Caring In Deed
It's time to care.
For many of us, fishing is our escape. When we're "out there" our worries fall away. Out there, our concerns amount to having enough bait and presenting it to the biggest fish in the lake, and perhaps avoiding mosquitoes and thunderstorms.
Ten years ago I started the nonprofit organization Recycled Fish that, I hoped, would mobilize America's 60 million anglers to be stewards of our waters.
It seemed like a no-brainer. Anglers are passionate about their waters. There are a lot of us, and we're widely distributed – socially, economically and geographically. Those of us who fish are passionate about our waters and we have a stake in them that nobody else does: We're connected to them through our sport. Anglers are also the "original conservationists." This is the Teddy Roosevelt stuff. And there was no nonprofit that spoke to all anglers, everywhere, about everyday ways we can all help our waters, regardless of where we fish or what we fish for.
Imagine a world where the topic of fishing comes up between you and someone who doesn't fish. You've had that happen, right? Imagine that every time that conversation happens, the response from your non-angling amigo is, "Oh, you guys are the ones that defend our waters!" Imagine that.
As you know, that's not how it is now.
People who don't fish don't look at fishermen as heroes.
There's a reason for that.
Sure, sportsmen contribute more dollars and man-hours to conservation than any other group of people. But the overwhelming majority of those dollars come from license sales and a special tax on fishing gear known widely as Wallop-Breaux. Most of our giving is compulsory, not voluntary.
Those man-hours? They come from the few – not the many. The 80/20 rule applies, meaning 20% of the people are doing 80% of the work.
But it's possible. Possible that anglers could be known across North America for being stewards of our waters. But to be known for that, we have to be that – and be visible about it.
I remain optimistic, because I still hold that vision – that anglers will actually transform culture for all the reasons I listed a moment ago. There are a lot of us, we're everywhere and we're connected to our waters.
I'm still optimistic, but in the intervening decade, I've had some rude awakenings.
The first is that some anglers really don't care, and probably never will. That's why there are Styrofoam worm containers, a jumble of beer cans and tangles of fishing line at your favorite fishing hole. It's why when news of a hot fishing spot breaks, a horde of people, bristling with their graphite sticks and 5-gallon buckets, descends upon it to make sure that the hot fishing doesn't last long.
Some folks who own fishing gear simply do not care about our waters. That problem is bigger – it's rooted in a poverty mindset, and if you went to those people's homes, their homes would look exactly the same as they left their fishing spot. Bad.
But if we're being honest, trash and over-harvest is a small, small part of the problem, and it's the irresponsibility of just a few.
Honestly, the big problem is in all the rest of us. It's all of us who say we care, but the limits of 'caring' are devastatingly low.
Let me give you some examples.
Over the past ten years, I've personally stood next to a Recycled Fish exhibit hundreds of times and talked to – I did some rough math – over 20,000 people, one-on-one. Add our 120 volunteers and ambassadors, the power of the Internet, our industry partners – we've generated millions of impressions every year.
But looking just at the live events that I've personally worked, I've invited these 20,000 anglers to take the Sportsman's Stewardship Pledge, or to make a small donation.
An overwhelming majority of people say they care, but with a shopping basket full of $8 crankbaits, or while holding a $6 beer or a $3 bottle of water, fewer than 1 in 20 will make even a $2 donation to help advance the cause, even if they'd get some tackle and information about taking care of our waters through everyday living.
We say we care, but we don't.
Some people are hard up for cash – that's a given. It's free to take the Sportsman's Stewardship Pledge, but anglers stand for independence, and it's killing us – all this fragmentation. Even if it means standing up and being counted as stewards, fewer than 10% of people who I have personally invited, one-on-one, to take the Sportsman's Stewardship Pledge have taken me up on it.
We say we care, but we don't. We don't care – not enough to join.
Fortunately, about 15,000 anglers have taken the Sportsman's Stewardship Pledge – but fewer than 10% have donated even the minimal $25 per year to become a 'Supporting Steward' and advance the cause, even if they'd get $25 worth of 'stuff' out of it.
We say we care, but we don't care - not enough to give.
I've spoken with fishermen about the problems facing our waters face-to-face in nearly all fifty states, and almost universally, if they're already doing the right things to solve the problems, they are quick to agree. If they aren't, they argue that the problem really isn't that big, it's someone else's fault, the science is bad or their little drop in the bucket doesn't matter.
We say we care, but we don't care – not enough to change.
Well, it's time to care. To buck that trend.
Our waters are in trouble. According to the U.S. EPA, 49% are so polluted that they can't support a healthy fishery. We're losing access. Running out of fresh water. Invasive species are spreading like wildfire. Fewer young people are fishing, as "nature deficit disorder" spreads. Not good.
There are solutions to all of these problems, and most of them have to do with learning about the problems and making changes to solve them – then encouraging others to do the same.
But I get it. This – this fishing – this is our escape. It's not our cause, it's not something we want to toil over. It's where we escape from our toil.
The challenge is this: If we don't do something now, we won't have this great thing that we enjoy to hand off to the generations to come. We won't.
This is bigger than our sport. It's about our drinking water. About our way of life.
The time to care is NOW. Right now. Not just caring in word, but caring in deed.
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about the author
Recycled Fish is the national non-profit organization of "anglers living a Lifestyle of Stewardship both on and off the water, because Our Lifestyle Runs Downstream."