- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

The fight to stop sport fishing has begun. A Middle Atlantic edition of the Fisherman, a colorful weekly newsprint-style magazine, recently contained a glimpse into the activities of extreme environmentalists who are determined to stop sport fishermen from visiting vast coastal ocean sectors. Why? The environmentalists say the only way you can save and protect critically important coastal stretches is to turn them into "ocean wilderness areas."
Don't laugh. These people are as serious as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals whose members nowadays show up at various fishing tournament sites, some of them wearing suits that vaguely resemble a fish, spreading the message that fish are like people and that hooks hurt along the way hoping to stop the 65-odd million Americans for whom fishing is not just welcome recreation but also a passion.
PETA's cohorts in the animal rights movement, including the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Fund For Animals, also believe fishing is simply awful. The big difference is that the established animal religionists are almost clumsy in their attempts to sway the public when compared to the people behind the "ocean wilderness" concept.
The Fisherman publication said, "Right now, extremist environmental groups are waging a subtle battle in California and other states for the public's premier coastal recreational areas. Within the past year, schemes have been hatched that would shut down more than 60 percent of Southern California's best sport fishing grounds.
"Already, 'No Fishing' proposals have circulated throughout New England, Florida and other parts of the Southeast. It's just a matter of time before these well-organized and richly financed groups tell you that you're no longer welcome in your public waters." One of the organizations, the Ocean Conservancy, has no problem in hoping to create ocean wilderness areas that only the privileged few could access.
The danger in all this is that no one in his right mind would object to protecting threatened ocean sectors that have been damaged by pollution, or thoughtless commercial fishing operations. In fact, many decent people who are not at all interested in halting legitimate sport fishing are also involved in the creation of what the government refers to as Marine Protective Areas.
But how the sport fishing community suddenly became entangled in seaside exploitation issues is anybody's guess. Sensible heads should prevail and look at the protection of ocean areas the way America came to its senses in the early parts of the 20th century and stopped commercial hunting, created wildlife preserves and national forests that threw out the market hunters but never objected to well-regulated recreational uses, including sport hunting.
The American Sportfishing Association president, Mike Nussbaum, says no one objects to oceans teeming with fish, but the best way to accomplish this isn't by throwing out the public. How can anyone ignore the effectiveness of proven fish conservation tools, such as bag limits, size limits, fishing seasons that contain restrictions when called for, even catch moratoriums for threatened species?
Do you recall when the state fish of Maryland, the striped bass, hit the skids for decades on end and in the mid 1980s because of commercial and, yes, sportfishing over-exploitation was totally protected by a state-enforced catch moratorium? Nobody could touch it.
Everybody stood by and waited to see what would happen. Within five years, the species rebounded so tremendously, it became a fish restoration lesson for the world. Today the stripers are carefully governed with size, creel and even netters' limits. But for heaven's sake, don't let a small number of well-heeled, radical environmentalists dictate terms to the rest of America concerning ocean stretches on both coasts that deliver countless hours of much-needed recreation for millions of citizens.
What seems so ludicrous is certain conservationists' desire to stop certain water-related activities. If an ocean wilderness were declared to, say, protect damaged coral reefs or a threatened population of spiny lobsters, how could an artificial lure-using sport angler in search of fish species that aren't threatened in any way hurt the so-called wilderness area? The danger here is that we might be creating ocean "museums" that can be visited only by those the elitist conservationists give the nod to.
Nussbaum says the first step in stopping these groups is to go to www.FreedomToFish.org and let your voice be heard. Tell them that you will not let extremist environmentalists keep you away from the oceans, especially when we know how to restore fin- and shellfish species with time-proven, honest conservation practices.

Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Friday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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