Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

058: Why I'm Not Against Fishing

Most of you who read this column are well aware that I am a fairly strict conservationist. It has been about 25 years since I last speared a fish, harvested an abalone or caught a lobster. Now I simply take their pictures when I'm under water. I do not like to dive where hunters (spear fishermen) are present for two reasons. One hunter once speared me, I assume mistaking me for a black sea bass (they weren't protected back then). He wasn't a very good shot, striking my thumb instead of my massive chest (or is it stomach?). I also don't like to be near speared fish since they occasionally attract certain species that might take more than a casual interest in me!

However, I'm not against those who do take seafood as long as they follow the appropriate fishing laws. Some of my fellow "kelp huggers" wonder why I take that position. Essentially it is because I think we have become far too removed from nature and the sources of our existence in this urbanized, technological world. It is important to reconnect with the natural world to better understand our important links to it. Catching fish or other seafood, hunting and vegetable gardening are all ways to do this.

As a youngster I grew up in a rural area of Chicago's North Shore that was rapidly being developed. Housing sprung up in the cornfields and in the meadows by the creek I used to catch snapping turtles in. I spent much of my time in nature... at least until it was replaced by tract homes. I like the wildness of undeveloped areas, certainly a reason I'm attached to Catalina. When I moved to Toyon Bay from the big city environment of Boston, I was reassured by the knowledge that if our food supply were ever cut off, I could fish in our waters and hunt in our hills for food. In those days I often fished for sanddabs or rockcod and hunted pig to eat during summer while the school kitchen was closed. Of course school teachers didn't make a lot of money then... or now.

As part of our academic program at the Catalina Island School for Boys, I developed a class in organic gardening. Not only did it teach some basic biology and ecology to my students, but it gave them a chance to eat food they had actually planted and cared for. The turnips and corn I grew there were incredible... probably because the garden was on the site of a the former Catalina Guest Ranch's horse corral! We also hunted pigs to feed the school. Later, our new headmaster Dick Wheeler added school-organized fishing programs to catch a dinner a week. Interestingly, shortly afterwards many of the students became vegetarian. Hmmm.

We who live on Catalina are often very close to these sources of sustenance. Some among us fish, some hunted pigs and still hunt deer. They know what it means to go out into nature, learn the habits of their prey, kill an animal, clean or dress it and have it placed on their dinner plate. They understand where their food comes from. It is not just that nicely butchered steak or nicely cleaned fillet that we see under plastic wrap on the shelves at Vons.

Those who live in the big cities don't have such connections. The market shelves are where food "lives." Unless assigned as a class project, children do not know where that food really comes from... or sometimes even what the animal looks like that a steak or filet comes from! Why in most big cities, urban dwellers barely see stars in the sky. Nature has become very abstract for them... perhaps seen only on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet. To me this is very sad. Fortunately many urban dwellers sense this and leave the city to camp in wilder places during weekends and vacations. I think we all feel an inner need to be close to nature.

That is why I am not against those who fish or hunt in a safe manner. They are directly experiencing nature, and their involvement in the food webs of the land and sea. These are lessons and experiences that should be passed on to children. It is far better to hunt an introduced deer on the island, or catch a fairly common kelp bass, than it is to eat ecologically threatened "Chilean" sea bass (actually imported from Peru). Besides, it's much cheaper if you don't count the equipment (and the dozens of bullets) needed . If you buy your dinner at the grocery store, you're just letting someone else do your fishing or hunting for you.

However, fishing for "sport" is a completely different issue with me. I fail to see how killing another animal for pleasure constitutes "sport." This is the season when the big money marlin tournaments stake claim to the few remaining marlin of any real size. I feel confident that if anyone were to analyze the data from the billfish catch over the last 4-5 decades, the downward trend in size and numbers would become very obvious. According to the recent Pew Commission's study, only about 10% of major pelagic fish stocks like marlin, broadbill and tuna remain. These findings were cause for great concern by those on the commission which included not only conservationists and scientists, but fishermen and business people.

Of course some of these tournaments have shifted part (or all) of their focus to "tag and release." I have argued for two decades that "tag and release" fishing weakens many of these magnificent billfish making them suspectible to shark attacks, physiological collapse and death by other means. Some of my friends who fished billfish argued I was wrong, but I've heard recently that even studies conducted by billfishing organizations have verified my concern. So in the name of "sport" many of these beautiful fish end up on the ocean floor, including Lover's Cove as my images verify. I am surprised that those who objected to the removal of the non-native goats damaging our terrestrial ecosystems have not decried this removal of billfish from the ecosystems of our local waters. Personally I find this terribly hypocritical.

Fishing for food, however, is also a reason I'm strongly in favor of creating marine reserves in our waters and elsewhere. I fully believe they are one way to ensure our children and grandchildren will have the experience of directly taking their own food and truly understanding nature as we relate to it and it relates to us. So although I don't hunt or fish these days, I'm always a willing guest at the table of a friend who has legally taken a few lobster or a white sea bass from our waters. I'm just waiting for my phone to ring (in season of course)!

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Image caption: Marlin being dragged away on Pleasure Pier; marlin carcass chopped up and dumped in
Lover's Cove; marlin head with bill sawed off; marlin eye seeming to ask "Why?"

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia