Industrial harvest of wildlife resources is a concept so foreign to Americans that a large percentage of the public would probably assume the practice no longer goes on anywhere in this country. Indeed, the very idea seems as much a part of history as grainy images of buffalo hunters in the Old West.
States began to eliminate the commercial exploitation of wild resources beginning early in the 19th century. The federal government stepped in to prevent the commercial harvest of ducks, geese and buffalo. The commercial take of deer, elk, quail, pheasant, wild turkeys, bass, sturgeon and trout was eliminated in favor of conservation and providing increased public access to public resources. As an unexpected but welcome bonus, governments quickly realized that doing so brought the highest economic return in the form of revenue and taxes.
Ultimately, the decision to outlaw the industrial harvest of wildlife was driven by a simple truth – commercial activity places a dollar value on a wild animal which all too often drives harvest past sustainable levels. Fortunately, such commercial harvest was recognized as an unsustainable activity and relegated to a historical footnote in this country many decades ago.
With one glaring exception.
The lessons learned on land and in our nation’s freshwaters so many years ago were somehow forgotten when it came to industrial harvest of marine resources. Governments that recognized the inevitable downward spiral associated with commercial harvest of ducks, bison or native trout were somehow unwilling or unable to recognize the same factors at work in the oceans.
The conservation movement championed by Teddy Roosevelt and embraced by millions of hunters and freshwater anglers was stopped at the ocean’s edge, where a federal agency once officially labeled the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was given sole authority to manage wild resources for the maximum benefit of commercial harvesters.
To be fair, it was once thought that the ocean’s resources were limitless, that man was incapable of harming marine fisheries. That belief, widely held and often repeated by commercial advocates even in the late 20th century, was shattered by the collapse of stock after stock, including New England groundfish, billfish, striped bass and red drum.
There has been no policy at the state or federal level to perpetuate the commercial exploitation of freshwater fish or terrestrial game since the 1800s, yet saltwater anglers still find themselves grappling with federal policies intended to support economically marginal commercial fleets that use remarkably destructive gear to harvest increasingly stressed marine resources.
The incredible disparity between management of land-based wild resources and those in the marine environment was the reason for the creation of Coastal Conservation Association (CCA).
For more than 30 years, CCA has attempted to implement actions to improve the health of the nation’s marine fisheries resources, much like duck hunters (see Charlie Witek’s article on the Pioneers of Wildlife Management on page --) and trout fishermen have done have done so successfully for their inland resources. In many cases, CCA has focused on state fisheries and targeted the elimination of harmful gear, including gillnets, fish traps and longlines. Our members have also successfully promoted conservation through the use of gamefish designations for a number of species in different states.
Such concentrated effort in state waters has resulted in a significant curtailment of commercial fisheries, an increase in abundance of the resources and significant economic benefits to the states.
It has been a different story in federal waters, where the government has historically encouraged the exploitation of marine resources, supporting existing commercial fisheries while encouraging the development of new ones. Millions of federal dollars have been spent to subsidize economically marginal fisheries that could not survive in the free market, even if the cost of such support exceeds the value of the product landed.
The management concepts that have worked so well on land and, to large extent, in state waters are strangely ignored by federal managers. Instead, managers turn to ploys such as individual fishing quotas (IFQs), bailouts in the guise of “disaster relief” for commercial fishermen and processors, partial buyouts of fisheries, cooperative research programs used to support commercial fisheries, static allocations based on outdated catch data, and a mulish insistence on exploiting the resource at maximum harvest levels.
Such efforts to sustain commercial fisheries have consistently failed, and offer little promise at a time when the U.S. population is moving to coastal areas in droves and significantly increasing its use of the oceans and marine resources. At a time when more people than ever are looking to the oceans for recreation, federal philosophy is to lock-in antiquated and inefficient allocations to the commercial sector.
CCA has traditionally pushed for policies that would enhance the management and the health of fisheries. In many cases we have accepted and even promoted stringent regulations in order to bring about the recovery of a species out of the belief that if the fish stocks are healthy, everyone will benefit. That philosophy works on a level playing field. However, it has become increasingly apparent that the playing field is not level. It has become increasingly apparent that recreational anglers need a new philosophy for wild resource management.
Saltwater anglers need to adopt the management concepts that were embraced on land more than a century ago. The sportsman’s ethic that is so prevalent in terrestrial wildlife management should be fostered in federal marine fisheries management as well.
Anglers must engage in an extensive public education campaign, build effective coalitions, reduce the commercial fishery, expand our abilities to initiate research and science, and embrace the use of economics to determine the impact of various federal management decisions on recreational fisheries.
No change in federal policy is likely to result in the elimination of commercial fishing in the United States, nor eliminate the consumption of seafood by US consumers. However, fisheries managers must seek to utilize limited marine resources in a manner that provides the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people.
The current chaos of federal fisheries management is simply proof that it is time to bring the conservation ethic that has governed terrestrial resource management since the 19th century to marine resource management in the 21st century. The trail has already been blazed by men like Teddy Roosevelt, J. N. “Ding” Darling and Aldo Leopold. Federal managers just need to follow it.