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The anatomy of a lost cause

6/20/2003

The animal rights extremist group known as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) declared war on America's anglers when it launched an anti-fishing crusade in 1997. But after a series of protests and publicity stunts, the campaign has virtually disappeared off the radar screen. But Dan Shannon, PETA's "Fishing Hurts" campaign coordinator, says he and his supporters are still hard at work in an attempt to change the way 44 million Americans spend their time outdoors.

Although Shannon believes those initial protests, including three demonstrations at BASS events, were successful, none drew more than a handful of supporters. More telling, PETA hasn't staged a single fishing protest in almost two years and its media exposure has dwindled to a fraction of the initial hype. Yet, Shannon isn't discouraged by the lack of visible support or the drop in publicity, adding that public protests are only a minor part of their anti-fishing strategy.

He admits that at least a few of PETA's attempts to garner positive publicity have backfired. The demand that Fishkill, N.Y., change its name to a less violent one was met with little more than laughter. And another campaign that came on the heels of a rash of well-publicized shark attacks in 2001 stirred up nothing but outrage from mainstream Americans. As a result, PETA ended up pulling its billboards and grounded the aerial banners it was pulling behind small aircraft above crowds. Many localities refused to allow the signs in the first place, claiming insensitivity to human issues. One read, "Would you give your right arm to know why sharks attack? Could it be revenge?" Another said "Dangerous predators in the water. You?"

Most of the group's publicity stunts have simply fallen on deaf ears, but PETA has no plans to abandon its anti-fishing crusade.

"We're shifting our focus to a more behind-the-scenes approach. We got the people talking about our campaign, which is why we hold protests and do those crazy stunts in the first place, so we can already say it's been a success," he says.

One of Shannon's new priorities is refuting a recent study by University of Wyoming neuroscientist James Rose that claims fish don't feel pain. PETA is compiling data from various other studies that show fish do feel pain and show fear, and he plans to release the information to various media outlets. The difficult part, Shannon admits, is garnering public interest, something that seems to be lacking with this effort.

According to Rob Sexton, vice president of government affairs for the United States Sportsmen's Alliance, there are no imminent threats to the fishing community from PETA or any other animal rights organization. In fact, he can't recall any successful attempt to change or sway public opinion against sportfishing.

"We're always willing to fight the antis, but there just hasn't been anything to fight about when it comes to the anti-fishing campaign. We were ready and willing to organize a counter-demonstration at the (1997) Bassmaster Classic in Alabama if BASS wanted us to, but PETA didn't get more than a few people to show up," he says.

Shannon adds that he and fellow PETA supporters are working on a letter writing campaign asking state park directors in all 50 states to ban "the violent process of fishing" from waters inside park boundaries.

"Most state parks don't allow hunting, and we see fishing as nothing more than another type of hunting. Fishing just isn't compatible with the mission of state parks. It doesn't complement the peace and tranquility of a state park," he says.

In his letter to various state park directors, Shannon claims that "millions of birds and other animals suffer, and many die, from injuries caused by discarded fishhooks, monofilament line, lead weights and floats."

Although he has sent letters to only a dozen states so far, Shannon says the response has been favorable. He claims that several states have actually replied to his letter — he expected most to "laugh us off" — and some have even expressed interest in the idea. He adds that a high-ranking official within the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sympathizes with PETA's stance and that "it only makes sense that hunting and fishing should be seen in a similar light." Shannon says that the representative from the Minnesota state parks called it "an interesting proposal and something we would consider."

However, Brad Moore, assistant commissioner for operations for the Minnesota DNR, says Minnesota has no plans to ban fishing from their state parks. In a terse reply to Shannon's written request, Moore wrote: The Department of Natural Resources supports fishing and does not believe anglers or their activities are harming Minnesota's state parks. We have no intention of banning fishing in state parks.

"That's ridiculous to suggest we are considering banning fishing in our state parks," said Moore in a telephone interview.

Shannon, however, insists that PETA's campaign has gathered strong support and has many park employees silently agreeing with his position on fishing in state parks, but he admits that his is an uphill battle that will take decades to win. PETA's ultimate goal, says Shannon, isn't one of a total legislative ban on recreational and commercial fishing. He realizes such a concept will likely never happen. He does, however, hope that anglers and consumers themselves will decide that fishing has no place in society.

"Our next major campaign will hopefully ride the potential wave of popularity of an upcoming animated Disney movie … called Captain Nemo. The movie is about a lost fish, or something like that, and we expect it to be popular with children. So, we're trying to figure out how we can piggyback on that movie's popularity and get our message out to the public," he says.

Disney won't likely offer them a piggyback ride, however. Disney is the parent company of ESPN Outdoors and BASS.