The Road Once Taken

Posted on April 28, 2014 by Ted Venker

Imagine how different duck hunting would look today if 100 years ago the federal government had taken a page out of the current NOAA Fisheries playbook and decided to embrace and enhance the market hunters.

As the 100-pound barrels of birds rolled out of the Chesapeake, the Outer Banks and the  Mississippi oxbows in the early 1900s, it would not be hard to imagine a bureaucrat deciding that the market hunters were providing a valuable source of “Protein for America”, a term of propaganda we hear so often today. It is much easier to understand how one could come to that conclusion in 1903 than it is today, when only thoroughly undeveloped countries are forced to exploit their wild natural resources to the fullest to feed their people.

Imagine if, instead of passing the 1916 Convention for the Protection of Migratory Game Birds in the United States and Canada, Congress passed the 1916 Convention for the Implementation of Harvest Share Management for Commercial Harvest of Migratory Birds in the United States and Canada, which would cement commercial duck hunting into existence forever. The market hunters who had best used the technology and tactics of the day – punt guns and the new “man-portable” shotguns, and night hunting with bright lanterns with polished steel reflectors and the liberal use of corn as bait – would have been awarded ownership rights for the largest percentages of the duck harvest based on their harvest history. For absolutely free.

Given their unmanaged harvest at the time, the commercial hunters would have surely been given the vast majority of the allocation of ducks over the “sports.” They would have traded their shares amongst themselves and consolidated over the decades. They would have leased out their ducks to other market hunters to harvest for them so they didn’t have to work so hard. They would be held up as a model of proper management, because they would know, to the bird, exactly how many ducks had been harvested at any time. The nation’s five-star restaurants would have enjoyed a dependable supply of fresh duck and the food supply would be that much more secure. The original shareholders’ descendants today, probably no more than a handful, would proudly sell $25/pound duck breast in grocery stores to Americans and export it to consumers all around the globe.

Of course, given that scenario, the 1929 Migratory Bird Conservation Act would not have passed, so funds raised from the Duck Stamp would not have been available to provide for habitat acquisition. Since the market hunters were not asked to pay for their initial shares or pay resource rent or even pay enough fees to manage their own harvest share program, some other source of funding would have to be found to care for the resource. With the majority of the resource reserved for well-established duck houses, the recreational season would be miniscule and participation would be a fraction of what it is today. Millions that could have been used for wetland conservation would have never materialized. 

The result would be a very different world for duck hunters if the country had taken that road in the early 1900s. Instead of being held up as the shining example of the sportsmen’s conservation ethic, duck hunters would likely find themselves cast as second-rate citizens in their management arena. Their harvest would be declared “unaccountable” by the commercial duck houses and industrial duck processors; their economic potential disputed and minimized; their arguments for updating the allocation of ducks that was set in 1916 would be declared “greedy” and “irresponsible.”

The federal bureaucrats in charge of the commercial duck industry would find it ever so much easier to do their jobs by catering to the duck houses. Having never seen a well-managed recreational duck sector they could not even imagine its potential. Comfortable dealing with just a handful of duck houses, they would be virtually terrified at the chaos of recreational duck hunting. It would be beyond their ability to conceive of a recreational sector as an economic powerhouse, committed to conservation, and willing to pay for every facet of duck management.

The bureaucrats would cling to their tried-and-true methods of simply counting every duck harvested, and point to the tremendous success of their management program. The duck houses would reassure them at every step that it was the best possible way to ensure that everyone who wants a canvasback sandwich could have one. They just have to buy it.

Thank goodness people like Theodore Roosevelt, Ding Darling and George Grinnell steered the debate in a completely different direction. Unfortunately, the scenario described above, which is laughable and unthinkable to duck hunters today, isn’t imaginary for the nation’s marine recreational anglers. The rules of federal fisheries management and the gifting of catch shares for marine resources like red snapper and grouper in the Gulf of Mexico may produce expensive filets for a few and millions of dollars for even fewer harvesters…but at what price for the nation?

Whenever you hear or read of someone extolling the virtues of current federal fisheries management and the brilliance of catch share systems, ask them to imagine what recreational fisheries could be like if they were on a different road…a road once taken.