Fishery management is a science and an art that’s best left to those with knowledge and experience. Yet special interests are increasingly pressuring voters in coastal states to weigh in on complex fisheries-related issues.

That’s because the experts with knowledge and experience are usually employed by state or federal agencies. And as public employees, they’re expected to manage and allocate our fishery resources in a manner that maximizes their benefits to the public

So the special interests that are trying to win more than their fair share of our resources must find a way around those experts. Like a kid begging Mommy because Daddy won’t allow, they try the politicians first. Legislators sometimes do give in, but if they don’t, special interests may take their case directly to the people.

In more conservative states—like Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina—they usually can’t put a proposal on the ballot without the legislature’s approval. But in other states—like Florida, California and Washington—individuals or organizations can put virtually anything before the voters simply by obtaining a required number of signatures on a petition.

Either way, once the general public becomes the “decider,” look out.


It’s not easy for anyone to admit their ignorance but the fact remains that few people possess the knowledge or experience in fisheries to make the sort of decisions that they’re being asked to make. But not to worry! The special interests will tell them all they need to know.

“Campaign rhetoric” is a euphemism for “propaganda”; both are intended to yield a specific outcome.

In fisheries disputes, that desired outcome almost always has to do with “allocation,” the subset of management that determines who gets what portion of a publicly owned fishery. Special interests such as the recreational fishing industry almost always want a bigger piece of the pie. But rarely, if ever, is “allocation” clearly spelled out on a ballot.

There’s more than one way to skin a commercial fisherman.


In 1990, recreational fishermen prodded California’s voters to ban the use of commercial fishing nets off their state’s southern coast, and in 1994 anglers convinced voters in Florida to amend their constitution with a statewide net ban.

Yet recreationists and other anti-commercial interests aren’t always victorious, as evidenced in some coastal states that have a long tradition of settling fisheries-related disputes at the ballot box.

Oregon residents, for instance, have voted on fisheries issues more than 20 times since 1909.

Earlier disputes there tended to redistribute the catch among competing interests within the commercial industry, but since the 1960s initiatives in both Oregon and neighboring Washington have sought primarily to re-allocate fishery resources from traditional seafood producers and consumers to the burgeoning recreational sector.

In 1964, Oregon voters rejected a sport-sponsored referendum that would have eliminated all netting on the Columbia River system, and as recently as 1992 they nixed “Oregon Ballot Measure 8.” Measure 8 sought to limit the harvest of salmon from the Willamette—a tributary of the Columbia that flows through Portland—to “the most selective gear possible,” presumably the rods and reels of the initiative’s sport-fishing proponents.

Measure 8 was characterized by commercial fishermen as “wordsmithing, not science,” and by professional fisheries managers as “an effort to simply redirect catches to sport fishermen, not increase escapement,” (which represents the total number of fish that survive long enough to spawn).

Mainstream environmental groups such as the Oregon Rivers Council and Sierra Club opposed the measure, and voters ultimately defeated it by a 60- to 40-percent margin. Even if it had passed, noted a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, commercial fishermen and consumers might have gotten the last laugh: If they’d been forced to challenge the measure in court, gillnetters might very well have demonstrated that their gear was the more selective!

Washington voters have also settled their share of fishery disputes. In 1934, they faced Initiative 77, which was described at the time as “one of the biggest fish fights in Washington State’s history.” I-77 eliminated fishwheels, traps, haul seines and set nets from the Columbia River. Since such gear was operated at fixed locations that were mostly controlled by large canneries, I-77 had a populist appeal as it re-allocated the harvest to family fishermen using the sort of portable gear that’s currently in the sportsmen’s sights.

In 1995, Washington voters declined to approve Ballot Initiative 640, a sweeping and cleverly worded measure that would have established a stringent set of standards for the survival of bycatch taken in both salmon and non-salmon gear. Though it primarily targeted the Columbia’s salmon gillnetters, the state’s ocean-going salmon trollers, groundfish longliners, shrimp and groundfish trawlers, and possibly even crab pot fishermen could also have been taken out as collateral damage.

Playing off the fish-crisis Zeitgeist of the time, the measure’s promoters—which included sport-fishing magazines, charter-boat owners, tackle shops and sportsmen’s groups—amalgamated themselves under the environmentally appealing moniker, “Save Our Sealife,” and worded their initiative to capitalize off the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s recent elevation of “bycatch” to an issue of national urgency.

The wording of ballot initiatives is often convoluted, and that of I-640 was necessarily so: Seattle’s airport had brass salmon inlaid into its floor, and residents of the Pacific Northwest were as proud of their region’s fishing heritage as any in the nation. Their comparatively heightened environmental awareness, combined with their long tradition of settling fishing disputes at the ballot box, made for unusually sophisticated voters who weren’t as likely to approve the sort of blanket net bans that the sportsmen were pulling off in other parts of the country.

To win over voters, both sides tried to simplify the issue.


The initiative’s proponents touted I-640 as a “conservation” measure and a panacea for all that ailed the state’s fisheries, marine mammals, seabirds, and economy.

The Seattle-based Fishing and Hunting News, which stridently railed against commercial fishing, served as the unofficial organ of the Save Our Sealife Committee. In a May 1995 article, editor Skip Knowles painted a scenario for Washington in the year 2010: Having banned nets 15 years earlier, the citizens in his futuristic Washington state enjoyed a utopian life of universal sport-fishing pleasure and prosperity, as visiting anglers poured money into the salmon paradise, and charter-boat and other tourism-related services thrived.

In a June issue, Knowles wrote, “We’ve got to stop the strip miners [net fishermen] while there’s still something left,” as he pressed his readers to help obtain the 185,000 signatures required to put I-640 on the ballot. (Save our Sealife eventually paid professionals 50 cents a signature to do so.)

Donors to the I-640 campaign included individual anglers, corporate members of the sport-fishing industry, and the Columbia River Alliance. Save our Sealife’s biggest backer, the Alliance was an Oregon-based coalition of hydropower companies and their greatest consumers of electricity—aluminum smelters—as well as farm irrigation associations and barge operators.

Such industrial interests would clearly have benefited from I-640’s elimination of commercial fishing by defusing the political pressure and lawsuits that forced costly retrofits of dams, turbines, and water diversions needed to protect salmon runs. But the alliance of such “strange boatfellows” with the crusading “conservationists” provided many voters with all the clarity they needed, especially after it was condemned by regional environmentalists and widely reported in the media.

“They’ve tried to put the onus on the fishing industry to hide the culpability of their own industries,” William Arthur, regional director of the Sierra Club Northwest, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, after a Labor Day rally where environmentalists joined commercial fishermen in opposing I-640.

Jim Baker, the Sierra Club’s Northwest salmon campaign coordinator, called the initiative “repugnant” to environmentalists because commercial fishermen were their key allies in the battle to protect habitat while the initiative’s supporters had openly “courted” those industries that were largely responsible for ravaging the Columbia River Basin’s most troubled salmon runs. “Initiative 640 saves our sea life in rhetoric only, not in reality,” Baker declared.

A widely distributed joint statement by seven leading environmental groups similarly negated claims that the salmon would be “saved” by the measure: “It does not promote salmon conservation.” Furthermore, I-640 sowed division among sport and commercial salmon fishing groups at a time when they sorely needed to unite against habitat damage from dams and other industries that affected salmon-producing watersheds, read the statement by The Wilderness Society, American Rivers, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Washington Toxics Coalition, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, and Greater Ecosystem Alliance. “We believe it is better to work together to protect fish habitat and restore fish runs for both sport and commercial fisheries.”

In a similar vein, the director of Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife said that working to protect and improve salmon streams would eventually yield more fish for harvest than shortsighted and expensive re-allocation efforts, for which he was ridiculed by the editor of Fishing and Hunting News: “Every time he opens his mouth, some…habitat puffery falls out.”


“Salmon for Washington,” which seafood interests organized to defeat Save Our Sealife’s initiative, developed the slogan, “20,000 Jobs and Not One Salmon Saved,” to emphasize that the initiative failed to address the root causes of the salmon decline while negatively impacting fishing families and the state’s economy. I-640, said its opponents, would trim $250 million from the state’s economy, each year; of the 20,000 lost jobs, 5,000 to 8,000 would be harvesters, and the rest in support industries.

The League of Women Voters opposed I-640, claiming that the initiative process was being abused by special interest groups on an issue that would be better addressed by existing agencies and the legislature.

On November 7, 1995—the day before voters in Florida would overwhelmingly approve a similar measure by about 70 to 30—Washington residents rejected the sportsmen’s net-fishing ban 57 percent to 43 percent.

“NOT 1 SALMON SAVED, VOTE NO 640.” (Brad Matsen photo)


In 1928, sport-fishing interests in Oregon petitioned for statewide referendums that called for the exclusion of commercial salmon fishermen from four major rivers. As the recreationists fished for votes among the non-angling public they claimed that the measures were warranted on the basis of “conservation.”

While members of the public generally swoon at the word, an astute journalist at the Oregon Voter Digest—which provided a monthly analysis of public affairs within the state—spotted the difference between the conservation and the monopolization of a public resource and, a few days before the vote, wrote an article that included, “The catch word of ‘conservation’ is employed to give respectability to what really is a bold attempt to seize…a fishing preserve.”

Thanks in part to that publication’s clarification, Oregon’s voters defeated those measures back in the 1920s and can still enjoy wild-caught salmon from their own back yard.

But the fights aren’t over in the Northwest, on the Atlantic Coast, or in any other coastal region where publicly owned fishery resources are still shared with the public. Unfortunately, when the propaganda starts to fly, voters in the future can’t expect the same sort of clarification that media and environmental groups may have provided in the past.


When President Donald Trump chides mainstream media for opposing the public interest, more and more Americans are nodding in agreement. So might you, at least if you believe that maintaining domestic production of seafood is in the public’s interest.

Journalists used to say, “It’s our job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But as a veteran anchorman told a media gathering in New Orleans, in the mid-1990s, “The trouble is, we in the media have become the comfortable.”

The upshot is that many in the media can’t resist afflicting the afflicted—the family fishermen—by giving a journalistic edge to the comfortable—the entitled anglers and their corporate backers who are hogging the public’s finfish.

Nor can voters who must weigh in on future disputes over allocation necessarily expect 21st century “enviros” to put the interests of the public and fishery resources before their own. Suffice it to say, for now, that the Establishment environmental groups are “non-profits,” which means that somebody has to give them money.

Do expect smear campaigns, heavy on fault-finding, simplistic slogans and sound bites, heart-rending images, claims of crisis and paucity, all wrapped up with the promise of utopia once those terrible commercial fishermen are gone.

The sense of urgency that such campaigns create can tempt well-meaning voters to pull the lever in favor of a proposal that, at the moment, at least appears to be environmentally good and noble. Adding to their temptation is the emotional gratification to be gained, without having to make the slightest sacrifice or alteration in their own behavior. But it’s easier to resist the urge when they do the research, find out who’s driving the initiative and what they have to gain.

Of course, not all constitutional referendums are necessarily bad, but wildlife and fisheries management is complicated. Simplistic and shortsighted solutions to real or made-up “problems” can often result in outcomes that turn out to be exactly opposite of those that had been promoted. And once a law’s been passed, or an amendment has been added to a state’s constitution, it next to impossible to reverse.

So, left on their own, in nearly every case, voters should follow the example of those in the Northwest, and throw the stinkers back.

Then, when the dust settles and the experts on the panels and commissions charged with managing our resources get back to work, voters will likely find that the so-called crisis has evaporated, life goes on, and everyone continues to share our publicly owned resources.