, that has a dramatic and negative impact on another, is not sound enviormental stewardship, yet this is exactly what is being proposed by your
    PEW foundation. Again, it does not have to be all or nothing, and the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper stock has demonstrated.

    The fact that the data being used to support this proposal was funded in large part by PEW, the fact that the Acting director of NOAA and the Commerce department which sign’s off on these rules are PEW members, and perhaps most importantly the fact that the Actual conditions in the water as observed by the ones that are their daily, do not support the PEW’s
    studies (SEDAR), show that this proposal is not in the best interest of all involved, including “future generations” and perhaps the fisheries itself. Without firsthand involvment
    by those making the proposals, and those supporting their agenda, their is no basis for any justification to implement such rules. Without developing a plan to sustain the fisherman along with the fisheries, in any proposal, the “EXTREME” enviormentilist agenda has come forth. If you take the fisherman out of the fisheries, you will be left with an aquarium! This may be fine for those that have no interest in fishing, don’t like to eat fish (at least Non-Imported), and those that do not feed and provided shelter by means of fishing related businesses, but for the majority of this countries citizens that’s not the case.

    ACME Ventures LLC

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