Stuff we've learnt, Sustainability

Fishers vs environmentalists: is it time we found common ground?

Can environmental groups and recreational fishers work together constructively to improve fish populations and environments?
Can environmental groups and recreational fishers work together constructively to improve fish populations and environments?

I haven’t been able to get out fishing much over the last month. So instead I find myself thinking and writing about fishing instead. One thing that I have been thinking about for a long time is the seeming antagonism and lack of cooperation between some recreational fishers and conservationists in Australia. I have to admit, it doesn’t make much sense to me. On the surface, the aims of both groups are broadly aligned. Healthy marine and freshwater ecosystems are vital if we are going to have great recreational fisheries. Protecting these environments against pollution, dredging, mining and over-harvesting is in the interests of both recreational fishermen and environmentalists. To me it seems that there should be fertile ground for meaningful partnerships on these issues that can benefit both parties. Ultimately what we all want is better management of fisheries, more productive ecosystems and healthier fish stocks. So why is it that both groups haven’t worked together more productively in Australia given that broadly both groups share similar aims?

Instead, over the last decade, we have seen the antagonism between both groups grow. This may in part simply be a reflection of our ever fractured and combative political landscape. It certainly hasn’t helped that there seems to be a level of distrust that has built up between the groups. Many recreational fishers seem to feel that “greenies” are out to get them. That all they want to do is “lock up fisheries” and attack our sport. Its true that there are groups such a PETA (which isn’t an environmental group by the way) who do want to do exactly that, but they are in no way representative of conservationists as a whole, mainly existing on the fringes*. On the flip side, some conservationists can’t quite understand how people who go out to catch fish can be “real” conservationists who could be worthwhile allies.

The antagonism between the groups grew to fever pitch over marine parks a few years ago. Environmental groups supporting no-take zones in popular recreational fishing hotspots, some angler groups reacting by opposing all marine parks, siding with commercial fishers instead in opposing marine parks that would have had only a minimal impact on recreational fishers themselves. As soon as the debate turned into a battle of ideologies, the chances of a meaningful truce and worthwhile alliance was lost.

I can’t help but think that if environmentalists and anglers had come together on the issue rather than locking horns, better outcomes could have been achieved for both parties. Much of the backlash from recreational fishers came from being locked out small areas that hold a special place in the hearts of many fishers. In hindsight, if small concessions had been made on these areas, concessions allowing limited take or catch and release only fishing by recreational fishers, the antagonism that built up between the groups could have been avoided and recreational fishing bodies may have instead got behind marine parks, further strengthening the case for them and further protecting and securing marine environments and fish stocks for the future. Improving recreational fishing and environmental outcomes. Instead anglers wielded their significant political might opposing marine parks, conservationists stood firm and no meaningful truce or alliance was reached. This has in turn lead to commonwealth marine parks, which have a very limited impact on recreational fishers being reviewed, putting their continued existence at risk. The fact that petroleum licences are now being granted in these parks and that there is now a very real risk the parks will once again be opened to commercial fishing is a loss for both sides, a loss predicated on the inability of the two groups to work together constructively. I don’t think its sensible to apportion blame on either party, I simply think that both groups should attempt to learn from what happened in this case and how better outcomes might be achieved in the future.

Tuross is a great example of how recreational fishers and environmental groups might work together to achieve better outcomes. Since commercial fishing ceased in the basin, recreational fishing has improved markedly.
Tuross is a great example of how recreational fishers and environmental groups might work together to achieve better outcomes. Since commercial fishing ceased in the basin, recreational fishing has improved markedly.

The truth is that we need strong conservation voices from within the recreational fishing sector. That for its continued strength and survival the recreational fishing sector needs to be seen as a force for good. Lacking these voices puts the long term health of the industry and the strong public support that recreational fishing currently has within the community at risk. Recreational fishers simply cant allow the general public to view us as “bogans who don’t give two hoots about the environment”. We need to be seen as responsible guardians of our marine and freshwater resources, there not only to fish, but to look out for the environment.

The adversarial relationship that popped up between some environmentalists and recreational fishers hasn’t done either side any good. It is time for both groups to put their differences aside and to start thinking about working together, forming alliances and negotiating sensible outcomes. The truth is that recreational fishers have a lot to offer environmentalists, we could become some of their greatest allies, adding numbers and political might to campaigns to improve and conserve the environmental. In return, environmental groups can help strengthen the case for better management of our rivers, oceans and fisheries, thus benefiting recreational fishers. While there will always be tensions between the groups, the truth is that both sides have a lot to gain by coming together and working as a team to improve our marine and freshwater environments. Together we can achieve more than each group could possibly achieve alone.

The case against the super trawler is instructive, it was massively helped by the fact both environmental and recreational fishing groups were both vehemently opposed to it. While the groups didn’t actively work together, the political message was made so much clearer because it was coming from both sides. Without the joint opposition, the super trawler may have been fishing our waters as we speak. It is an example of whats possible when both groups work together.

Now, you may say I’m a dreamer, that it impossible to bridge the divide between the two groups. However, similar alliances in the United States and the UK show that such alliances are not only possible, but that they can be incredibly powerful. For example the Bonefish and Tarpon trust work with conservation groups and researchers to protect bonefish, permit and tarpon populations and secure the habitats that they rely on to thrive into the future. Trout unlimited works tirelessly bringing together landowners, agencies, conservation groups and other stakeholders together in order to reconnect and rehabilitate habitat to restore fish populations using the best possible science, achieving great things along the way. Other groups such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation partnership, the save bristol bay campaign (e.g. their campaign against the Pebble mine which threatens spawning salmon) and others are doing similar work. Initiatives like these not only improve fisheries, they improve the environment and they also improve the standing of recreational fishers within the wider community.

Thankfully similar work is being done in Australia. Organisations like the Fish habitat network, Recfishing research, Sunfish Queensland, Recfishwest and others are facilitating links between recreational fishers, environmental groups and researchers in order to improve fish habitat and fish stocks around the country. I strongly encourage all recreational fishermen to follow these groups, keep up to date with what they are doing and get involved when they can. To get involved with organisations such as the clean coast collective. The work done by these groups and many others highly worthwhile and needs our support.

While the relationship between recreational fishers and environmentalists in Australia wont be fixed overnight, it high time both sides at least tried to understand each other, the broad similarities between them and the fertile ground that exists for cooperation. Building alliances will ultimately help us conserve environments and ecosystems, directly benefitting environments, bird, mammals, fish and recreational fishers.





*The best defence against extremist who want to lock out recreational fishers isn’t fighting conservation efforts. It is forming meaningful alliances with conservation groups, alliance that achieve more than either group could achieve alone. Alliances that make recreational fishers an indispensable part of efforts to conserve our fish stocks. These sort of alliances wont make the extremists disappear, but they will vastly lessen their influence. Ultimately, in the long term, the best way to protect angler access and to improve fisheries, isn’t to fight environmentalists but to partner with them. To focus on our similarities and not our difference. Doing this will ensure that recreational fishers will have a far stronger case into the future, as guardians and protectors of fish stocks.


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3 thoughts on “Fishers vs environmentalists: is it time we found common ground?

  1. Good post Hamish. It’s interesting to note the parallels between fishing and hunting. The only part I disagree with is the message about large factory freezer vessels, or ‘supertrawlers’. If fisheries are managed conservatively using the best available science, it’s likely that these sorts of boats can be an important part of our sustainable commercial fisheries. Fishing for small pelagics is also a lot ‘cleaner’ than many other forms of commercial fishing, in that there is very little bycatch and interactions with protected species are low as a proportion of total catch. I think it’s worth focusing more fish production on small fish that fix protein quickly and efficiently. This form of fishing is one way to make these fish commercially viable. If it takes the pressure off other protein sources, which are arguably far more environmentally damaging in their production, then in the big picture it may not be such a bad thing.

    1. On the science, you are totally right. However, this post isn’t really about that. Effective campaigning and lobbying isn’t always about science. Its about mobilising political will to stop things/do things (whether they are backed up or not- now I think most decisions should be evidence based, but thats by the by)… And the super trawler is a great example of that happening (and then potentially the “wrong” scientific decision being made, although you could make a precautionary principle argument about how it was a good thing the super trawler was banned)

      In this I’m really just talking about campaigns. I also tip toe around the science in marine parks a bit in that- on a purely science sense, some complete lock ups of popular fishing spots made sense (not all but some). However, from a campaigning perspective pushing that probably backfired hugely for enviro groups, leading to a far worse outcome overall than could have been achieved if some concessions had been made with a view to getting greater support overall and a greater overall benefit. Sometimes you gotta dirty your ideals to get shit done and get the best pragmatic solution.


  2. Pingback: A deeper look at “wild” places (and is stocking threatened native fish outside their range a good idea?) | Flick and Fly Journal

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