Many in the industry recognize that B.A.S.S. played a pivotal role in the growth of recreational fishing as an economic powerhouse. But what most do not know is the important part played by the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) nearly 90 years ago.
If not for IWLA’s successful crusade to protect black bass from commercial harvest, it’s conceivable that largemouth and smallmouth populations would have been so depleted by the late 1960s that B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott would have stayed in the insurance business instead of founding his conservation and tournament fishing organization.
“That was an issue vitally important to our organization and sport fishing in general,” said Scott Kovarovics, executive director of one of the nation’s oldest conservation organizations. “It ranks very, very highly in our list of accomplishments because it goes to the roots of our organization supporting conservation and outdoor recreation.
“We wanted to protect a resource that was under threat and being rapidly depleted.”
Meeting in Chicago in 1922, sportsmen concerned about the nation’s waters and wild places decided to form “a federation of fishing clubs” and name it after Izaak Walton, a 17th century fisherman/conservationist who wrote The Compleat Angler. Almost immediately, the goal became to protect outdoor America, as concern focused on how commercial harvest was depleting black bass populations.
By the late 19th century, market hunting had pushed some wildlife species to the brink of extinction. State laws couldn’t prevent overharvest because wildlife simply could be acquired in one state and shipped to another. Passage of the federal Lacey Act in 1900 stopped that trade, but it did nothing to protect fish.
Sounding the alarm, IWLA’s Outdoor America Magazine said this in its February 1926 issue:
“Scientists state that the yearly toll of black bass in this country is so great compared with the yearly hatch that this greatest of American game fishes is certain to become extinct within 10 years unless extraordinary efforts are made to protect it.”
In response to this threat, IWLA worked with Rep. Harry Hawes of Missouri to introduce into Congress the Black Bass Act of 1926, which was the fish equivalent of the Lacey Act. Speaking on behalf of the bill in the Senate, James Watson of Indiana said, “The bass is undoubtedly the great American game fish and the favorite of millions of the rank and file of American anglers. It is found all American fresh waters, ponds, lakes, and streams.”
And in its July 1926 issue of Outdoor America, the organization proudly proclaimed, “Great Waltonian measure becomes a law May 20.” In concluding an article about the historic event, E.H.R. said, “This measure is perhaps the greatest ever passed in the interest of game fish.”
The Black Bass Act was expanded in 1947 to include all game fish and in 1952 to apply to all fish. In 1982, it was repealed, with its provisions incorporated into the Lacey Act, which protects fish, birds, and wildlife.
Sadly, today it might not be enough to protect bass populations in New York and its surrounding states. Despite fierce opposition from angling advocates, that state recently approved sale of hatchery-raised bass in restaurants and markets, with no requirement that those fish be marked to confirm their origin.
“It’s rather disheartening to see the state’s absolute unwillingness to impose a regulation that would have required individualized tagging (serial numbers),” said Mike Cusano, former president of the New York B.A.S.S. Nation (NYBN) and chairman of the Onondaga County Fisheries Advisory Board.
“This regulation is going to impact bass populations across the state as market owners realize that wild-caught black bass are a much cheaper alternative than the hatchery-raised fish,” he continued.
Yes, the regulation stipulates that the fish must be hatchery-raised, but the words of Seth Gordon, the first conservation director for IWLA, serve as a chilling reminder of what once was and what could again be when we don’t learn from history.
“So long as there is a legal market anywhere, you may bank on it that thousands of pounds of illegally caught bass will be sold,” he said during the campaign on behalf of the Black Bass Act.
With the majority of IWLA’s membership from the Middle Atlantic through the Ohio Valley and into the Upper Midwest, sale of hatchery-raised bass in New York isn’t an issue that the organization is involved in.
“But our members everywhere practice common sense conservation,” Kovarovics emphasized. “They want to enjoy the outdoors while preserving the resource for the future.”
On the national front, strengthening the federal Clean Water Act is one of the IWLA’s top priorities.
“New EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) numbers are just out that show 55 percent of our rivers and streams are in poor condition,” he said. “And even though that‘s the latest, it’s based on random samples from 2008 and 2009. We don’t have quality information about how bad it is right now.”
IWLA also promotes healthy, sustainable agriculture and clean energy and air, as well as focuses on introducing children to the outdoors through fishing and other activities.
On the agricultural front, IWLA is concerned because market policy (high prices) is pushing more and more acreage into crops, Kovarovics said. That translates into less land for wildlife and as buffer strips to protect water from agricultural runoff pollution. “We support voluntary conservation programs and cooperative compliance, but, unfortunately, that’s beginning to erode,” he said.
Additionally, IWLA pushes for restoration of large ecosystems, the executive director added, pointing specifically to improving water quality and fish habitat in the Upper Mississippi and Upper Missouri Rivers.
“The goal (in the Upper Missouri) is to bring back the endangered pallid sturgeon, the least tern, and the piping plover,” he said. “But when you improve habitat for them, you provide a multitude of benefits for other species.”
The organization’s 41,500 members, meanwhile, belong to 250 chapters, which sponsor conservation work and youth activities in their local communities. They monitor water quality and restore habitat, as well as organize cleanups. They provide hunter safety training for children.
“We connect kids to fishing through spring and summer events that were developed organically by the chapters over the years,” Kovarovics said. “And at the same time the kids are fishing, they are learning about habitat conservation. We mix fun with a bit of education.”
In its chapter manual, the organization provides members a variety of ways to get children and families outdoors, including the following: hunter education, family day outings, scouting, national hunting and fishing day, wildlife habitat improvement, youth fishing events, youth hunting events, and youth conservation camp/outdoor classroom.
Also, IWLA keeps its members informed and involved through e-mail blasts, monthly newsletters, and, of course, its quarterly magazine, Outdoor America, which led the charge to protect America’s No. 1 sport fish, the black bass, nearly 90 years ago.
“The lakes, rivers, and streams where these fish are found are public property, open to the rich and poor alike,” IWLA said in the February 1926 issue, as urged its members to support the Black Bass Act. “Fishing is the least expensive of all sports. It gives the youngest boy his first contact with nature, his first feeling of mastery . . .
“This is not a sportsman’s bill. It is for the rich and poor alike. It is to preserve for those that come after us the things we have enjoyed.”
(This article appeared originally in Fishing Tackle Retailer .)