Are anglers conservationists?

I’ve noticed an interesting trend lately that illuminates some problematic agendas regarding conservation. The recent dam failure in Montana has brought to light a conflict of interest for anglers operating under the guise of conservation. Are anglers advocating for conservation or are they simply trying to better the sport for themselves?

Dams are bad for aquatic organisms. That’s simply a well-documented fact. Dams prevent aquatic organism passage, change water chemistry and temperature from their natural state, change species composition both above and below the impoundment, and when they fail, the results are catastrophic.

Obviously, the change in temperature and species composition is bad from a naturalist’s perspective. From an angler’s perspective, however, the species and temperature change can be a boon. For anglers, tailwaters are some of the best places to fish for salmonids.

This creates a bit of a conundrum if you’re an angler who calls themself a conservationist or a conservation organization that focuses on angling. What is good for angling may not be good for the environment, or native species. Once you go down this rabbit hole, it illuminates several other related issues where conservation organizations promote certain activities that negatively impact the environment under the guise of conservation.

Take the stocking of nonnative salmonids over top of self-sustaining populations of wild native brook trout for example. Here in Pennsylvania, we’re facing an issue right now where a local nonprofit angling group is lobbying for a stocking exemption in order to continue stocking a newly listed class A stream.

I take issue with an organization that is classified as nonprofit and tax-exempt advocating for something that negatively impacts the resource for the public. Nonprofit organizations are supposed to operate in the best interests of the public. So how is an action that is documented to negatively impact the resource and against the state fisheries management agency’s policy operating in the best interest of the public?

I think this gets at a bigger issue, especially in Pennsylvania, and that is, what is the “Resource”? The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s “motto” is: “Resource First”. Is the commonwealth’s water the resource? Are the fish and other species that inhabit the water the resource? Should native species take priority over nonnative species? If stocking nonnative fish over top of wild native fish is injurious to the native fish, how is that “Resource First”? How is it allowed that a state agency or public nonprofit organization can carry out activities that are deleterious to the environment and against the best interests of the public?

It’s even more egregious that nonprofit organizations are advocating for the protection of native species and are unable to get the same time at the table as another nonprofit that is advocating for something that is injurious to native species. That’s exactly what is happening in Pennsylvania right now. A small nonprofit fishing club with a hatchery was somehow able to cause the group of commissioners to vote for an exemption to allow the continued stocking of a Class A stream.

The commissioners are all appointed to their positions, and their job is to uphold the agency’s mission (to protect, conserve, and enhance the Commonwealth’s aquatic resources and provide fishing and boating opportunities.). Again, what is considered the resource? Have we perverted the definition of “resource” to include things that people want while damaging the environment and native species composition?

That a small group of people has been more successful at causing an action that is bad for the resource while a larger organization has gotten nowhere with lobbying for the protection of native species is appalling. Beyond this issue, all over the state, there are clubs operating as nonprofit organizations that carry out activities that are counter to conservation. So it’s not conservation, it’s self-serving, and it’s to better fishing for a few at the expense of the resource.

Beyond salmonids, there are serious implications for these actions. It’s easy to promote beautiful salmonids, but who is looking out for the numerous other species that are negatively impacted by the salmonids? A good example of this is in southcentral PA in some tributaries to the Susquehanna where an endangered species of logperch exists in streams that are still stocked by the state with nonnative salmonids. Again, what is the resource? Do the nonnative salmonids have more value than the native endangered species?

With dams, anglers will advocate in favor of tailwater fisheries while advocating for dam removal to benefit anadromous salmonids, but what about the other species that live in the waters impacted by tailwaters and nonnative salmonids? People are willing to sacrifice native nongame species in order to create artificial tailwater fisheries for nonnative salmonids but want to protect native salmonids where dams are causing a decline or even threatening the extinction of the salmonids. Anglers will hold gamefish species above nongame fish species, which is understandable, but that’s not conservation.

Mottled Sculpin

To complicate matters even further, there’s the issue of dams as barriers to prevent nonnative or invasive fish ingress. The problem with this approach is that population isolation is often extremely detrimental to the population as well. It becomes a question of which poison is better.

Here is a great scientific paper that looks at the trade-offs between isolation and nonnative fish invasion: https://easternbrooktrout.org/science-data/science-publications/evaluating-the-trade-offs-between-invasion-and-isolation-for-native-brook-trout-and-nonnative-brown-trout-in-pennsylvania-streams/at_download/file

I understand that angling is a pathway to conservation. I think the organizations that operate as conservation organizations need to really evaluate the messages they’re sending. What is best for anglers may not be conservation. What is best for the resources may not be best for anglers.

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