Two Sides Are Struggling To Land Control of Water Policy

by Pete Bodo May 11 2003

(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association June 2003 Newsletter)

Marine Protection Areas have emerged in just a few years as the shiniest new tool in the oceanic conservation kit, but the battle to define just how these marine sanctuary zones and parklands should function has exposed some fundamental differences between two ostensibly allied interest groups: environmentalists and recreational anglers.


As a result, the considerably older tools of legislation and lawsuits have been employed, and accusations and defamatory epithets like ecofascist and industry front man are being lobbed like grenades across a divide that, ultimately, may be more philosophical than scientific, but none the less real for it.


The stakes in this struggle range from the health and the future of marine fish stocks to how open the ocean ought to be and an individual's presumed right to fish. Two related bills are making their way through the New York State Assembly. One would authorize the state to create coastal M.P.A.'s, while the other the Freedom to Fish Act would protect the public's basic right to fish when stocks are adequate. Other coastal states are also grappling with these issues.


"Many of us feel that for many years the people who cared the most about fish stocks were the recreational people," said Kate Wing, referring to anglers. Wing, an ocean policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council, added: "This newest break is frustrating and alarming, and we need to address it because we have the same goal of increased fish stocks. And with very few exceptions, we don't have the fish we once did."


Broadly, an M.P.A. is a designated area of ocean that is subject to user restrictions as diverse as boating speed limits, prohibitions against picking coral, and curbs on bag limits and certain fishing techniques. The United States has over 300 M.P.A.s, and almost all users including anglers embrace them as useful conservation tools.


 But some M.P.A.'s, generally known as reserves, prohibit all fishing outright, for reasons ranging from a paucity of fish stocks to the desire to eliminate all extractive or intrusive human activities. Reserve-style M.P.A.'s have become a flash point, with anglers fearing that some environmental groups have slipped into the costumes of sheep to do the work of wolves, attacking the national tradition of virtually unrestricted public access to marine fishing. In reserves, even catch-and-release angling with its negligible mortality rate is forbidden.


 "We've been at the forefront of restricting recreational as well as commercial fishing when the science supported it, even when no environmental groups stood at our side," Ted Venker, a spokesman for the Coastal Conservation Alliance, said. "Our feeling is that excluding the public from a public resource should always be the very last management tool used


The spark that ignited the controversy over M.P.A.'s was struck in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off Santa Barbara, Calif. In 2002, California created no-fishing reserves that include about 20 percent of the 900 square miles of sanctuary that falls under the state's jurisdiction because of the threat posed by overfishing to a number of sedentary, bottom-dwelling species, including cowcod and rockfish. These fish are not helped by catch-and-release regulations, because the act of reeling them up through 200 feet of water kills them.


But large numbers of highly desirable, migratory game fish including yellowtail and wahoo freely roam the surface layer in reserve waters, where they can be caught using techniques so unrelated to fishing for bottom-dwellers that there is no incidental by-catch of the threatened species at all. Yet fishing for the free-ranging species is still forbidden. While the one-size-fits-all policy makes regulation and enforcement of reserve laws easier, it also highlights complex problems embedded in the reserve approach.


 "A big part of this problem is that many environmentalists don't talk to fishermen and don't understand fish," Ted Williams, a conservation writer, said. "But they hate being called stupid, so now they're at least engaging people on this issue."


The size and placement of reserves is the source of bitter controversy, because the ocean is essentially a vast, wet, barren blue desert, containing relatively small oases where the food chain flourishes and fish of every kind congregate. So, although the Channel Islands sanctuary occupies a relatively small portion of the sea, anglers estimate that placing it off limits may have eliminated as much as 60 percent of the areas worth fishing. As usual, that percentage varies greatly with the group citing it, but the core issue is real.


 Mostly, user-based conservation groups rely on the twin mantras: "It's all about the management" and "Let the science decide." They argue that if lawmakers and federal and state fisheries managers applied themselves, the problems of overfishing could be solved in a heartbeat without eliminating or significantly restricting recreational fishing. For example, bottom-trawling (the technique that is to the ocean what clear-cutting is to forest) remains one of the most common commercial fishing techniques, despite the great damage it causes.


"We could solve 90 percent of the fish stock problems instantly by eliminating bottom-trawling," Rip Cunningham, editor of Salt Water Sportsman, said. "I have no problem with M.P.A.s. I learned to fish in one Buzzards Bay, near Rhode Island.


Sanctuary advocates maintain that having extensive, untouched areas where fish can be studied as they live, undisturbed, is a critical benefit of reserves. Skeptics say, however, that taking significant portions of ocean out of use is not a necessity but a luxury. They also argue that still allowing ecotourism, surfing and scuba diving while eliminating properly regulated fishing is, simply, an unfair blow aimed at a group that helped shape the concept of environmentalism, a group that annually ploughs staggering sums of money into the economy and fisheries management programs that exist only because of special taxes levied on fishing gear.


"There's a whole ethic we need to instill here," said Greg Helms, a Channel Islands program manager for the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group at the forefront of the movement to create reserve M.P.A.'s. "We need to have these places just for themselves. We also have growing numbers of people who want to see fish and other marine animals in a natural state. These people deserve a place at the table, too. In terrestrial management, 5 percent of our land is in wilderness. We don't have the equivalent in the oceans."


 Advocates for recreational user groups dismiss that argument on the grounds that wilderness areas generally are open for camping, hiking, hunting and fishing, and that sportsmen dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt have spearheaded the drive to protect and appreciate wilderness. And they are disturbed by the injection of ethical and philosophical positions into a debate that, they say, should be driven and decided by science.


Speaking for most anglers, Cunningham said, "We believe that just because you believe something philosophically, that's not quite enough to keep the public out of a public resource."

[News Contents] [Top]