Why anglers aren't environmentalists


This is a column from Robert Montgomery for ESPN Outdoors. As a Senior Writer for BASS Publications, Montgomery has written about conservation, environment, and access issues for more than two decades. It's part of a series of articles from Montgomery on the issue.

I'm for a stronger Clean Water Act. I want to preserve old-growth forests. I think that it's a disgrace that our federal government hasn't acted more decisively to keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes. I believe that we need stiffer regulations to protect our streams from strip mining, our groundwater from herbicides, and our estuaries from the runoff pollution of urban sprawl and farm fields.

But, alas, I'm also an angler, and anglers aren't environmentalists. It's not that anglers don't want to protect the environment. They do. It's that they don't want to be called "environmentalists." They associate that term with agenda-driven campaigns for preservation policies that often are not backed by scientific evidence.

For anglers, "conservationist" is the term of choice. Conservationists believe in both protection and sustainable use of our lands, waters, and other natural resources. They follow an ethical code of behavior and embrace a stewardship philosophy in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt.

So we have two factions, conservationists and environmentalists, sharing many of the same values, but more often viewing each other as enemies than allies.

Perhaps the most climactic moment of that divide now is occurring as environmentalists embrace a strategy to use Marine Protected Areas and other designations by governments at all levels to deny recreational anglers access to public waters. In doing so, they are shamefully insulting and dismissing a constituency that does more to protect those waters than any other.

For example, the California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV) compared the Partnership for Sustainable Oceans (PSO) to the Tobacco Institute because the latter is opposed to a rush-to-judgment approach on closing California coastal waters to recreational angling. CLCV said PSO "is nothing more than a front group for the fishing industry and boat manufacturers that are more interested in short-term profits than the long-term health of California's fisheries and marine life. Its misinformation campaign about the science of marine protected areas and the hefty campaign contributions from its backers to anti-environment candidates in California show this industry group's true colors."

First, those fishing industry groups that support PSO are not endorsing a product that has killed millions and cost this nation billions of dollars in health-care costs. Rather, they are supporting a family-oriented recreational pastime enjoyed by nearly 60 million Americans annually. This is an entry-way activity that has introduced generation after generation of children to the beauty of and the pleasure to be derived from the outdoors.

Yes, these industries do profit from recreational fishing. But here's what the environmental groups fail or choose not to see: Since 1952, fishermen have contributed more than $5 billion for betterment of our aquatic resources through the excise taxes that they pay on the fishing equipment produced by those industries. Through the federal Sport Fish Restoration Program (SFR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service distributes that money to the states for fisheries research, management, and stocking, as well as access improvements and expansions. Thanks to SFR, state wildlife agencies have acquired 360,000 acres for public enjoyment and taught aquatic education classes to more than 12 million people.

Environmental groups also fail or choose not to acknowledge the difference between recreational angling and commercial fishing. Regrettably, this suggests that their agendas are not nearly as noble as they pretend them to be. If they were solely motivated to protect our aquatic resources, they would work with recreational anglers, who could be valuable partners, instead of demonizing them.

But organizations of like-minded individuals also desire to grow memberships and increase contributions to ensure their survival. Creating crises, if one doesn't exist, and focusing energies on enemies, real or imagined, are great ways to do this. Thus, the PSO is compared to the Tobacco Institute.

And there is that aggravating philosophical rub. Anglers acknowledge that our oceans, lakes, and rivers possess incalculable intrinsic value. They appreciate the spiritual restoration that nature provides just as much as they do the experience of catching fish. In fact, many fishermen view themselves as "closet environmentalists" because of this enjoyment of nature beyond the material, and they believe that the environmental movement has done much good for this nation's natural resources.

But die-hard environmentalist with tunnel vision believe that humans exist apart from nature, rather than as a part of it, and they act immorally when they disrupt it in any way (e.g., recreational angling).

No question exists that some waters should be closed to commercial fishing. And with scientific research to support such a move, possibly some waters should be closed to recreational angling, at least temporarily.

Commercial fishing, however, is mostly responsible for the decimation of fish stocks and destruction of fish habitat. By contrast, recreational anglers are stewards and environmental watchdogs for the waters upon which they fish. Some do keep fish to eat, but the majority today practice catch-and-release, knowing that good fishing in the future depends on sound conservation practices today.

Yet the President's Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force made no distinction between the two in its recent Interim Report on how to better protect oceans and the Great Lakes. Rather, its high-level members from departments such as Commerce, Interior, and Homeland Security referred to "overfishing" and "unsustainable fishing." And this time, ignorance was no excuse. Advocates of recreational angling made certain of that before the report was written.

Now that same task force must produce "a recommended framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning" by mid December. Sadly, it seems to be populated with and/or heavily influenced by those who follow "environmental" dogma, as opposed to those who see and appreciate the multiple value provided by the nation's angler conservationists.

As a consequence, anglers could lose access to thousands of miles of public waters, as those same waters lose their most stalwart of champions.

That's why anglers aren't environmentalists.

For more information

Find out more about the battle for public waters at KeepAmericaFishing.org, a web site maintained by the American Sportfishing Association.

To learn more about the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and its Interim Report, click here.