Hey, wanna talk about government and moral values? Oh, no, hey, come back…it’ll be fun, seriously.
We spend most of our time here on FishHQ talking about fisheries, fishermen, and occasionally the fish themselves. In the few weeks since we launched, we’ve celebrated some successes (billfish, record US catch) and highlighted obstacles to healthy wild ocean fisheries (tar balls, politicians). We’ve also pulled back a little from the day-to-day and explored a little what this is really about (hint: it’s not just the fish…).
In the wider world, beyond all the simplistic rhetoric on the campaign trail, some Americans are moving beyond the stale ‘big government vs. small government’ questions, and considering what the spectrum of effective government activity really is. Very few of those conversations are about fish; but that doesn’t mean we fish wonks shouldn’t pay attention. Because questions about the legitimate reach of government go to the heart of how we manage our fisheries and, by extension, what our coastal communities look like. These are conversations about equality, rights, authority, freedom, justice and what we as members of this society are entitled to. In short, what the hell the Founding Fathers meant by ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
Although we may not think about fisheries management in these terms very often, our underlying assumptions about what our society should look like shade the much more mundane, specific questions of who has the right to fish how much and where. Environmentalists and fishermen are held up as being at odds with each other so much that it’s become a stereotype. But really fishermen are part of a long history of conservation in the US—both as sportsmen in the early days and later as commercial fishermen who realized that they would fish themselves right out of business if they didn’t put some limits in place. As one of our fishing members pointed out to me when I first started working at the Network: “most of us understand the need for some regulation. It’s like playing football: it wouldn’t be very fun if there were no rules and everyone was just running all over the place randomly with no clue what to do. The rules make the game.” (Exception to this rule: Calvinball).
It’s an important time for fisheries. We’ve finally implemented science-based catch limits for all federally managed fisheries, which Congress required us to do when they reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006. More fisheries were declared rebuilt in 2011 than in any other single year since we started counting, and we are finally winning the fight against overfishing. But there are also a lot of valid concerns about our fisheries—both about how they’re being managed, and other external factors that will affect them such as ocean acidification and pollution. To be sure, we have some tough conversations ahead. But the underlying principles upon which those conversations are based matters.
In his groundbreaking work on morality and political values, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt lays out core moral pillars upon which most of our political beliefs are grounded. He then points out how our political beliefs are an amalgamation of where we stand on these moral pillars. His work is well worth delving into, but the conclusion he reaches again and again is that we all share values across a moral spectrum, and that policy decisions that make sense flow from dialogues that acknowledge these common moral pillars. Such decisions are superior to ones reached when one side out-argues the other.
Of course, attempts to out-argue—or out-scream—your opponents are ubiquitous in fisheries. And for some extremists, opposition to any kind of regulation is most easily couched in simplistic terms that reference a “right to fish”. In one sense, this line of engagement speaks to widespread angler opinions: access to fishing is one of their primary concerns. But the funny thing is, when asked to rank the factors that could influence fishing access, the majority of anglers cited residential and commercial development of coastal areas as the top threat to access, not excessive regulation. Other concerns are poor management of access, disability access, and poor signage. Hardly the work of an international conspiracy, as some at fringe groups would have you believe. Portraying it as such is fear mongering, and it’s taking us in the wrong direction.
The truth is, we can talk about access or competing ocean uses without playing to people’s fears. Indeed, the more you consider the values underlying the perspectives of anglers and environmentalists, the more you start tapping into the deeply held positive values that, as Professor Haidt points out, we largely share. Stakeholders of all stripes can relate to the equity dimensions of access to local fishing spots. And the desire for inter-generational equity—the idea that future generations should be able to enjoy a world with healthy wild ocean fisheries—is universal. Surveys show that anglers value time spent fishing as a way to connect with family and friends—something we can all relate to. Other fishermen enjoy the sport for the chance to enjoy the sanctity of nature, tapping into our spiritual human needs. After all, a profound respect for nature—both its beauty and its functionality, is what led many environmentalists and fishermen to their respective professions in the first place. We might come to this respect from different places; but once we’re there it’s a much better starting point for a conversation on how we manage it than a face-off of two mobs.
Our values and convictions are deeply held, and hard to put aside—whether we’re debating education, health-care, the economy, or fisheries. And sometimes they will conflict. But being able to step outside the stereotypes and hear each other where it counts is essential if we’re to move forward to a prosperous fishing future—instead of back. Also, I bet it will result in some really good fishing.