Recently, a chef who wrote a book about hunting and cooking was interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio. She talked about making a recent trip to Colorado to do a cooking demonstration. While there, she was taken fly-fishing on a local river, where the guides and other anglers refused to keep fish for her to use in her demonstration. She told the MPR interviewer she was miffed by their catch-and-release ethic.
“I don’t believe in catch-and-release,” she said. “It’s playing with your food.”
The interviewer smugly agreed. As a listener, I smiled at the irony. Here’s a woman who travels around the country catching, killing and cooking critters as part of her business enterprise–and she’s accusing some conservation-minded anglers of playing with their food? As the interview continued, the chef portrayed anglers who release fish as well-meaning but misguided nature lovers. For her, the only reason to participate in fishing or hunting was to bring home something to eat.
Very recently, we’ve seen a welcome surge in epicurean hunter-gatherers, folks who are drawn to the outdoors as a source of healthy food. Arguably, this offshoot of the healthy foods movement as done more to rejuvenate hunting and fishing than a decade’s worth of youth recruitment efforts. It’s attracted men and women who have no background nor mentors in hunting and fishing. Not only must they learn outdoor skills, but they also must find places to put them to use–a daunting task in places where sprawl dominates the landscape.
Many of these new hunters and anglers say they find interacting with Nature to procure food is a profound human experience, which gives them an appreciation of hunting and fishing traditions. However, because they’ve come to hunting and fishing on their own, they are minimally aware of the current abundance of wildlife, whether Canada geese on a metropolitan golf course or trout in a mountain stream, is not an accident. It took a century of conservation to restore North American fish and wildlife to the present abundance.
The conservation story, both present and past, is on the periphery of the American mainstream. We may learn in a high school history class about Teddy Roosevelt’s role in the formation of the national parks system, but that’s about it. We learn very little about the nearly complete destruction of America’s fish and wildlife resources in the pioneer era and even about the remarkable century of conservation that led to their recovery.
At the turn of the 20th Century, populations of many common wildlife species, including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, beavers and Canada geese, were severely depleted and absent from much of their original range due to indiscriminate killing and habitat loss. The turnaround began when forward-thinking leaders such as Roosevelt began managing wildlife, a public resource, for the benefit of the common man. Commercial harvests of game and fish were curtailed. The public’s fish and wildlife resources were made available to all through regulated hunting and fishing under a system intended to provide the common man with enjoyment as well as sustenance. Licenses are required to participate in these activities, with the proceeds dedicated to fish and wildlife management.
The North American wildlife management model successfully restored a host of fish and wildlife species. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys, beavers and Canada geese are now commonplace or even localized nuisances. The new hunters who just recently become aware of these critters may take this abundance for granted. They don’t know that just a few decades ago, a turkey gobbling at dawn or the cries of a passing flock of geese were rare, wild music.
The same is true for fishing. In North America’s freshwater fisheries, the restoration of self-sustaining, wild fish populations is a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout most of the 20th Century, we allowed our fisheries to decline as we followed management strategies allowing anglers to catch and kill lots of native fish. When catch rates tumbled and anglers complained of poor fishing, hatchery-reared fished were stocked to make up for natural deficits.
Gradually, we learned if wild fish have clean water and healthy habitat, they can maintain self-sustaining populations. We also learned anglers can easily overharvest wild fish in many waters, from pristine trout streams to vast natural lakes. Using regulations, we limit angling harvests to quantities the fishery can sustain. On some waters, allowing every angler to kill just one fish creates a total harvest that is more than the fishery can bear. So, to permit the common man to derive enjoyment, if not sustenance, from a public resource, we limit angling to catch and release. Within this context, it is unfair to anglers to call catch-and-release fishing “playing with your food.”
I suspect most of the new arrivals to hunting and fishing will develop an awareness and an appreciation for conservation as they gain field experience and integrate into the sporting tradition. I am less hopeful the principles of conservation will ever resonate with the non outdoor-oriented mainstream. For many, maybe a majority of Americans, the only time they encounter wildlife is when they brake for a deer crossing the highway. They are barely aware of wildlife’s existence, much less what deer need for habitat and protection from people to thrive.
We have entered an era where many people take the essentials of life–clean air and clean water–for granted. Some even say we can relax existing pollution regulations because they are no longer necessary. It is hard to imagine we have so quickly forgotten the recent past, when an American river caught on fire and air pollution in some cities obscured the sun. While we’ve made substantial progress in pollution control, it has only occurred within regulatory framework which–like wildlife conservation–is intended to benefit the common man.
The new hunters and anglers are unlikely to buy into this cavalier attitude toward pollution prevention. They’ll seek healthy habitat to procure healthy food. Hopefully, they’ll come to understand conservation well enough to demand policies and regulations ensuring the food foragers bring home is safe to eat. If it isn’t safe, all hunting and fishing will truly be playing with our food.