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Fish Out of Water

On a fishing trip with my dad, 1958.

A wise old mother is Nature–
She guideth her children’s feet

— Andrew Downing

Not long ago on the Wild Oceans Facebook page we shared an article by George Monbiot entitled, If Children Lose Contact with Nature They Won’t Fight for It. The author describes the removal of children from the natural world as an “environmental crisis,” citing research showing a “collapse” in children’s engagement with nature. According to one study, in a single generation the proportion of kids that regularly play in wild places fell from more than half to less than 1 in 10.

The “Take Me Fishing” ads you see everywhere these days – Rockwellian portraits of happy little kids and their smiling granddads heading for the shoreline, rods and tackle boxes in hand – are not only about recruiting participants for the sport (they’re sponsored by the fishing and boating industries, after all), but also very much about raising awareness and making that all-important connection with wild rivers, streams and oceans.

Without that connection, as vital as any other in the chain of life, the whole thing starts to unravel.  As Monbiot points out, “Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it.” By directly engaging with the natural world – fishing, swimming, diving, surfing, sailing, exploring – we learn to appreciate it in a way that no amount of book-learning, trips to the aquarium or virtual classrooms can replace. And without that experience, we are far less likely to take up the good fight to preserve it.

As each generation grows more and more apart from nature, our memory of “the good old days” dissolves like a fading photograph. Tomorrow’s stewards of the ocean will be judging the quality of fishing against an ever-diminishing standard. As Aldo Leopold once lamented, “Perhaps our grandsons, having never seen a wild river, will never miss the chance to set a canoe in singing waters.”

Of course there can be purely rational environmentalists. We don’t have to visit the Great Barrier Reef to understand its value. On the other hand, separation from nature can warp the thinking of even those who are sincere in their desire to protect it. It breeds such “eco-modernist” notions as physically decoupling humans from their environment in order to save it; for instance, meeting our seafood needs through intensive at-sea farming while sheltering nature in marine reserves. “Nature unused is nature spared.”

We are meant to co-exist with nature and in artful co-existence lies salvation. There are many ways to interact with wild oceans, fishing being just one of them. But as long as people do, we are more likely to appreciate it and fight to hold on to as much of our natural world as we can.

Ken Hinman is president of Wild Oceans, an independent non-profit whose mission is to keep the oceans wild to preserve fishing opportunities for the future.  He has 40 years experience working professionally with fishermen and environmentalists to conserve fish and the wild world we share.

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