When you’ve been in the fishing business as long as I have, you tend to reflect on the “good days” and “special catches,” and not as much about opportunities for others to have those memorable days on the water. Without exception, every top tier fishing guide or captain that I know has something in common—they all promote fisheries conservation.
That’s because they’ve been on the water for long periods and have seen the changes in their respective fisheries. They see the things that have led to the decline in their fishing, whether that’s overharvest, fishing pressure or habitat destruction. They see, too, that the opportunities for their children, friends and families to experience that incredible beauty firsthand are limited if they don’t do something to help ensure those fish are there for the future.
It often takes year of experience on the water to realize that fish are a finite resource, and that if we don’t manage them correctly and control the harvest of some of the more popular species, they will get fished to the point of collapse. You have to be on the water all the time to see the subtle changes in the food chain, the fall in daily catches and the impacts on the environment that usually lead to poor fishing. When you spend a lifetime on the water creating memories for others, you begin to notice when they don’t happen as often, and when that takes place, less people gravitate to the sport.
The way I see fisheries management is that the average angler should be able to go fishing with a reasonable chance to catch a fish. Period. When that doesn’t happen because too many fish have been harvested, then we need to cut back on the harvest until the populations rebound. The fish will come back if you manage them correctly. We’ve seen that with redfish, snook and seatrout in Florida and in other states, striped bass in the northeast and white seabass and salmon in California, but we’ve also seen some overharvest of the species that has led to major problems in the overall populations.
One of the biggest hurdles for recreational fishermen is finding the right balance with the commercial fishing sector. Both groups want to catch fish, some of which are harvested and some of which are released. The thing we should all remember is that the general public owns the resource, so no one body of fishermen should have any control over the harvest. The fish should be governed by science and managed to produce a sustainable population that ensures the future of the fisheries.
One of the problems with that philosophy is that money and profit get in the way. The commercial fishing sector harvests fish for profit, and those fish go to feed people who don’t catch their own but still like to eat fish. The economics of the industry provide the commercial sector with great power, and when it comes to the government regulating and allocating the harvest of fish, the needle usually tips toward the hand of those who are making a living fishing.
What has always amazed me about the government’s view of fishing is that they discount how much money recreational fishing brings into the economy. Recreational fishermen spend around 15 billion dollars annually on boats, fishing tackle, tow vehicles, hotels, trailers, ice, drinks, gas and all the intangibles that go into a day on the water, not to mention the economics of charter fisheries. The simple fact is that recreational anglers outspend the commercial sector by a long shot, yet they regularly get smaller allocations of the fish. More importantly, the commercial sector is regularly allowed to harvest too many fish before the science catches up and we have to shut the recreational and commercial harvest of the species down before it collapses.
Good science is the key to avoiding all this, and it has to be a blend of what the best scientists in the industry have to say, along with the observations of recreational and commercial fishermen. When a fishery shows some initial distress, that needs to be addressed immediately, not three or four years later when the impacts of overfishing have knocked the species populations down to the point that the fisheries need severe limitations and multiple year closures to rebuild.
I’m a lifetime member of the Coastal Conservation Association, and support the IGFA, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust and a handful of other conservation organizations, and I suggest you do, too, if you want there to be good fishing opportunities for your children and grandchildren. If we don’t protect the fish populations, then we won’t be able to spend time on the water with a reasonable chance of catching a fish. When that happens, people will give up fishing and turn to other sports to spend their time and money on, and all the great memories of times on the water in the great outdoors will be just that, a memory.