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Posted on Oct 6, 2009 in Top Shots
Pew plan a travesty for Australia: Fishermen don't matter

Have you heard about the proposed Gulf of Mexico Heritage Park that will close the entire Gulf from southern Texas to Key West from 20 miles out to all recreational fishing?

Probably not, since I just made that up.

But I'll bet I got your attention.

And your full attention is warranted to understand what our sport-fishing counterparts Down Under are facing right now with a very real Coral Sea Heritage Park proposal.

There's been a great deal of concern in the U.S. recreational fishing community (RFC) that this administration will embark upon a campaign to create a vast network of marine sanctuaries that would be closed to any and all fishing. Recently, a letter from NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has come to light that suggests her agency has no plans to do so in the near future. While that may offer some relief, I think complacency may be risky. What is happening in Australia is cause for great concern, but even more frightening is the way it is happening, with the world's most powerful international environmental organization sending the message to an estimated five million Australian anglers and their nearly $700 billion economic contribution that you and your sport are not important whatsoever.

As part of its Global Ocean Legacy campaign, the Pew Foundation has launched a very impressive, well-organized and slick campaign to close to all extractive uses a stunningly immense chunk of the Pacific off Australia's fertile northeast coast.

Yes, that means absolutely no one would ever be allowed to wet a line anywhere at any time within this vast area which extends all the way out to the 200 nautical-mile limit of the country's jurisdiction.

A battle of sorts has been raging over there ... though "battle" may be the wrong term because certainly there's little comparing the resources of Queensland's RFC with the power, influence and money behind Pew. Still, the community is attempting to bring some sanity into whatever debate it can rouse.

You'll find below several links to give you a better picture of this fiasco in the making. Starting with another interview where an editor questions a top Pew policymaker. This interview appeared in Fishing World magazine, a leading Australian angling publication, and the director of the Pew's Australia campaign, Imogen Zethoven.

I should emphasize here that this is not simply "an Australian concern." If you love to fish salt water, it is your concern and mine. Pew is a U.S. environmental non-governmental organization which is reaching its long arms around the globe. And yes, if it's successful in this geographically enormous undertaking, it's not unreasonable to worry if Pew may not begin looking to establish more such "heritage parks," much closer to home.

In his interview in Sport Fishing (June 2009), the head of Pew's Environment Group, Josh Reichert, told readers he wants to find ways to work with (vs. against) recreational fishermen. When I pressed him on marine closures, Reichert acknowledged their main efforts are now overseas but added, "That's not to say we might not [in major efforts to create reserves in U.S. coastal waters] in the future."

My sense, after spending an hour chatting with Reichert, was of an honorable, decent and committed man. I still have no doubt of that. On the other hand, I should add that I am increasingly wondering just how much interest Pew really has in working with recreational anglers, afraid Pew's goals may indeed be the juggernaut that rolls over those who love the sport as I do.

Certainly this Coral Sea campaign certainly has me thinking that way.

My friend and colleague Jim Harnwell, publisher of Fishing World, had read the SF/Pew interview with great interest. Recently, he contacted me, hoping I could get Reichert to talk with him directly since he had had absolutely no luck in attempts to find any middle ground on this issue with Zethoven. Like me, Harnwell had the impression from the SF interview that Reichert might be interested in working with recreational fishing community to craft some sort of compromise solution.
Apparently not.

My personal pleas to Reichert and others at Pew HQ (in D.C.) to at least talk to Harnwell proved completely ineffectual.

Harnwell's' frustrations were evident in a subsequent editorial.

I've long tried to give Pew the benefit of many doubts. I'm increasingly finding myself in the ranks of the very, very worried when it comes to what Pew can do and what it very well may do - particularly with the Coral Sea park as an example.

Why? Here's some further food for thought.

1. The proposed Coral Sea Heritage Park (CSHP) is immense. You have to see the map to appreciate its size.
2. The CSHP is not in the middle of the Pacific; it's just off the Australian coast -- and closes waters off the entire northern half of the continent (think: North Carolina to Maine!) out to 200 nautical miles.
3. The CSHP doesn't lock up every possible, fishable inch of coastline only because for its entire length there is already a well-established Australia Great Barrier Reef Marine Park - right up against which the CSHP abuts.
4. A surprising amount of available reef platform and coral bank area in the Coral Sea region is already off-limits to sport fishing. About 30 percent of the multiple-use marine park already is closed to fishing (an area that Pew itself boasts covers more than 115,000 square kilometers). On top of that, more than 60 percent of the available reef and bank area in the proposed CSHP is already off-limits to fishing, with huge areas around Lihou and Coringa-Herald nature reserves completely closed.
5. The Coral Sea is already a surprisingly protected water. Besides so much of the sea already closed to fishing, as noted, recreational fishing is heavily regulated. Since 2003, harvest of a number of reef species is prohibited and other reef fish must be at least 25 centimeters with a combined bag limit of five fish. "Recreational fishing in [these waters] is highly regulated and well managed in comparison to other areas of the world," says Ben Diggles, PhD, an Australian fisheries scientist and Sport Fishing's Western Pacific Fish Facts expert for many years.
6. The CSHP declares that all sport fishing will be illegal in this vast site -- period. We need to spend a bit more time on this one, and I'll come back to it in a bit.

Actually, the idea of any need to close off this entire area to any/all recreational fishing does seem like someone's idea of a lousy joke. As noted, so little sport fishing occurs this far off the coast that even calling it "negligible" attributes more effort than warranted.

But if that's the case, why should anglers be upset about an area hardly any of them fish? I can offer a couple compelling reasons, one of these put forth by Diggles. The thought of ever in a lifetime getting a chance to fish any of these remote, untouched reefs is akin to the idea of a rock-climber's ascending Mount Everest; you may never get the chance for an expedition there, but will always be a pinnacle - that opportunity of a lifetime to take an ultimate adventure for millions of angling enthusiasts around the world.

Beyond this, and more worrisome, is the idea that you'll find if you read through the CSHP proposal.

The Pew literature maintains that the only way to protect the reefs and their resources is to close the entire vast area to any activity that might extract anything whatsoever. In Fishing World's must-read interview with Pew, Ms. Zethoven can't really dispute that recreational fishing would remain infinitesimal in any impact or footprint that a handful of boats (mostly releasing their fish) could possibly make in the CSHP, or that it's completely unfair to lump it in with commercial/industrial trawling or with longliners each dragging miles of hooks. No, she doesn't need to dispute that because it's all completely irrelevant to her.

Zethoven's attitude and that of Pew sure seems to be, no we have no evidence that sport fishing is harming these resources and yes, sport fishing may well be virtually non-extractive in any significant statistical sense, but we don't care. The easiest, quickest route to get what we're after is to just post it "closed to all fishing" and be done with it.

Let fishermen find another sport.

That modus operandi is scary indeed. I am very worried at the ease with which Pew is willing for expedience to de facto lump any/all recreational fishing with large-scale commercial activity. After all, recreational fishing thrives primarily upon the opportunity to try to catch fish; the success of commercial fishing depends upon its actually extracting large quantities of fish over and over. There is a difference, Ms. Zethoven!

Consider what Pew specifically states it aims to protect with this CSHP proposal off the Australian coast:

  • Sea turtles, whales and seabirds. And making sport fishing illegal would accomplish this how?
  • Corals from bleaching. And making sport fishing illegal would accomplish this how?
  • The area's "cultural heritage" (for its role as an arena in pivotal WW II naval battles). And making sport fishing illegal would accomplish this how?
  • The area's "civic heritage" (where some remarkable shipwrecks have occurred).And making sport fishing illegal would accomplish this how?
  • "Globally threatened" species such as billfishes, tunas and sharks. And making sport fishing - which keeps few tuna and virtually no marlin or sharks - illegal would accomplish this how?
  • Australia's status as a global marine leader. And making sport fishing illegal would accomplish this how?
  • Mammals and large fish from the growing, acknowledged commercial bycatch. And making sport fishing illegal would accomplish this how?
  • Seamounts from "destructive bottom trawlers." And making sport fishing illegal would accomplish this how?
  • Spectacular biodiversity of large fishes and coral reefs.
    And making sport fishing - of which precious little occurs here and is mostly catch/release - illegal would accomplish this how?
  • Nursery areas for marine animals.
    And making sport fishing illegal would accomplish this how?
  • "The growth of sustainable tourism industries."
    And making sport fishing illegal would accomplish this how?

Reading the Fishing World interview, I was struck by how hard Harnwell works to extract (pardon the expression) even a hint of willingness from Zethoven to work cooperatively with the recreational-fishing community. He keeps referring to some "middle ground" in the difficult dispute, though she'll have none of that.

Yet it occurs to me that recreational interests here have already been forced into that "middle ground." That is, if we were truly talking about a middle ground, then we'd be looking at Pew's goals to close the entire Coral Sea to sport fishing on the one hand, and at recreational fishermen's goal to open the entire sea to sport fishing on the other. Then between those two objectives would lie some middle ground.

However, sport fishermen have already given up any right to fish large areas within the CSHP boundaries (as well as closed areas in the existing Barrier Reef park) and, I think they'd be willing to abide by further closures. They're only asking that this proposal not lock up every square inch of the coral sea and throw away the key.

I feel compelled here to return to this salient thought: this time it's about Australia. Next time it could indeed be about the Gulf of Mexico or Chesapeake Bay or Puget Sound or any place else Pew determines needs to be "protected" from the ravages of anglers. I admit that I've worked hard to avoid jumping on any ostensible alarmist bandwagons. But upon seeing how the Pew effort is wielding its considerable power and influence (and some might maintain, arrogance) like a club when it comes to dealing with Australia's recreational-fishing community, my attitude is changing.

The eyes of millions of sport-fishing enthusiasts should be focused on the Australian situation as indicative of the way Pew may deal with recreational fishing in general, not just in Australia. If that's the case, let's go fishing while we can. We may soon find ourselves in the same metaphorical boat as our Aussie mates - who, in Pew's plan, will be competing to drop lines in suddenly very limited reef areas - crowded into fewer and fewer "fishing-permitted" zones.

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