Saturday, June 26, 2010


“Fishing is a privilege, not a right.”

Wrong. Fishing is a right, protected under thousand-year old law, upheld by the Constitution of the United States.
While it’s true that there is no constitutionally protected Freedom To Fish Amendment in either the US Supreme Court or in my own home ‘states’ of New York or New Jersey, there have been attempts to create such legislation on both the federal and state sides. Here in New York, Freedom to Fish legislation passed the Senate in 2003 in the form of Senate Bill 5381, but it stalled in the Environmental Conservation committee in the form of Assembly Bill 7299, which is where it’s stayed ever since.

Many environmental groups openly oppose Freedom To Fish legislation, particularly the State Environmental Resource Center or SERC, a project of the Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). At SERC’s website you’ll learn that these leading preservationist groups argue against the basic language of Freedom to Fish acts because it prohibits states from closing waters to fishing unless “there is a clear indication that recreational fishing is the cause of a specific conservation problem.”

The Defenders of Wildlife and NRDC maintain that if passed, Freedom to Fish legislation “would effectively end the ability of states to create marine reserves, which are an important conservation tool for the restoration and protection of ocean ecosystems.” The group makes the argument that “for many species, recreational fishing is the primary source of fishing mortality, and catch-and-release practices are often not effective” management compromises.

In other words, granting fishermen exclusive rights to catch fish would make it impossible for these groups to create legislation banning public access to public waters. Other national organizations coming out in vocal and adamant opposition to Freedom To Fish legislation include Environmental Defense and the Ocean Conservancy, organizations which not only support no-access marine parks but also publicly support a management scheme known as ‘catch shares’ which further privatize our nation’s fisheries by granting exclusive access to the resource to certain groups and/or individuals.

While fishermen don’t have their own amendment to hang their waders on, what we do have is a public trust doctrine, a Roman era principle that says that certain natural resources are to be preserved for public use and that the government is required to maintain it for the public’s reasonable use. When the Emperor Justinian first held around 500 AD that the seashore not be appropriated for private use but was open for all, he was setting a precedent to be memorialized by the King of England some 700 years letter when the Magna Carta ruled that fishing traps must be removed from public waters in order to allow the public access to the fish.

English law being the foundation of our nation, in 1842, the Supreme Court ruled that the Magna Carta was the ultimate rule determining who owned the country’s fish and wildlife, saying that King Charles II did not have authority to give away the “dominion and property” of lands in colonial America, and stated that the American Revolution rewarded the American people with public trust responsibilities for fish and wildlife except for rights specified in the U.S. Constitution.
Just 50 years after that, the Supreme Court would again make an important ruling in Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, upholding the public trust doctrine again by ruling that the state of Illinois was in violation of the Constitution when it attempted to divest the State of the control and management of state waters, writing “It is a title held in trust for the people of the state, that they may enjoy the navigation of the waters, carry on commerce over them, and have liberty of fishing therein, freed from the obstruction or interference of private parties.”

Fishing is not a privilege, nor is access to our public waterways and the resources themselves privileges – these are instead inalienable rights granted to man more than 1,500 years ago, and upheld for over a century by the U.S. Supreme Court. Any individual who claims that fishing is not a right would be contradicting recognized legal opinion, and any organization which would support the denial of access to public resources is in turn in violation of America’s constitutionally guaranteed, Supreme Court upheld right to fish.

State and federally recognized Freedom to Fish legislation would be nice, but thankfully the saltwater anglers of America have the Magna Carta, the public trust doctrine, the U.S. Constitution, more than 300 years of precedence in this country, and the Recreational Fishing Alliance standing firmly on a nation’s right to fish!

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