Fishermen’s Perspective

We are often asked “What is the Fishermen’s Perspective?” on various environmental protection issues. These two articles were past attempts to answer that question. In short, the fishing-dependent families that IFR represents must be, for their very existence, not only staunch advocates for sustainable fisheries, but also for protecting marine ecosystems and inland salmon-bearing river systems in a way that no other group calling themselves “environmentalists” can generally claim. For us, advocating and working always to protect the marine ecosystems with which we are bonded and of which we are a part is not an option – it is our way of life.

This inspiring article is a reprint of a PCFFA monthly column from Fishermen’s News published on May, 1996, but  which is still highly relevant to today’s commercial fishing industry and its many continuing struggles to exist.  We reprint it here in remembrance of the work of Nat Bingham, PCFFA’s longest serving past President, and Zeke Grader, its longest-serving Executive Director, who both lived by this credo and who guided our west coast fishing industry by its principles through decades of service.  Their legacy and inspiration lives on in this organization, which they originally founded, and in IFR’s parent organization, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) (, where many of their writings can still be found in the PCFFA Fishermen’s News column archives. 


Zeke Grader and Glen Spain

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations

and Institute for Fisheries Resources

Commercial fishing builds in a strong ethic of stewardship and respect for Nature. Fishing brings you face to face with Nature at both her wildest and her most nurturing. Yet fishermen cannot put the environment passively on a pedestal — instead, like small family farmers, they must actively engage Nature, seek to adapt to her natural rhythms where they can and take part in her bounty where she allows, but always on her terms. Fishermen seldom forget, however, that they are part of and dealing with a wild and enormously powerful natural system in which we humans play only a very small part. Both fish and human needs must be met by Nature if we are to survive. All of us are Nature’s children, and owe her for our lives.

Like all the rest of humankind, however, we are also coping with and learning to control our own developing powers to bend these natural rhythms beyond their breaking point. Nature is forgiving only up to that point. Going beyond it unleashes terrible consequences we as a species are only dimly beginning to understand. All too often we wield our new-found powers without knowing the consequent environmental destruction or genetic catastrophe we may unleash upon ourselves. We are now capable of destroying not only ourselves but all of Nature’s other creatures as well. We even have the power to do so by accident or from neglect.

The world’s oceans and all their bounty are a public resource. Commercial fishermen are allowed to use that resource only at the sufferance of the public, and we are therefore responsible to the public at large for our actions. Fishermen are merely stewards and must discharge their public trust responsibly. Whether we are good stewards or bad stewards will determine whether the public retains its confidence in us to discharge that public trust wisely.

Today these public resources themselves face a multitude of assaults. Fishing as a way of life is threatened not only by world market forces but also by a multitude of cumulative habitat losses which when all combined now face both fishermen and the majority of fish species on this planet with the serious prospect of extinction. Fragile ocean ecosystems suffer from widespread pollution and too many streams and estuaries have been biologically depleted. Global warming and ocean acidification now threatens the delicate balance of ocean life, while sea level rises are beginning to threaten ports and coastal communities. Continued thinning of the earth’s ozone layer may result in too much UV radiation killing off much of the ocean’s zooplankton, thus knocking out the very foundation of the ocean’s food chain as well as the primary source of atmospheric oxygen.

Scientists now know that all these threats are very real. Fishermen must speak out against all these things and help reverse them before it is too late. Fortunately they are reversible — all of them are caused by human activities which can be changed.

To our own shame we have also allowed far too many fish species to be overexploited. Bycatch and waste is much higher in many fisheries than it needs to be or should be. Lack of international controls and increasingly powerful fishing technologies make the risk of overexploitation an omnipresent threat in many areas of the world. The public is closely watching and seriously questioning our willingness and ability to solve these problems ourselves.

We must demand solutions to these problems, and we must hold ourselves to a very high standard or we will lose the public’s confidence and support. The increasing technological power to fish must also be coupled with increasing self-restraint and greater responsibility.

Human beings now can — and indeed now are — changing the planet far faster than any geological force, but without any guidance whatsoever and with almost no forethought as to the ultimate consequences. Like the demigods and heros of ancient Greek mythology, we are afflicted with our own hubris — the belief that we can do Nature’s job better than she can. This is pure arrogance of the sort which usually leads to tragedy.

We can do much better. Fortunately, our industry has generally been unified around the basic principles of conservation and stewardship. Also, in spite of industry fragmentation and constant infighting over allocations, when faced with serious outside threats we usually do manage to come together and present a united front. This is such a time.

Today the world’s oceans face a multitude of environmental threats far more serious than any they have faced throughout geological time. We must now not only continue to earn the right to exist as an industry, but also aggressively defend the right of the resource itself to continue to exist at all! There is no doubt in our minds that those of us who make our living from the sea must be its principal champions and defenders. If we do not speak for the fish — who will?

To that end, we offer the following six principles as guidelines for the protection not only of our industry, but for the preservation of the fragile and irreplaceable resource upon which it is based and with which we are entrusted. By following these principles, our industry will assure both the continued existence of this resource, and of the public’s trust in our stewardship. As recent years have clearly shown, neither our continued existence as a way of life nor the public’s trust in our stewardship are a given — they must continually be earned.



The commercial fishing industry will work to assure that all fisheries are primarily managed and regulated on the basis of biologically sound and sustainable harvest levels.  This means assuring that there are adequate scientific research, resource assessment, and enforcement programs in addition to scientifically sound fishing regulations to assure long-term sustained yields within the ultimate constraints of biological sustainability.  Our most fundamental duty is to pass on this biological heritage intact to future generations.


The commercial fishing industry will actively and aggressively take all actions necessary, including the promotion of regulations or litigation, to assure the full protection of the biological habitats and ecosystems necessary to maintain and maximize the production and health of fish and shellfish populations. The loss of fish habitat results in an economic loss to fisherfolk and seafood processors as certain as any theft of catch or shutdown. Industry will seek cooperation and alliances with conservation organizations and/or governmental fishery organizations in pursuing the cause of fish habitat protection, but will, when necessary, initiate and lead actions in its own right to assure that fish habitat is protected and restored.


The commercial fishing industry will identify and initiate those actions necessary to avoid wherever possible the bycatch of marine mammals, turtles, seabirds and non-target fish species, regardless of whether such takes are “biologically sustainable.” The principle must be: “If you can’t use it or sell it, don’t take it.” The fishing industry is licensed by the public to provide the public with access to its public resources in the market place; this is not a license to take or kill other public trust resources for which there is no lawful market. An active program, therefore, must be established (for those fisheries where bycatch is a problem) for the modification of existing fishing gear or the adoption of new fishing gear or other techniques to avoid and minimize bycatch. The program should encourage fisherfolk to identify problems and provide them with the necessary technical and monetary assistance to enable them to effectively minimize bycatch and work toward an ultimate goal of total bycatch elimination.


The commercial fishing industry shall endeavor to maximize the value of fish taken, utilizing as much of the fish as possible and changing currently wasteful fishery practices where they exist (such as the shark fin fishery) to assure maximum utilization of this resource. The license to fish is not a license to waste.


The commercial fishing industry — in all of its harvesting, processing and distribution sectors — shall always endeavor to provide the public with a safe, healthful and, wherever possible, affordable source of food protein. The public grant of a license to fish carries with it a responsibility to return to the public the best possible and most desirable product.


As commercial fishermen, processors and users of the public’s resource, we are stewards of the resource. We will therefore combine together within our own industry to responsibly discharge that trust, join with others to protect and restore the resource, and work cooperatively with recreational fishermen and public interest groups wherever possible to conserve this resource for future generations. The fishing industry will also strive for international fishing and conservation standards which are scientifically sound, universally applied, and both fair and equitable, and which will assure the highest level of international cooperation and conservation feasible. In all our work, long-term sustainable use and conservation must be our most fundamental principle and highest goal.

These principles have been of enormous guidance to our organization as we have fought the battles we still fight to protect the resource and to help fishing communities prosper, and will doubtless serve us well in the future. We now offer them to you, our friends and allies within our industry, for your consideration.

As fishing communities move quickly into the future, change is all around us. Change is scary, but it also presents new opportunities for the taking. The future is never fixed, but tomorrow is largely determined by our own actions (or inactions) on a daily basis today. We all hope for a better world, but hope alone is never enough. We must also organize to work together to create that better world for those who come after us, just as our own ancestors did for us. We must always work to assure our own survival and prosperity — it will not be handed to us.

There is a biblical saying: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world while losing his own soul.” Fishing families and fishing communities are the heart and lifeblood of our industry and what makes it great. The guiding philosophies which determine the soul of our industry, however — whether pure profit or responsible stewardship — are still very much in doubt. It is our hope that the guiding principles set forth here, if applied, will help us all to regain, nourish and revitalize the soul of this industry that we all love, and help us all in our transition into the new century.

This is an updated version of an article appearing in Fishermen’s News in April, 1999.


by Zeke Grader

A few years ago, as I walked out of a long and heated meeting dealing with water flows for fish in the California Central Valley, one of the members of our fisheries/enviro coalition in those negotiations asked me if I’d ever worked for Greenpeace. “No,” I responded, “what makes you ask?” “Well,” she replied, “you just seemed more radical, more extreme, than the other environmental representatives at the table.”

My response was to explain to her that, unlike the “environmental representatives,” the issue of fish protection for us was not about “doing good,” but about protecting the basic economic interests of our members. “If there are no fish, there are no jobs. It’s as simple as that.” In the course of that late afternoon conversation I also explained to her my own frustration with government’s unwillingness to address the root causes of many fish declines and, instead, just close down fisheries. In an even more agitated voice I described to her my frustration with a number of so-called “environmental” groups that I felt were too willing to compromise, often resulting in bad deals for both the fish and for fishermen.

I’ve never forgotten that conversation. Of course, I was never with Greenpeace. I don’t belong to any environmental organizations; my local public radio station gets what little charitable money I have to give.

Indeed, my own conservation “ethic” did not come from reading Muir or Leopold, but listening as a child to Admiral Hiram Rickover (the “father” of the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet) warning of the waste of the Earth’s resources, having had some good high school biology classes and, finally, fighting the West coast salmon battles, there realizing the relationship between a healthy environment and a healthy fishing economy.

That conversation has come to mind numerous times since — in various discussions, negotiations, legislation and lawsuits — as PCFFA and some other fishing interests have found themselves taking more “extreme” positions than many environmental groups were willing to take because the health and productivity of our fishery was at stake.

Fishermen Leading the Way

Remember in 1988, when the Port of Oakland and the Corps of Engineers started dumping dredge spoils in ocean waters right in the fishery off Half Moon Bay? Most environmental groups had signed off on the proposal because it did not involve dumping the material in San Francisco Bay. It was the fishing industry — the Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association, in particular — that said “hell no,” demanding a deep water site for the muck. After a public protest that would have made Greenpeace proud, the Association won in court, and the dumping was stopped. What subsequently resulted was the establishment of the nation’s first deep water dredge disposal site (in 1,000 fathoms, well outside of the fishing grounds) and a program for dredge material reuse, including the re-creation of wetlands. These fishermen’s actions might have been more “extreme” than those of the environmental organizations, but they were environmentally sound and protected our fishing grounds.

As another example, some years ago, responding to an onslaught of anti-environmental bills in the California Legislature, some of the “mainstream” environmental groups, including the Planning & Conservation League and Audubon Society, agreed to language compromising California’s Endangered Species Act (CESA). Unfortunately, what they agreed to would have made it far more difficult to protect critical habitat for important fish runs. Once again saying “hell no,” PCFFA teamed up with the Sierra Club and together we were successful in stopping this ill-begotten compromise.

Today, on the California coastline there are some marine conservation groups who appear all too willing to sign off on proposals by the oil industry to leave parts of old oil rigs on the sea floor, despite the clear legal obligation of the oil companies to completely remove their old rigs and clean up the sea bottom at the expiration of their leases. These companies, naturally, are looking at any way possible to get out from under the estimated $30 million for removal and cleanup of each rig, and so have come up with a clever public relations pitch called “rigs-to-reefs.” Fishermen in the affected Santa Barbara Channel area, along with the Environmental Defense Center, concerned with the restoration and utilization of fishing grounds and about navigation hazards, are still fighting this oil industry ploy. The question is, will they be undercut by other environmental groups anxious to compromise and to accommodate the oil industry for a few million in “mitigation” dollars? Here, again, is an example of the fishing industry being “greener than the greens” — or at least most of them.

This discussion may strike some of you as strange, that here is a representative of PCFFA, which has probably had the most experience of any association in our industry in building coalitions with environmental groups, attacking those same groups. My intent, however, is not to attack anyone, especially those who have been our allies in a number of battles, but to make a point about the role of the fishing industry in the protection of the environment. It may also help fishermen to better understand the nature of the environmental groups who are sometime allies and sometime adversaries.

Healthy Ecosystems Our Bottom Line

The fishing industry relies on healthy ecosystems for abundant fish stocks. It relies on sound research and regulations to assure sustainably managed fisheries (that is, fisheries that can be passed on not only to our children but to the guy eventually buying your boat or permit!). And, it relies on clean waters to assure that fish harvested are marketable. All this should be a “no-brainer” for anyone in this industry, even though our industry is sometimes slow to act on such straight-forward issues as habitat protection or fighting pollution.

But when we do act, and our actions are based on sound science or law, we should not be surprised when we find ourselves cast as more “protectionist” toward the environment than most environmental groups. Ultimately it’s not what side of the political spectrum others may think we are on, for any given issue that’s important; the main thing is that we are on the correct side — again, based on good science and law. The “green” that is driving us, after all, are the greenbacks derived from healthy fisheries — and that is the way it should be, for ecosystem protection only makes economic sense.

Building Relationships That Work

The “environmental community,” like the fishing industry, is not a monolith. The same can be said for the sportfishing industry. Over the course of more than three decades of working with environmental groups, I have found some to be solid and reputable — others I have found to be naive, or flaky, or wantonly irresponsible. And some, frankly, are just in it for the money and will do or say just about anything to get funding.

Earthjustice has proven for us to be one such solid and reputable ally, representing fishermen and environmentalists alike as our Attorneys on such issues as the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act to protect salmon habitat, enforcement of the Clean Water Act to establish sediment and temperature standards for salmon streams and to block the Corps of Engineers from dumping dredge sludge right on top of the primary crab nurseries near the mouth of the Columbia.

Other environmental groups that I have found to be good partners have included the Sierra Club, which PCFFA has worked closely with on many salmon issues ranging from logging reforms to wetlands protection, and most recently, Earthlaw. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) (on most issues), Defenders of Wildlife, and even Pew Charitable Trusts have also been invaluable partners in many of our fights.

We also have worked closely with many Northwest regional and national environmental organizations to help build the Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS) coalition, which has become an effective advocate for salmon restoration in the Columbia Basin and which now includes many sportfishing and commercial fishing industry interests. Several other organizations work closely with us to restore salmon to the Klamath Basin and to coastal watersheds.

At the same time, there are also groups operating under the “environmental” rubric which simply cannot be worked with. Keep in mind, anyone can form a non-profit corporation and call themselves an “environmental” organization. There are no assurances of an organization’s expertise or ethics when it comes to the issues. In the quest for funds, some organizations will look for a villain, real or not, to base a campaign around. And, at times the fishing industry has been a handy target where there have been reports of marine mammal shootings, or overfishing, or dumping of bycatch. It doesn’t matter to some of these groups that it is just a small part of the fleet that may be engaged in unsavory activities, but the whole of the fishing industry gets blamed. Sometimes it is just a matter of educating these groups. In other instances, however, there may be no interest on their part in correcting or clarifying their misstatements if the campaign is making them money.

Another type of group to be wary of is the one that always seeks consensus, or the “win-win” solution. While all of us like to believe it is possible for reasonable people to sit down together and come up with solutions that are mutually beneficial, this is not always possible. Sometimes someone has to give and that’s not always pleasant. Too many times, I have watched some of this new breed of environmental group, flush with foundation grants, willing to sell out the protections needed for fish in order to get to their version of a “consensus.”

Then there are the fringe groups that engage in what is termed “ecoterrorism.” While I believe the term “ecoterrorism” should be applied to the likes of oil and timber companies and others who pollute and destroy the environment and our public resources (such as fisheries), the term is now used to describe destructive or violent methods used by a group or groups claiming action on behalf of the environment. Terrorism, be it violence against people or property, is seldom successful and mostly counterproductive, besides being terribly hurtful of innocent parties. Commercial fishermen in other countries have had to resort to some of these tactics. However, I don’t believe our fisheries are ever in such desperate condition that we are left with no alternative but violence, and such violence in any form should be condemned.

Finally, the most insidious type of groups claiming to be “environmentalists” are those ready to accept foundation or corporate funding to give “green cover” to corporations, particularly egregious activities by large corporations. Fisheries can be a very convenient target for a group working on behalf of a corporate sponsor seeking to deflect public attention from its own polluting or habitat destruction activities.

Finding Friends and Allies

As an industry we need to continue to reach out and to build coalitions with environmental and any other groups we can work with. A successful effort to save, protect or restore fisheries is most often a coalition effort involving not only fishing, but many other interests as well.

Over the course of the years, PCFFA has worked with water agencies, farmers, ranchers and timber companies on fishery projects or enactment of regulations or passage of legislation. But mostly, it has worked with environmental interests who share a common interest in resource protection. This has been a mutually beneficial relationship. These publicly-based groups bring organizational skill, bodies and often funding to the cause. The fishing industry provides the “food and jobs” economic argument for environmental protection as well as a great deal of political clout. And, where differences between the two arise, such as on marine mammal issues, our long history of working together makes it easier to discuss these differences and narrow the issues and, sometimes, to find real solutions.

Whether working in a coalition or not, however, the important issue for us in the fishing industry is to not get distracted regarding where we are on somebody’s hypothetical political spectrum. What is important is that the industry take a correct and reasoned position, based on good science and law, that is good for the environment, good for the fish and, ultimately, good for the long-term sustainability of our fisheries. Then it should be no surprise that fishermen find themselves “greener than the greens.”

Institute for Fisheries Resources

SF Office
PO Box 29196
San Francisco, CA 94129-0196

IFR Northwest Regional Office
PO Box 11170
Eugene, OR 97440-3370


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