A bill has been introduced in Congress that should be cause for great concern to marine sportfishers, coast to coast. The "Freedom to Fish Act" (S 3234 IS) on the surface looks like a dream come true. This was introduced by Sen Breaux (LA), Sen Hutchinson (TX) at the request of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), the sport tackle manufacturers' trade association. The bill at first seems to extol the idyllic, conservationist, goals most sportfishers speak for. Yet in its details, the effect will be quite the opposite. It would essentially kill marine protected areas (MPA's).

This senate bill amends the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that no established areas be closed to recreational fishing unless:

"(A) there is a clear indication that recreational fishermen are the cause of a specific conservation problem and that less severe conservation measures, such as gear restrictions, quotas, or closed seasons will not adequately provide for conservation and management of the affected stocks of fish ;
(B) the closed area regulation includes specific measurable criteria to determine the conservation benefit of the closed area on the affected stocks of fish and provides a timetable for periodic review of the continued need for the closed area at least once every three years;
(C) the closed area is no larger than that which is supported by the best available scientific information; or
(D) provision is made to reopen the closed area to recreational fishing whenever the condition in subparagraph (A), (B), or (C) that was the basis of the closure no longer exists."

Imagine if Teddy Roosevelt, a hunter himself, had applied this criteria to Yellowstone or Yosemite. Would we have any national parks today, as we know them, if these overly strict and binding conditions were set 100 years ago?

Limited fishing is allowed in some national parks. But to compare this to less restricted marine sport fishing is a bad analogy. While national parks have always been no-hunting areas, fishing for non-native fish, wrongly introduced as in Crater Lake National Park, are highly encouraged to be taken by sportfishers. The taking of native fish in a national park like Yellowstone is highly restricted in its area, size and bag limits, way more than state fish and game laws allow. The aquatic habitat in Yellowstone is but a tiny part of its ecosystem, and the area where native fish are allowed to be taken is a fraction of that already small area. Hunting for terrestrial species is a better a comparison in this instance.

No hunting zones have always been supported by the conservationist hunters of the the last century and today. The National Rifle Association supported a law three years ago that updates the management of National Wildlife Refuges. This law allows 40% of the designated refuges to continue as, or be newly established as non-hunting areas. This is to accommodate non-consumptive user groups.

Debates over the efficacy of MPA's as a tool to rebuild our fisheries, or it's role as a control for scientific study, will not be solved in the time required to save our rapidly vanishing marine resources. Does not the non-consumptive public have a right to see our wild areas in their un-extractive state, whether vicariously through underwater documentary films, or as divers watching and photographing underwater life? Or if we oppose this right in the ocean, should we tell the Audubon Society it no longer can enjoy it's bird watching pleasures in the national parks, or in 40% of the wildlife refuges, without hunting pressures?

The strongest argument for MPA's has already been decided by history. Saltwater anglers, harpooners and spearfishers must stand with the example our land brethren set long ago. We must prioritize saving our resource or we will have a lot of ocean to fish in, but no fish to catch. We must also fight for "sportfishing only" buffer zones around "no take" areas, as commercial fishing is usually the primary cause of overfishing.

We, the undersigned sportfishing conservationists, strongly urge the ASA, Sen Breaux and Sen Hutchinson to withdraw the "Freedom to Fish Act" (S 3234 IS), and work with the broader sportfishing and conservation communities to decide, in good faith, where, and how big, MPA's should be. Then we can reassert our conservationist roots.

Ron Gaul, Northern California sportfisher
Steve Roberson, Southern California sportfisher
John O'Connor, Northern California sportfisher
Bob Allen, Southern California sportfisher

For More Information E-Mail Ron Gaul

See and Editorial on this issue from the The Fish Sniffer Online