Every time I participate in a fisheries meeting in Florida, fishers agree on the need of using “good science” to drive fisheries regulations. As a scientist, I should be thrilled of such comments. However, with a few notable exceptions, it seems to me fishers identify “good science” as the one that supports what they want to do: catching fish. Any science that calls for reduced catch limits and fishing closures is, according to them, “bad science”.

The conflict was painfully illustrated once again at a recent meeting of the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) in Cocoa Beach, Florida. As we worked through the meeting agenda, which included impending closures to fishing in deep water reefs to protect deep water corals as essential fish habitat, an impromptu forum opened up, where commercial and recreational fishers voiced their concerns.

In a textbook example of fishing down the food web, a veteran commercial fisherman complained of regulations set during the last decade, as the populations of the most valued fish species have been going downhill, he had less and less fish to catch, ever switching to smaller species. “ I’ll end up fishing for pinfish !!!” he said.

New fishers who have moved into the business during the last decade, including younger generations texting on their iPhones during the meeting, complained that there’s plenty of grouper and snapper in Florida and regulations should be eased on to allow for more fishing. Such shifting baselines syndrome was not lost in one of the old timers, who shared his memories when he began fishing in Florida, 40 years ago: “Many times mine was the only fishing boat around, and I didn’t have much trouble to find fish” he said.

The combination of fishing down the food web, and the shifting baselines syndrome reminded me of tragic and hilarious PSA from Shifting Baselines.org.

Fisherfolk rarely recognize their own impact on the species they exploit. There are mortgages and expensive boats to pay. In many cases, they view cutting back on fishing effort as a luxury they cannot afford.

Ultimately, in a consumer-driven economy, we are all consumers of the products fishermen provide to us. We must educate ourselves on making sustainable seafood choices, such as those provided in Seafood Watch. Our choices will eventually drive sustainable fisheries.

Otherwise, we’ll end up fishing for minnows.

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