Of Aquariums and S. 1520

With fish and fishing, where exactly are we headed?

By Captain John McMurray

Let me preface all this by saying, I love aquariums.

Particularly the New York Aquarium in Coney Island.  It’s iconic.  And the staff there is awesome.  Riverhead, with its native saltmarsh display is a close second.  And Monterey?  Supper cool.  Especially the giant tank with tuna swimming around in it.

I could go on here…  Because with just about every city I visit, I try and make sure I hit the local aquarium…  most of the time with a couple of “oohing” and “ahhhing” kids in tow.  While sure, they enjoy it, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that such visits are mostly for me… because it’s a quick-and-dirty fix, particularly during the off-season.

But let me be honest…  Sometimes, those visits make me profoundly sad.

Why might be hard to explain, but bear with me, because there’s a point to this, and it all ties into what’s happening on the water, and in DC.

It’s precisely those “oohs” and “aahhs” when that 50-pound striper swims by the glass that set me off.  Because it’s the same sort of reaction I get in the wild, although it usually manifests itself in some sort of shouted expletive.  It’s the same heart-rate spike.  The same sense of wowness (if that’s a word) when you see a striper roll, or a tuna come rocketing out of the water, or a gigantic humpback breach in the wild.

I’m not bashing it, because I indulge frequently, but to me at least, there’s something off about the aquarium experience.  It’s like watching porn.  We’re not engaging.  We’re not actually part of it.  It’s not “real”.

Yes, it’s important on a number of levels that we have that aquarium experience for a broad range of folks, particularly given the fact that most aquariums across the globe not only educate visitors on conservation, environmental threats to fisheries etc., but they are in many cases conservation advocates.  And not everyone gets to be out on the water, certainly not on a regular basis.   But “man”, at least this one, cannot/should-not live on aquariums alone.

Having experienced the last two decades as a fisherman, and a decade as a fishery manager; having seen huge coastal population increases; having witnessed large extractive industries pushing to catch every last fish they can, claiming them as their own; having seen a push from commercial fishermen, and now some anglers to weaken the conservation provisions of a federal law that works to keep a few fish in the water; having seen the ever increasing demand for seafood spawn an unholy fish-farming industry, with plans to populate oceans with fish-pens, while sucking forage-fish up to feed antibiotic filled frankenfish; and having a full understanding of how climate change and ocean acidification is affecting the entire ocean…  I can’t help but wonder if the aquarium experience will, at some point, be all we’re left with.

Too many folks (particularly those in congress) are far less willing to compromise than they were in prior decades. Good bi-partisan bills are somewhat rare. That, coupled with a very real anti-regulation bent in administrative agencies could work out quite badly for the fish, for us, for the future of fishing in general.  Arguably, it already is.

There are younger generations behind us, without the outdoor experience.  Generations that grow up favoring video games and social media over going down to the dock to catch snappers.  I can tell you firsthand that a lotta these kids are smart. They have access to way more information than we did, and they understand when things aren’t right.

They are and will continue to get fed up with an aging generation screwing things up.  Killing too many things, avoiding climate change, and, well everything else we’re currently failing on.  And at some point, such generations will be managers and lawmakers.

I can’t help but feel if we continue to go down this road, if we don’t keep a lid on all this pressure, well, we won’t stop fishing simply because there are no fish around, but because those later generations simply mandate it.  Because we failed.  Failed to manage things sustainably. Failed to manage so that there are enough fish in the water for the entire public to utilize instead of simply special interests.

Yes, I still get goosebumps when I see that big striper swim by the glass, yet sometimes, suddenly and profoundly, it all really bums me out.

Perhaps such thoughts are spawned by the usual post season “I’m-not-fishing-and-I-hate-everyone” blues, but maybe they are legitimate concerns from a person with enough on and off the water experience with this stuff to have an understanding of where things might be going.  IF they are allowed to go there.

And if they do, then what?  An ocean of fish farms?  And… the only interaction, touch-tanks in aquariums so we can go and pet them?  That’s largely what’s happened with many terrestrial species.  We now gawk at them in zoos.

Naaa man. I don’t want that.  Not for my kids.

  1. 1520

Let me get to where I was going with all of this…

We’ve been writing about what we believe are a few really bad, ahem, scary-bad, bills in congress–game changers really.

Specifically, H.R.200 – Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act and S.1520 – Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 (AKA the Modern Fish Act).  (note: click on each of those links for details).

Let me be clear:  H.R. 200 is worthless…  It is, more or less, the same bill we all dubbed the “Empty Oceans Act” back in 2014.  Very little has changed, except all the bad parts of the Modern Fish Act got incorporated into an already hugely flawed bill, which seems to allow overfishing through a number of poorly thought out exemptions to current law.  In my/our opinion, it’s a sell-out bill.  It sells out the future… our kid’s future, for short-term profit of special interests.

That said, a mark-up of S.1520 took place on February 28.  Thanks to true bi-partisan compromise, what came out, while certainly not optimal, is still, not bad.  Not bad at all…  Especially considering where we started.

What does it do specifically?  Well, the exceptions from annual catch limits that we were so concerned about in the old bill are gone.  More importantly, a new provision in the bill makes it clear that some of the bedrock conservation provisions of current law would remain intact.  It would still prohibit overfishing and require that stocks be managed for “optimum yield.” Scientists would continue to set overfishing limits. “Annual Catch Limits” and “Accountability Measures” would remain part of every fishery management plan.

The “alternative management measures” language (i.e. managing with catch rates instead of hard quotas) now makes it clear that such measures are not meant to replace annual catch limits.  In other words, alternative management is fine, so long as it keeps harvest under the annual catch limit.  Yes, that’s something that Councils already have the flexibility to do, so I get there’s still concern on some level about the intent of including such language at all.

There’s still language requiring a reconsideration of commercial/recreational allocation in the South Atlantic/Gulf every 5 years, and some stuff that could jam up catch-share programs. Indeed, such provisions are making some people nervous.  But frankly, from the perspective of some of us in the Mid Atlantic and Northeast, they aren’t terribly concerning.

However… we should be clear… this is in no way the end of it.  Not even close.

What happens next is critical. 

Even IF the full Senate votes for this new version, without any terrible amendments, reconciliation still needs to happen with the House of Representatives.  The House version of the Modern Fish Act, H.R. 2023, is the bad one.  And given the lack of bipartisan cooperation on that side, I can’t see reconciliation working out for us.

And of course, we’ll also have to deal H.R.200 – the worst-case scenario “Empty Oceans Act”.  As mentioned, provisions of H.R. 2023 were added to H.R. 200.   It’s entirely possible that a reconciled bill will carry enough of H.R. 200s provisions to make it, well, terrible.

And that would be bad…

But what’s the takeaway here? 

For one, I truly believe that conservation minded anglers (specifically those who took the time to respond to our calls to action and contact their senators about S. 1520) had some impact.  THAT is a big deal…  and sufficient reason for us to continue to be engaged.

But really, it’s that a bi-partisan group of reasonable Senators sat down and tried to address the concerns of conservation minded anglers, and of everyone else who doesn’t’ want to see our oceans fished out.

I’m the first one to admit that, from a conservation perspective, S. 1520 isn’t perfect.   And yes, there may be a little too much wiggle room for mischief to happen.  But I can’t help but think such bipartisan cooperation is a very large step in the right direction.

So for now, I’m thinking marine resources may not be screwed…  And maybe, guys like me who depend on abundant, healthy fish stocks to make a living may end up okay.

And… my (our) kids may be able to experience the kinda things on the water that make us shout expletives instead of simply seeing fish in confinement swim by glass.  Maybe…

And maybe, I can take my kids an Aquarium in the near future…  without feeling like I need a drink afterwards.

For now…  I’m somewhat hopeful …

But I reserve the right to be incredibly disappointed again in the near future.

Stay tuned…





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  1. Pingback/Trackback
    Mar 16, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    Aquariums… good/bad? S 1520 and the future of fishing. – Fly Life Magazine