(Author's note: An abbreviated version of this article appears in the September issue of B.A.S.S. Times. Here it will appear as two parts. Then I'll post my related opinion piece about anglers' rights being under assault.)
An anti-fishing message is immortalized at the new Miami Marlins baseball stadium.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) paid for a personalized paving stone in the East Plaza that reads as follows:
“Florida Is Still Hosting Incredible Night Games. Help Us Reach The Stars. Cheer Our Marlins!”
Unfortunately, in approving the inscription, Miami Marlin officials failed to notice that the first letter of each word spells out “FishingHurts.com,” a PETA website and an anti-fishing message.
Though the strategy for placing it might seem juvenile and the number of people that it affects minimal, the message typifies the relentless nature of PETA and other groups that want to end angling.
Over the years, they’ve also called for bans on recreational fishing in state parks and a Constitutional amendment protecting fish. While wearing a fish suit, a PETA member once picketed the Bassmaster Classic, earning points for bravery but not winning any supporters.
Likely their views never will reflect the majority opinion in this country, but as our society grows more urbanized, they will wield more influence, possibly even enough to shape public policy regarding management of fisheries.
With recreational angling under unprecedented assault today, that’s a dangerous proposition. But are the two enough to assume that a cohesive, conspiratorial anti-fishing movement exists?
No, they aren’t.
Still, Phil Morlock, Shimano’s Director of Environmental Affairs issues this warning:
“Whether by design and intent or by other less nefarious means, I believe the very basis of science based fish and wildlife management, conservation and sustainable use is being threatened as never before.”
What, exactly, is the truth about those threats and how they relate to one another in the “big picture”? If we are to successfully protect recreational fishing for future generations, we must understand the opposition. B.A.S.S. Times asked fishing advocates and conservation leaders for their insights on the problem and how to deal with it.
As it turns out, the truth is more complicated than a coordinated anti-fishing movement, and, in some ways, even more sinister.
“Many of the most effective antis are never strident about it which is why they are such a threat,” Morlock said. “The agenda is to never appear to have an agenda.”
Chris Horton of the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation added, “Recreational anglers are faced with more challenges today than we were 20, 15, or even 10 years ago.”
First, animal rights groups do pose a greater threat than many realize. Represented by organizations such as PETA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, they oppose not only sport fishing, but use of animals in agriculture and medical research.
“More organizations drift closer to that (agenda) every year,” said Gordon Robertson, Vice President of the American Sportfishing Association. “They follow the demographics, and just look at today’s society: It’s becoming more and more urbanized and detached from nature.”
A message like “save the whales,” he added, resonates much more with a population “used to emergency messages” than does a plan for fisheries management.
Along with proclaiming their concern for whales, seals, and other sympathetic animals, however, these groups also assert that fish “are tortured just for ‘sport,” and they claim that “others (fish) are unintended victims who are maimed or killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The use of “victims” and “who” in referring to fish is no accident.
The threat is heightened because many in the media tend to be sympathetic to these causes, Morlock said. Consequently, reporters often fail to interview credible scientists who can separate fact from fiction on issues such as whether fish feel pain when they are hooked.
“If fish did, they would be unable to eat many of the spiny/prickly creatures like crawfish and other fish (because of dorsal spines) that they survive on,” Morlock said. “That’s a rather obvious point to those of us who fish or who have a background in science. But for those who do not, the media does a poor job of filling in the rather glaring gaps in information deficiency often inherent in animal rights campaigns.”
Consequently, their arguments often are taken at face value when these groups insist not only that fish can feel pain, but that they can suffer from “fear and anticipation of physical pain.”
None of that is true, according to most credible scientists.
“When a fish is hooked by an angler, it typically responds with rapid swimming behavior that appears to be a flight response,” said Dr. James Rose, who has spent more than 30 years studying neurological responses to pain in animals. “Human observers sometimes interpret this flight response to be a reaction to pain, as if the fish was capable of the same kind of pain experience as a human.”
But fish “don’t have the brain systems necessary to experience pain,” he said, adding that “flight responses of fish are a general reaction to many types of potentially threatening stimuli and can’t be taken to represent a response to pain.”
Other threats are less direct, but no less real, with recreational fishing at risk of being collateral damage. The persistent campaign by some environmental groups to ban lead fishing tackle is one of the most troubling, as is the growing movement by government, environmental groups, and lake associations to restrict public access.
With the former, the Center for Biological Diversity and others insist that lead fishing tackle must be banned to protect loons and other waterfowl. Even though no scientific research supports the notion that bird populations are being harmed by lead weights and other items, they continue to file lawsuits and push for bans at the state and federal levels, as well as try to sway public opinion.
“Getting the lead out seems a quick and easy fix, but the evidence is not there,” said Max Sandlin, who was a member of the CSF when he represented Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives. “Anglers and hunters are good conservationists.
“Those who want to ban lead might be well intentioned, but their arguments are not well thought out. A debate needs to be based on sound science. We need to be vigilant about these kinds of issues because they can go to the very heart of fishing and hunting.”
Much the same could be said about attempts to limit public access to public waters: The evidence is not there to justify the action.
In pushing for locked gates at launch ramps, lake associations cite concerns about boaters introducing invasive species such a zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil.
“But in doing that, they’re creating a barrier between themselves and groups like B.A.S.S. that are working on solving the problem,” said Tom Sadler, Managing Director of The Middle River Group, LLC and former Conservation Director for the Izaak Walton League of America.
“In closing access, they hurt the community, and they hurt their neighbors. Anglers must be ready with persuasive facts.”
To be continued.