Recreational fishing remains a popular pastime the world over. One of the great things about recreational fishing is its accessibility; you don’t need much gear, there are lots of places to do it, and it can appeal to a wide range of skill levels. But recent surveys have shown that participation rates in recreational fishing are decreasing. Current estimates are somewhere between 15 and 25 per cent of Australians fishing at least once a year. I don’t know whether this is symptomatic of our increasingly busy lifestyles, the new ‘screen-based’ generation or ongoing urbanisation and its influence on disconnecting us from nature, but an interesting question is ‘at what point does recreational fishing become ‘uncommon’, and what are the implications?’
If it does become a ‘niche’ pastime, is there a risk that the social acceptability of recreational fishing will be eroded? Social acceptability, or the ‘social licence to operate’ basically relate to the level of approval granted by society to a particular activity.
One of the reasons my interest has been piqued is my growing interest in hunting, and the difference in social licence granted by society to hunters and fishers. This is an idea for a different blog, so I don’t want to go into it much here. But 50 or 100 years ago, and indeed going back much further, hunting was also highly acceptable in the eyes of society.
Similar to hunting, there are already many anti-fishers among society’s ranks, which is somewhat sad, because fishers and environmentalists/conservationists are often one and the same and want the same outcomes, i.e. healthy habitat and ecosystems. But there is definitely a difference: no one bats an eyelid when a family wants to go down to the water and wet a line, and most of society doesn’t care if fishers target southern bluefin tuna, yet images of hunters and their quarry are the target of hatred in numerous fora.
There is a challenge ahead for recreational fishers in proving that they care; proving that they are stewards of natural resources and environments; and showing that they understand ethical responsibilities. Sometimes I find it remarkable that we can go out and catch and kill a native species that may be classified as ‘overfished’ or that are a fraction of their virgin biomass. Indeed, catches of the mighty mulloway or Murray cod often attract accolades on social media and more broadly. If a hunter were to go and kill a glossy black cockatoo, it would probably make front page of at least the local news, and obviously it wouldn’t be a pretty story.
The risk of not proving this is that we could end up like Germany, which disallows catch and release fishing on ethical grounds. I believe that it’s important to be able to be selective in what we decide to take. Even worse, we could end up like some other places in Europe, where rich white people pay a lot of money to fish private property because there aren’t really any other options. Worst of all would be the effect of further disconnecting us from our natural environment from banning recreational fishing altogether.
I don’t think the solution is necessarily increasing participation rates, but rather in promoting an ethos of the highest ethical and environmental responsibilities among fishers, particularly those who are avid. And it’s also not worth fighting with so-called adversaries because of the aforementioned fact that even though some of us might think we’re on different teams, the truth is that the end goals are similar (and definitely not mutually exclusive). Hamish has written a bit more about this here. We need to champion a dialogue about habitat restoration, conservation and ethical practices to maintain and improve our social licence to operate. And we need good representation. We are all responsible as representatives for the passion we love.