Monday, March 3, 2008

'It's religion'

It's called the green movement, the party is the Greens, but green is not the only colour for ecological care and action. The Brisbane River flows brown at the moment after the heavy rain, the grey-white spider webs resemble small nets in the bushes, while the blue-focused 'Save Moreton Bay' campaign is hotting up. One passionate campaign member is the brilliant writer Tim Winton who speaks plaintively about the Bay and the threats to its health.

'Moreton Bay is turtle territory. But it’s already lost 50% of its saltmarshes and 20% of its seagrasses that are prime habitat. 200 turtles are found sick, injured or dead in the bay every year. That’s a bit of a shock to discover. I can also tell you that it was a shock to find out that half of one percent of the bay is protected by sanctuary zones. Maybe I should repeat that astounding figure. Half of one percent. I mean, bloody hell, what’s the story?' (my emphasis)

The story of Moreton Bay and the so-called 'green' or sanctuary zones is bound up with politics, with persuasive campaigns of recreational fishers, and with the will of governments, federal and state, to care for the blue environment, specifically to create a network of marine parks and be brave, innovative and far-reaching about it.

Winton calls Moreton Bay a 'treasure trove', a 'jewel' on Brisbane's doorstep resplendent with mangroves, dugong, turtle, corals, fish. But it is endangered. He recalls his own West Australian experience where he's seen the gradual dismantling of marine ecosystems and the disappearance of iconic fish species. This saddens him and he comments: 'I have witnessed a steady decline in marine habitat. Like many coastal dwellers I have felt places begin to slip through my fingers. And some places are gone for good: stripped, built over, poisoned, silted up, bleached out, fished to buggery.'

Winton singles out politically expedient government policies and inaction but also points to the role of recreational fishers who he claims have a 'sense of entitlement' to exploit the marine environment. As a fisher himself, he reflects on the rec fishers attitude of having a 'God-given right to take fish from any bay, any reef, any river we find.'

In relation to management measures such as bag limits, seasonal and zoning restrictions, Winton says:

'We’ll grumble about it and blame shiny-arsed bureaucrats and scientists and bloody greenies for overreacting ... as though fish losses have absolutely nothing to do with our own actions. ... Somehow ... the prospect of surrendering a bit of territory for the common good, for the health of an ecosystem, for future generations, that causes a brain-snap. ... What seems reasonable to the scientific community and to non-fishing 'stakeholders' is deeply threatening to organised fishers and their commercial interests. A modest proposal for reserving marine assets for the entire community is seen as an infringement of some mystical sacred liberty.'

Research into why recreational fishers fish though is quite different to this notion of 'mystical sacred liberty'. Studies into the motivations of rec fishers have shown that what's important to them are the non-catch activities - being in the outdoors, being with mates, escaping daily routines, connecting with nature and relaxating (Fedler and Ditton, 1994; Scham et al, 2003). Knowing they could catch a fish is important too but catching a fish is not their top priority.

However, there are also the trophy fish hunters, the high end, 'high consumptive users' (Arlinghaus, 2004) who are more likely to be the group of rec fishers Tim Winton is talking about. For them, he says, fishing speaks to the heart of their very being.

'You have to remember that there are people for whom rec-fishing is not a pastime, nor even a lifestyle but life itself. It’s religion.'

Arlinghaus R, 2004, On the apparently striking disconnection between motivation and satisfaction in recreational angling,
Fedler AJ and RB Ditton, 1994, Understanding angler motivations in fisheries management. Fisheries, 19(4), 6-13.
Schamm H.L. Jr, PD Gerard , DA Gill, 2003, The importance of environmental quality and catch potential to fishing site selection by freshwater anglers in Mississippi. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 23, 512-522.