A chapter from The Last of the Hunter Gatherers, reproduced with kind permission from the author Michael Wigan
One of the most attractive ways to use a resource is enjoy it, then leave it behind. Sport fishing has this unbeatable, quite unassailable virtue: it does not harm the stock. Either the numbers caught and retained are so low as to be irrelevant or, in the USA where sport fishing has been taken further than anywhere else, the fish are played and then put back. In sport fishing meccas like the Florida Keys, fishing Guides report that almost nothing is retained by anglers anymore; even potential record-breaking specimens are being returned unmeasured. Indeed, returning fish has taken on an almost mystical significance. An American salmon angler buttonholed me in a Helsinki hotel, preparatory to a fishing trip on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, and staring hard into my eyes said, Hitting that fish on the head would be like killing my mother.
As an unimpeachable way to exploit the fish resource sport fishing has few equals – except perhaps reef viewing through a glass-bottomed boat. Over this simple voyeurism, sport fishing has the advantage that its adherents actually get to grips with the fish in its environment, selecting a lure which will attract it, then playing it on tackle expressly designed to communicate the power of the fish through the length of the rod to the angler, and finally appreciate its splendour at close range. Simply the frisson of being in physical contact with big fish, shining, unblinking, disturbingly different from their captors, is one of sport fishing’s inscrutable attractions.
The socio-economic characteristics of sport fishing are highly favourable. It provides relaxation in the open air on the earth’s least-pressurised surface. It can be performed by anyone of any age regardless of handicap. Even a blind man can be rigged out and put in the fishing-chair to wait for the bite. It provides, if a sample of the catch is retained, top-notch food for the table, fresher than it could be procured any other way. Its environmental impacts are almost zero; for those who fish off their own flat feet from the rocks or the beach, literally zero. Sport fishermen are the best and most numerous early warning reporters of anything peculiar affecting the environment they use. Sport fishing can be done at any level, and only in countries where the beach or shoreline is privately-owned is it necessary that there need be any monetary exactions at all. Where there are, they support jobs. With their catch and release habits sport fishers are in a perfect position to tag fish at the same time. American scientists have fulsomely acknowledged the role of the sports in accumulating data for vital stock assessments. Specialists in rigging up lines of baits, calculating the colours, sizes, and sequences in the rig of each constituent part, and at what depth, speed, and location to fish them, have contributed to scientific knowledge about fish behaviour. For reasons like these, plus the one that saltwater angling can be as challenging, thrilling, dramatic, and soul-refreshing as any other activity, its popularity is growing.
Furthermore, saltwater angling has had a major effect on fish stock conservation; several species have been saved by the angling lobby. All in all, armed with these points, it is possible to face the fact, without incredulity, that in America the value of the saltwater sport fishery taken as a whole hugely exceeds that of the entire American commercial fishing industry. Excluding indirect spending – travel and hotels – sport fishing is worth $72 billion a year and provides 1.3 million people with jobs. By numbers the most popular sport in which people actually participate (an alleged 60 million practitioners), sport fishing has also been called the salvation of American fishery resources.
The ethos of American sport fishing has another dimension. Game fish, like land-living game, except in some cases under special licence, cannot be sold. This was laid down as one of the early provisos of American hunting lore, a wise recognition that over time it would militate in favour of species protection. It applies equally to fish and fowl and acts as a brake on over-exploitation. In any debate about the partitioning of resources game anglers open operations on the moral high ground.