Fanning the Flames

Why we put a dead mako shark on the cover of the March 2013 issue.

Our March cover showing a dead shortfin mako shark created lots of debate about fisheries management from several different viewpoints, and as seems to be the case more and more, our readers remain highly polarized. I got letters ranging from thoughtful admonishments to outright personal attacks from those who don’t like such photos. I also got a few letters from people who really liked the shot. Most people fall between ­extremes, philosophically speaking, but there’s something about sharks that inspires passion in people like no other type of fish. I suppose that’s because sharks have their own entire week of TV shows, and highly popular conservation programs being promoted by high-profile leaders in the ­sport-fishing community. Suffice it to say, sharks have transcended the mundane world in which most other fish remain mired. Think about it: Can you envision “Grouper Week!” on the Discovery Channel? “Cod Week” or “Mahi-Mahi Week”? I think not. The closest fish to sharks in terms of current hipness would have to be billfish. But no one is killing tens of thousands of billfish to cut their fins off for soup, so sharks definitely need ­more-immediate ­protection. The problem is that lots of fish need the same levels of attention and protection. I responded to one reader who wrote to protest our shark cover by saying that we had run a photo of a dead bluefin tuna a few issues previously, and we didn’t receive a single letter about that one. The case can be made that bluefin are in more dire need of protection than just about any other species, so why no outcry over a dead-tuna photo? It’s because tuna don’t instill the same level of passionate defense in ­people that sharks do, even though they do now have a TV show of sorts, the dreadful Wicked Tuna. But that show is not about the fish: It’s a reality show about the fishermen trying to catch the last of them. I’m not exactly sure how we got to this level of polarization, but here we are. No matter what fisheries issue you’re discussing, stringent opinions run rampant among the various camps, and most of them are 180 degrees apart from each other. It seems as if one camp believes we should have mandatory restrictive rules, while the opposing camp wants no rules at all. The latter approach stems from an all-time-high level of distrust toward the federal government. Virtually no one is arguing that the feds are doing a good job managing, and it’s their lack of action over the course of the past few decades that got the dreaded language creating ­rebuilding ­schedules and accountability ­measures inserted into the most recent ­Magnuson reauthorization in the first place. But the finger-pointing, name-calling and flame-throwing are out of hand. The Internet encourages such bad ­behavior, of course, because it’s easy to sit in a back bedroom at home, and hurl insults and scurrilous ­accusations at others anonymously through some cute screen name on a fishing forum. It’s also easy to become convinced that vast conspiracies are afoot, with all sorts of nefarious aims. It’s much more difficult, of course, to actually engage with the system in a meaningful way to try to bring about positive change. Don’t get me wrong; lots of smart people do that very thing every day, and I remain ­optimistic that we will come out the other side of the mess we currently find ourselves in with a healthier group of fish stocks and sustainable limits that will help us build a vibrant recreational-fishing future for our kids and ­grandkids. That should be our goal: working together toward a common solution for the long term. Lots of people get that message, but too many recreational fishermen who really should know better still do not; they’d rather throw bombs and flame others, and until they stop, we will remain divided and, ultimately, less effective than we should be.