Gill of Rights
Like casting for fish, preserving your angling rights requires persistence.
Ask two fishermen where the fish are biting and chances are each will point in a different direction. Call it human nature if you will, but fishermen are built this way and agreeing about simple things often leads to arguments. Federal, local, and personal fishing regulations follow a similar pattern. I love to fish and have always subscribed to whatever regulations were in place, whether I was attempting to outsmart hatchery-raised rainbow trout with a dry fly or carefully rigging my balao with circle hooks for white marlin. Regulations notwithstanding, some fish size limits or individual quotas can cause confusion about what these regulatory people are thinking.
Recently, anglers who fish the Gulf of Mexico were slammed by a federal judge who ruled they would be limited to just nine days of access to fishing for red snapper from their private boats, while charter operators and commercial fishermen could fish for 44 days. It was all part of a federal fishery management plan for the reef fishery, but in actuality it absconded with a public resource and transferred it to designated private businesses at the expense of the recreational fishermen, and some of the businesses they support, including boat dealers, marinas, and tackle shops. The ruling is under the auspices of NOAA, which is in charge of maintaining oversight of the oceans and atmosphere on a federal level, although an argument could be made that this red snapper fishery might be more fairly served if it was managed by the Gulf States.
Of course, more management will always overcome hard work. The most popular saltwater sport fish favored by anglers of the Northeast is the summer flounder. Also known as fluke, this tasty flatfish is a seasonable staple for private, charter, and party boat fans, as well as many shoreside fishermen that cast from the surf, jetties, or tidal tributaries from North Carolina to New England and is highly regulated for recreational anglers. When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, size and limits were nonexistent. You knew to toss the small ones back and not be a hog. But my adult life saw the first size limit at 13 inches. Then it was bumped to 15 inches and now it sits at 18 inches with a daily limit of five and an open season from May to September to stay within the quota. So okay, five fluke at 18 inches or above is a nice mess of fish for one angler, but the same can be said for fluke at 16 or 17 inches, although I have to throw these back. However, once a fluke reaches 19 inches, it is typically a female according to fishery biologists, so keeping larger fluke has the potential to affect the biomass and future populations. Dropping the size limit may in fact be better not only in terms of more fish to bring home for your dinner table, but also in terms of allowing anglers to reach their limit more quickly, which may also serve to guard more of the breeders to procreate for future fishermen and their families.
Conservation means different things to different people. I believe conservation is the wise use of a natural resource that is too valuable to waste or squander. Other fishermen might banter, “If it eats the bait, it’s good for the plate.” Still others on an environmental crusade favor MPAs or Marine Protected Areas that are totally off limits to any type of fishing or boating access.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but the facts need to be heard loud and clearly. If you care about fishing today and hope to get out there again tomorrow, you need to make the effort to be more involved. Instead of complaining over the VHF or typing in comments to an online forum, spend some time reaching out to your public officials with an e-mail. Let them know your concerns. Don’t be discouraged if there is no response. How many casts do you make to catch a single fish? Your effort will pay off if you keep at it.
Join a fishing club or conservation association, but do more than send in your dues for a decal to stick on your cooler. Become active and bring your commitment to the meetings. Learn to listen as well as speak. Some organizations center their efforts on individual species, while others are more general in nature. But the commonality of each group should be earmarked toward specific results as the guardian of the resource. If you don’t care for the direction of the group, split and find another way to contribute to the well-being of the sport you love. I maintain it is important to take a stand shoulder to shoulder with fishermen who share my beliefs about what is needed to protect my right to fish. It is amazing how fast that right to fish can slip away due to apathy alone. That right also can be gutted by a preponderance of junk science, a lack of common sense, and an unhealthy dose of misinformed national and regional government intervention. Don’t just let it happen.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.