Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Voices from the Past: Hart Stilwell (1944)

Today we address an issue that has become a critical one for many of us: rebuilding the Gulf of Mexico’s fisheries. As there are very hard days ahead for our friends in the Gulf, I thought it might be of interest to point out that the great and hearty people of the coast have faced hardships before and not just survived, but thrived. This 1944 editorial by Hart Stilwell points out the precarious position the coastal fisheries were placed in by the Second World War. It was published in 1944 in Field & Stream magazine.


As a result of concerted efforts on the part of conservationists from Maine to the Rio Grande, we had reached a point at the outbreak of this war where it appeared quite likely that something might be done about the stepchildren of conservation--the shore-feeding salt-water fish. When war came upon us, things stopped there. This was natural. None of those interested in conservation raised any complaint.

We are fighting a war for our right to live as a free people, and whatever is necessary to get food for our people during wartime we must do. The only question raised at that time was this: that the means of taking these shore-feeding fish should be such that the supply would at least not drop off too sharply during the war. But when the war is over, those who would like to go to some quiet bay and snake out a few weakfish, those who would like to stand in the combers and battle a bull red, those who would like to balance on some rocky shore and cast a bait out for a striped bass with some hope of catching one--all these anglers must get together and plan a course of action if the things that they love and live for are to continue and be passed on to their children.

From personal experience we all know that the shore-feeding fishes of this nation cannot stand up under the concentrated commercial take of years gone by. We saw it in the case of the constantly dwindling supply of striped bass on the Jersey shore and near-by areas. We saw it on down the coast in the constantly dwindling supply, both in numbers and in sizes, of weakfish and channel bass. We saw this along the Gulf and down to Mexico. I have had a front-porch view of the transition in one large bay near where I live--a bay that supplies more than half the commercial catch of shore-feeding fish on the entire coast of Texas. I saw that bay change from the happy times when you could go there any day in the summer and catch a string of weakfish untiI the day--right now--when you are lucky if you can catch one or two. I have watched the redfish on the southern coast of Texas thin out from the days when fish were on hand by the thousands to the present time, when they are something of a curiosity. Crowds gather around you and sing your praises when you are lucky enough to catch a red.
All this has happened in a relatively short time--in the span of a few years. I am of the opinion that the direct cause was the beginning of intensive commercial operations in Mexico, immediately to the south of us. I believe, and many of the commercial operators agree with me, that fishing there has cut off the migration; and that whereas we once caught fish which came to us in a constant stream from vast, untouched spawning and feeding grounds in Mexico, we must now raise our own fish.

We are not doing this. We are, of course, doing nothing at the moment, because it is wartime. But our work is carved out for us. And it must be done if we are to save for ourselves and our children the joys that the vast stretches of shore-line from Maine to the Rio Grande have offered to the American angler.

The first step in this entire program is to find out some concrete facts, and at present we have very few. The only really authentic data on the shore-feeding fishes of the Gulf of Mexico are contained in a report made by the old U. S. Bureau of Fisheries away back in 1926. Officials of the Federal agency agree that these data do not fit conditions now. They agree that a new survey should be made. They are willing to make it if the funds are provided.

We know, or we should know, that to solve this problem we must trace the weakfish from the southern limits of his wanderings, somewhere around Vera
Cruz, Mexico, as far north as he goes. We must do the same with the channel bass. A purely local study may prove of little value, for we have before us the record of the manner in which commercial fishing in Texas is dropped off in direct proportion to the increase in catch in Mexico. The take in one place unquestionably affects the supply of other areas.

Before any long-range program of true-conservation can be mapped, this study must be made. And on the basis of such a study there certainly should be enough of us in the nation interested in conservation to push it through. It is barely possible that the once bitter opposition of commercial interests may not be so bitter when all the facts are available and a logical program worked out. For, after all, our objectives are the same-a constant supply of fish. Battle or no battle, however, we must do something to guarantee the future of our shore-feeding game fish.

-- Dr. Todd

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