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Inaugural Post: Fishermen Are Not Evil

Hi everyone.  I’m Chuck and I used to blog primarily over at Ya Like Dags?, where my main focus was on interactions between apex predators (sharks mostly, but I also occasionally dabbled in other large fish and sea mammals) and those other top marine predators, humans.  This was not in the “shark attack” sense, but in the context of fisheries management.  Writing about this subject and living it as part of my research have given me valuable perspective on marine science and conservation that I really didn’t have as a freshly-minted Bachelor of Science.

Unfortunately I see more extreme versions of my old perspective show up in countless blog comments, posts, and tweets by perfectly well-meaning people whose only issue is that they’ve fallen for a simplistic, “us vs. them” attitude towards conservation.  Consumptive uses of the ocean, such as fishing, are inherently evil and must be opposed.  This no-compromise approach sounds cool and may bring in the TV ratings, but is it truly helpful?

Earlier this month, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) posted an interview with a member of the research fishery for sandbar sharks.  This fishery continues to exist because it provides valuable data on shark populations and growth that do a lot of good by allowing NMFS to make informed policy decisions on some very ecologically-important species.  As a result, shark management in the U.S. is arguably the best in the world.  Finning is illegal in U.S. waters (albeit with one loophole), this country hosts the world’s first sustainability-certified shark fishery, and the agency is developing more effective and adaptive management that accounts for the characteristics of each species.  Well-informed management has allowed some previously-declining shark species to recover, in some cases dramatically.  These milestones were made possible by working with fishermen who target sharks.

Not evil. Image from spinydogfish.org.

So it’s a little disheartening to see the fisherman in the interview bring up the fact that he and other fishermen in this closely-managed fishery are struggling due to state-level conservation measures, in this case, the California fin ban (a situation that may have been avoided if more people were aware of the important differences between a fin ban and a finning ban).  It’s a sad irony of sharks finally closing in on the kind of conservation attention that has previously belonged almost exclusively to marine mammals: people trying to use the animals responsibly are demonized for using them at all.  As a result, even conservation-minded fishermen feel like they have to oppose environmentalists, which just keeps the whole unfortunate cycle of opposition going.

Obviously not all fishermen are saints, and U.S. fisheries management has had its issues, but those issues are much more complex than the tired “greedy fisherman” narrative.  Most fishermen follow regulations, most understand the value of keeping a resource healthy, and many are genuinely interested in and familiar with science.  When conservationists work with fishermen, the results can be impressive.  By demonizing fishing and fishermen offhand, short-sighted but well-meaning conservationists may only be making their own jobs more difficult.

So there’s my philosophical inaugural post here at Southern Fried Science.  Can’t we all just get along and fix this damn ocean?