Magazine Post: Fishing Gone?

Fishing Gone?

By Sid Dobrin 

The following article is a modified chapter from the book Fishing Gone? by hardcore angler, author and University of Florida English professor,
Sid Dobrin. The book covers a broad range of entertaining and valuable subjects and should be on every recreational angler’s reading list.

Like many who fish in saltwater, I feel compelled when on the water to pick up the floating trash I find. Sometimes I overfill my kayak with trash, making actual fishing difficult. Other times, my boat looks like a garbage barge. I am always amazed by the volume of junk I pull from the water and by the array of debris I collect. Unquestionably, among the usual suspects of beer bottles, plastic water bottles, chip bags and so on, I often find discarded fishing tackle. I would bet that just about anyone who fishes in saltwater regularly, or walks along a beach or dock, finds discarded — intentionally or accidentally — fishing tackle, lures and hooks, in particular.

Years ago, a friend of mine began collecting every discarded lure he found while out fishing. At first, he just kept the lures in a pile, but as his collection grew, he began hanging them on a board in his house. Some of the lures were virtually new; others were corroded with time and saltwater. He hung them all, and as the board began to accumulate hundreds of lures, those of us who visited his house began to see the collection as a piece of art. It was beautiful not only as an aesthetic piece composed of a kaleidoscope of colors, but also as a polychromatic commentary about waste. The piece, which continues to grow, stands as a testament to recreational angling’s complicity in a culture that contributes to discarded plastics in the ocean. Of course, other anglers who have seen my friend’s “art” ask whether they can have some of the still-usable lures. Some ask why he does not just throw away the lures that are no longer of angling use. I have heard him explain that, for him, each lure carries the same value — the ones some see as still usable and the ones they identify as having no angling value. To my friend, they are all reminders of a more holistic issue regarding anglers’ excess and their own faults in ocean desecration. The collection, that is, reminds my friend of his own anglers’ ethic.

I fantasize from time to time about various ways to challenge my fishing. For example, I consider fishing with only bucktails for a year, or only spoons, no matter the target species or location. Could I have a successful year relying on only one of these two canonical lures? Or how long could I fish with just one lure? Tie it onto my line on Jan. 1 and not switch it out until it breaks off; how long would it last? How many fish would it catch? Or what would it be like to fish with only the tackle in the tackle box I inherited from my grandfather when he passed away? Or with my first tackle box, which sits in storage? How long could I fish with what I already own? (This is an unfair challenge, though, as I have a fairly substantial cache, and I would have to surrender reviewing new gear for my website,, which I’m not willing to do.)

Of these challenges though, the one I find most intriguing is fishing only with scavenged terminal tackle I find on piers, along beaches, snagged in rocks and coral, or tossed aside in the water. That is, fish only with what I find expelled into the ocean. Instead of mounting the found lures as trophies, as my friend does, I contemplate recycling them in order to maintain their intended use-value, thereby not condemning them to the status of debris or even art. Let them catch fish again. Given the array of discarded terminal tackle I regularly find tossed into the ocean, I presume I would manage just fine. In fact, I would put it to all recreational anglers — saltwater and fresh — to start your own collection of found tackle. Not only would such collections contribute to conservationist anglers’ efforts to remove trash from our waters, but I’m also betting they would teach us each a good deal about how we function as anglers: what gets discarded in a specific region, which lures are common to a specific area, which lures degrade more readily, and so on. It might be a compelling cultural shift if, alongside stories of our greatest fishing moments and pictures of our trophy fish, we were proud to show off our collections of reclaimed tackle. Ponder, that is, a cultural practice of lure reclamation apace with catch and release, line recycling, and banana aversion. Cultural nuances like this contribute to the overall anglers’ ethic and our willingness to see the details within the complexity of recreational fishing.

The new anglers’ ethic, though, requires asking questions that are more complex than what we put in the ocean and what we take from it. Questions that ask about the ways in which the ocean and its inhabitants will adapt to both our additive and removal practices must become paramount. In 2017 for example, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) introduced H.R. 2083, the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, which seeks to revise the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to allow for the “harassment” and killing of sea lions (which the MMPA protects against) in order to discourage them from feeding on endangered salmon populations. According to the proposed bill, the California sea lion habitat was historically restricted to saltwater environments. However, as many as 3,000 sea lions have recently been foraging as far as 145 miles up the Columbia River in Oregon, altering local ecologies. Similar patterns have been observed elsewhere in Oregon and in Washington. H.R. 2083 identifies that “Federal, State, and Tribal estimates indicate that sea lions are consuming at least 20 percent of the Columbia River spring chinook run and 15 percent of Willamette River steelhead run, two salmonid species listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.” Sea lions facilitate this recent behavior by exploiting human technological intervention in the rivers. Sea lions have begun using the dams along rivers to expedite their salmon hunting, including using “fish ladders,” which were installed to encourage salmon migration and spawning. That is, the introduction of dams and fish ladders to the rivers has provided sea lions with the technology needed to access the salmon on which they forage. This adaptation has significantly altered the salmon ecology of the Northwest, changing predator-prey dynamics in ways that are having a significant impact on fish populations, pitting the conservation value of one endangered species value against that of another. In response, Beutler designed her legislation to protect the salmon populations without considering such dynamics of the problem as the ecological impact of changes to sea lion habitat, the introduction of dams and fish ladders, and the possibility of actions against the sea lions without further study. Nonetheless, as an angler, I find myself philosophically supporting the bill, but to do so falls into the ongoing trap of making decisions based on ideology rather than on scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, we fall too often into this pattern. We also must recognize that our technological evolution has contributed to ocean degradation for much longer than we assume. That is, human development has impacted ocean conditions for much longer than the immediate technological age or industrial age.

Consider this: from 1854 to 1858, the Atlantic Telegraph Company laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable from Foilhommerum Bay off Valentia Island in Western Ireland to Heart’s Content on Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. On Aug. 16, 1858, Queen Victoria sent U.S. President James Buchanan the first transatlantic telegraph. Prior to the cable, transatlantic communication relied on ships to carry information, but this technological achievement altered more than just global communications. The initial cable routes, as Nicole Starosielski has shown in her eye-opening book, The Undersea Network, laid the foundation for communications networks that have influenced global communication, culture, geography, environment, history and politics. In fact, undersea cable networks are now responsible for carrying almost all transoceanic internet content and serve as the foundation for the functioning of wireless networks (remarkably, despite common assumptions, they do so more quickly, more cheaply, and more often than satellites).

In 1860, a damaged portion of the transatlantic cable was lifted from the ocean floor nearly 6,000 feet down. Those working on the cable found numerous deepwater species entangled along the line. Prior to that moment, conventional wisdom, supported by scientific observation (limited by the technologies of the time), understood the ocean to be lifeless below depths of about 1,800 feet. The discovery of deepwater life radically changed not only what we knew about the ocean but how we thought of it and positioned it culturally.

From 1928–29, working with engineer Otis Barton, explorer and naturalist William Beebe built a bathysphere, an unpowered, pressurized submersible. Beebe used the bathysphere to make multiple dives to 3,000 feet between 1930 and 1934, from Nonsuch Island in Bermuda. Beebe’s dives marked the first time humans had attempted to observe deepwater organisms in their natural environment.

Beebe gave us a firsthand glimpse of the deep ocean, a place we could only imagine by way of writers such as Jules Verne prior to the technological development of the bathysphere. In the same period as this technological development provided the first access to deepwater study, giving us the first glimpses of previously inaccessible ocean regions, Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West and was developing the principles that would come to define recreational sportfishing ethics and practices.

What Beebe, Verne and others began revealing for us was that the sophisticated technology needed to experience most of the ocean’s space would only ever be accessible to us through a written description. The necessary technology would remain out of reach for the vast majority. Now, the ocean needs an upgrade. As recreational anglers, we need to contribute to a careful, conscientious technological intervention at all levels that strives to weave a path for technological upgrade with a long-term conservation agenda. This will include not only careful consideration of the materials we use to fish but also global consideration of the technologies we employ to enhance fisheries for the benefit of the global protein economy. It will include a focus on harvest concerns on a large scale, as in the massive concerns of deep-sea oil drilling and industrial fish harvest. It will concern minutiae such as the understanding and sustainability of deepwater marine microbes — perhaps some of the most important organisms in the scientific study of everything from climate change to biotechnology. The upgrade will also require a reconsideration of space — of our very understanding of the smallness of what we have assumed to be a vast and endless ocean — and the role of nanotechnologies in protecting that space.

Ultimately, as recreational anglers, our relationship with the ocean is inherently mediated technologically. No matter our beliefs that recreational fishing helps us connect with nature, and no matter the “get back to nature” sensibility we attach to our cultural promotions, no such connection unfolds without technological intervention. Unlike the timeworn causality dilemma “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” the question “which came first, the technology or the activity?” can be answered confidently by recreational anglers knowing that technology provided the access to the fish. Since long before Dame Juliana Berners wrote Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle in the 1400s, teaching anglers how to make essential fishing tackle such as gut lines, hooks and rods, or before Izaak Walton, influenced by Berners’s work, gave us The Compleat Angler, the landmark instructional resource for fishing technologies of the 17th century, human technologies were already at work in forging our relationship with the ocean.

As recreational anglers in a historic moment that requires the conscientious revision of our ethical engagement with the ocean, we find ourselves needing to turn our gaze to the technologies of our ocean pact. We need to question those technologies we have come to depend on — not to disavow their use but to understand the ramifications and consequences of that use. We also need to acknowledge and embrace the idea — and in turn, act on the idea — that ocean sustainability will require not less technological intervention but more. Whether it’s using high-tech systems to filter microplastics from the sea or using our own two hands to pull and recycle old lures from our fishing holes, the new recreational anglers’ ethic will need to embrace and promote technology, not as the vilified cause of ocean destruction, but as fundamental to the future of the world’s oceans.  

Sid Dobrin – Author, angler and University of Florida English professor


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