Overview - Sport Fishing

I grew up in Washington State in the heart of salmon and steelhead country and have been a fishing fool since the age of 8. My earliest and best memories are of time on the water wish my dad and grandpa plying the waters of the Pacific Northwest for salmon, steelhead, sea-run cutthroat and whatever other treasures awaited me in the deepest depths of Puget Sound. To this day, I barely remember my first date or even my first kiss. I do however remember with vivid and loving clarity my first steelhead, my first really big hooknose silver salmon, my first rockfish, and the first time I brought a summer run steelhead to a fly on the N.F. Stillaguamish River. It is these memories, these times, which more than any other shaped me as a man. Over the years I have watched with my heart breaking inside of me as the salmon and steelhead runs of this great region have dwindled to a mere shadow of their former selves. I have spent many hours wrestling

There are many reasons for the decline of fish populations—habitat destruction due to industry and property development, pollution, and of course, overharvest—reasons many people would like to avoid facing. One of the saddest realities suffered by those who love these fish as I do, is the daily recognition of how vulnerable they are to greed and self centeredness on the part of all interest groups that benefit from them, and how prone these groups are to blaming others and rationalizing their own behavior. Non-native commercial fisherman blame native fishermen, native fishermen blame them right back, sportsmen blame both, so does industry, and property owners blame all—everyone it seems, blames everyone else except themselves. While there is no disputing the fact that each of these interest groups have had numerous and large impacts on fish runs and their complaints about each other are largely valid, the question of one's own responsibility still remains—and remains despite attempts to divert attention away from it. Whether we accept or reject our own responsibilities defines us and men and women who are part of the problem, or part of the solution, and defines whether or not we have a moral right to criticize others for their abuses.

As a sportsman, I am particularly concerned with these issues within my own community of other sportsmen. Many sporting groups have done much for fish and game. Groups like Trout Unlimited and the Northwest Fly-fishers have been active in a wide range of conservation efforts such as habitat restoration, the implementation of quality fisheries, the encouragement of catch and release, and legal advocacy for fish and game protection. Science plays a significant role in such activities. In fact, in the United States it was sportsmen who launched the first true conservation efforts, long before the modern environmental movement appeared on the scene. Roderick Haig-Brown, one of sportfishing's greatest writers and conservation champions, was arguing forcefully for habitat preservation and catch and release fisheries as early as World War II, and organizations like the Northwest Fly-fishers were fighting for conservation protections for the N.F. Stillaguamish watershed and the unique Deer Creek wild steelhead run before any environmental organization recognized the need. It is because of the dedication of these sportsmen that the N.F. Stilly today enjoys the protections of Fly Fishing Only regulations during the summer season—one of the few remaining protections this watershed still has.

But many other "sportsmen’s" groups seem more concerned with whether or not their seasons and bag limits are going to be restricted and how much of the responsibility for the problem can be shifted to others. Such groups have been vehemently and at times even viciously opposed to most conservation efforts. There are a variety of reasons for this. Many of these sportsmen, particularly those from rural areas, tend towards conservative and ultra-conservative views, and as such tend to distrust any and all environmentalism. Part of this is because the modern environmental movement can more or less be traced to the 60's—a period usually associated with social and political trends most conservatives find offensive. To at least this extent, the reactions are mostly knee-jerk.

But beyond that, many sportsmen place a high value on an ethic of "living off the land" and freedom from governmental constraints, particularly those regarding private property. Those with these values place a great deal of symbolic importance on the right to bring home a day's kill without having to be burdened by larger constraints, and they tend to resent bag limits and seasonal restrictions, which they feel are often unduly limiting. Those that own property on rivers and streams may also resent the idea that the lake and stream habitat on their property is necessary for the survival of fish, leaving them responsible for maintaining it. As such, they do not want to believe that hatcheries alone cannot fully replace losses from harvest and habitat destruction and they resent the substantial scientific knowledge base that says they cannot.

Whatever the reason, such "sportsmen" are more concerned with their "right" to hunt and fish whenever they please without having to be burdened with any responsibility for fish and game conservation. These groups have made many valid points regarding the abuses of commercial fisheries, but their recalcitrance in other areas and their frequent refusal to embrace the science of fisheries ecology seriously damages their larger credibility, particularly in comparison to the many sportsmen who are active in legitimate science based conservation efforts. Fortunately, there are still many true sportsmen—men and women who care more about the future of fish populations than simply filling their own freezers at the expense of others. Yet sadly mutual misunderstandings between these sportsmen and environmentalists have prevented them from working together—in no small part because true sportsmen are seldom as loud—or as demanding—as the freezer filling hook-and-bullet crowd and are often confused with them. If these groups would only get to know each other and unite, they would make a powerful lobby.

Few fish inspire as much awe as salmon and steelhead, and fewer still are in as much trouble due to careless management. They are of critical importance to Pacific Coast watersheds and ecosystems, and the economies they support. But their real value is in their beauty, fierceness, and in what they have to teach us about ourselves and our Maker. It's no exaggeration to say that encounters with these magnificent creatures taught me more about manhood, wholeness, and the value of the natural world than anything else in my life.

But the degree to which they are misunderstood, and taken for granted is staggering. In recent years their numbers have plummeted from their historic levels due to a wide range of factors including open ocean conditions, habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing, dams and real estate development. More than $1 billion has been spent to improve salmon runs, and still populations decline. Most of this money is spent on superficial fixes that avoid stepping on the toes of special interests, but do not address the real problems. Many proposals to save salmon have been made, some more effective than others—timber harvest restrictions, dam removal, fishing restrictions, pesticide regulation, the Endangered Species Act, and others. Of these, the most promising are the ones that aim to preserve the genetic viability of salmon populations, as these insure a base for natural selection from which healthy runs can be sustained though any and all natural or man-made disasters. These however, involve protecting salmon spawning habitat, watershed erosion control, and river water—all of which step on the toes of the special interest groups with other agendas.

Timber and property rights interests in particular have been strident in their opposition to salmon recovery—the financial impacts of timber harvest and land-use restrictions being their one and only true priority. A great deal of opposition has also come from fishermen, including sport fishermen. Over the years these groups have mounted countless legal, lobbying, and public relations efforts to stop salmon recovery plans. Few of these involve science in anything other than a token or severely distorted manner. That sportsmen, of all people on this earth, would actually be opposed to salmon recovery is almost beyond belief. True sportsmen are not of course and fortunately, their numbers are growing. But there remain legions of so-called "sportsmen" who refuse to accept these responsibilities. The reason? Why, bag limits, of course! Many Pacific Northwest anglers simply cannot enjoy a day on the water without feeding their hunter-gatherer instincts by killing something. To this fillet-and-release crowd, the thought of having to curtail harvest is too much to bear. And if there are no salmon a generation from now? Well... it was unavoidable and besides, it’s' their kids' problem not theirs.

Timber, hydropower, property rights, meat fishermen. Whatever their treasure, these people all have one thing in common - a desire for salmon "recovery" that doesn't cost them anything. This could be achieved - if only there was a way to generate salmon at higher rates than they are being destroyed by the activities these interests really treasure. Which brings us to the overwhelmingly favored alternative....

Hatcheries! That's it! We're wiping them out at unprecedented rates? So what! We'll just mass produce them like beer bottle caps. They'll always be here and we can keep helping ourselves to whatever we want without worry or responsibility. It works for Coors, it can work for us too. This is the piece of the True Cross we've been looking for!

But of course, this doesn't keep the usual property rights, timber, and fillet-and-release sporting lobbies from loudly insisting on Salvation-By Hatchery. At times, defense of the Hatchery religion even approaches confrontational hysteria, as is demonstrated by Jim Buchal, a Portland, OR based lawyer who represents timber, hydropower, and property rights interests. In addition to his lobbying efforts, Buchal is also the author of "The Great Salmon Hoax". First published in 1999, this has been the seminal work behind Far-Right fisheries pseudoscience and the doctrinal Bible for the interests Buchal represents. In this sense, it serves the same purpose for these groups that anti-evolutionary literature does for Biblical literalists. This page links much of the science that demonstrates the need for wild salmon populations. The 1996 National Research Council book "Upstream" spends a fair amount of time on it and is a great place to start. Other papers presented give specific case studies of hatchery impacts on genetic diversity as well.

The issue is now more important than ever, as the ascendancy of the Bush Administration has given control of the White House and large portions of Congress to lawmakers to the Far-Right, who naturally are more interested in the pseudoscience needed by their benefactors. Unless science is allowed to have the final word, the future of salmon and steelhead will be bleak indeed.

There is no reason why commercial fishing cannot continue to be the valuable and tradition-rich industry that is has been for centuries. However, in the absence of foresight and reasonable restraint on the part of many in the industry, and the various national and international government agencies which oversee them, it now overharvests most global fisheries and threatens the very survival of many fish stocks—and many commercial fishermen, politicians, and industry representatives have been stridently unwilling to acknowledge these threats. Commercial fishing often has impacts that go far beyond the mere harvesting of targeted fish. In addition to bycatch, fishing methods such as otter trawling frequently inflict lasting damage on marine habitats that can impact their fecundity and threaten the existence of the species they support. Overharvest, driven by short-term economic considerations is also a major factor in declining fish populations.

Despite shrill protests to the contrary by commercial fishing interests (and a few sportsmen's groups who want their own harvest quotas protected), general overharvesting is still the largest factor in fisheries declines worldwide. This is particularly true of groundfish populations. I have personally witnessed entire stocks of Puget Sound rockfish wiped out, never to return, right here in my home state of Washington. In at least one case near my childhood summer cabin, I observed this to happen literally in one single afternoon. In the mid to late 70's, just about the time I finished high school, a fishing boat came into a bay in Saratoga Passage near my home on the west side of Camano Island and netted a rockfish hole I had been fishing since early childhood. The entire population was taken in one afternoon. To this day, as far as I can determine even after 25 years, that hole never again produced another rockfish for me or anyone else.

Thoughtless overharvesting like this raises many questions—of values as well as science. Fisheries suffer in large part because of the differing values of those who use the resource. No doubt, the individuals who cleaned out the rockfish hole near my childhood home were happy with the short-term profits they made the following week. If challenged, they would undoubtedly say they were "just doing my job" or "just trying to feed my family". But while no one would fault them for doing either, the question of their responsibility for the impacts of their actions on others still remains, as does the future of the very profession by which they claim to feed their families.

Indeed, since the day of that overharvest, many others just like it have been practiced around the world by others with many of the same rationalizations, and today fisheries worldwide and the economies that depend on them are suffering. Including the groundfish fishery in Washington State and the rockfish hole these thoughtless people cleaned out. And we haven't even mentioned yet the loss to humanity of the gift of bountiful fisheries, the lessons they have to teach, and all the joy they bring to those who seek them—my best childhood memories are of time on the water with my dad catching salmon and steelhead... and rockfish! Whether commercial, and some sportfishermen are willing to admit it our not, there are consequences for short-term greed, self-centeredness, and a defiant unwillingness to assume responsibility for conservation—consequences for all of us.


Page:      1      
Managing Our Impact
Sustainable Communities
World Population
Fossil Fuels
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Commercial Fisheries
Sport Fishing
Policy & Advocacy
Christianity & the Environment
Climate Change
Global Warming Skeptics
The Web of Life
Caring for our Communities
The Far-Right
Ted Williams Archive