From art to religion to land use, much of what is considered valuable in the United States was shaped centuries ago by the perspective of white men. Fish, it turns out, are no exception.
A study published in Fisheries Magazine, a journal of the American Fisheries Society, explores how colonialist attitudes toward native fish were rooted in elements of racism and sexism. He describes how these attitudes continue to shape fisheries management today, often to the detriment of native fish.
The study, led by the University of California, Davis, with Nicholls State University and a national team of fisheries researchers, found that nearly all states have policies that encourage overfishing of native species. The study argues that the term “rough fish” is pejorative and demeaning to native fish.
“This has bothered me for a long time,” said lead author Andrew Rypel, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair in Cold-Water Fish Ecology at UC Davis. He and others have been disturbed by images of “glory killings” of native fish that periodically appear on the Internet, as well as the flat-rate categorization of less preferred species as “rough” or “garbage” fish.
“When you trace the history of the issue, you quickly realize it’s because the field was shaped by white males to the exclusion of other viewpoints,” Rypel said. “Sometimes you have to look at this story honestly to know what to do.”
The study offers several recommendations on how anglers and fisheries managers can transition to a new paradigm that is more inclusive and beneficial to all fish and people.
A “difficult” start
The term “raw fish” dates back to commercial riverboat fishing in the mid-1800s. Slow, heavy boats would lighten their loads by “roughly dressing” – removing organs but not filleting – less desirable species and throwing them. Biologists have come to use the term to describe an unsubstantiated idea that native fish limit game fish species historically desired by Europeans. This attitude posed a major threat to many native species, which were killed in large numbers.
For example, the alligator gar, an ancient species that can grow to over 8 feet long and weigh 300 pounds, has been particularly persecuted over the past century. Called a “wolf among fish”, poison, dynamite and electrocution were used to drastically reduce its population. But now some anglers are spending thousands of dollars for the ability to catch and release a giant gar. In 2021, Minnesota changed its law to describe the gar as a “hunting fish” rather than a “rough fish”.
Co-writer Solomon David helped rekindle appreciation for the gar and its relative, the bowfin. He directs the GarLab at Nicholls State University in Louisiana, where he is an assistant professor. He said many native fish, such as suckers and guys, have long been valued by Indigenous peoples and people of color.
“European settlers heavily influenced which fish were most valuable, often the species that most closely resembled what they were used to,” David said. “Thus trout, bass and salmon rose in value while many other native species were pushed aside.”
The study authors conducted a survey of fishing regulations across the United States to compare policies and catch limits on “raw fish” with those for largemouth bass, a fish of ubiquitous sports.
“When I was a kid fishing, you could go down to the river with a worm and catch all these interesting species,” Rypel said. “The guidebook just said ‘raw fish, unlimited bag’. Not much has changed since I was a kid.”
The study found that no state had bag limits rivaling those of the bass. While black bass were often managed at five fish a day, regulations for most native fish were extremely liberal. Forty-three states had unlimited bag limits for at least one native species. In the other states, bag limits were between 15 and 50 fish per day.
Freshwater ecosystems are threatened by pollution, habitat loss and climate change. Up to half of the world’s fish species are in decline, and 83% of California’s native fish species are in decline. Native fish help ecosystems in many ways, including nutrient cycling and food web support for other native species. The authors ostensibly call for a “rewrite” in their management.
The study’s recommendations for this rewrite include:
- Stop saying “rough fish”. They suggest “native fish” as a simple alternative.
- Integrating Indigenous perspectives into fisheries management.
- Review species catch limits. Lower bag limits for native species until science is conducted to confirm they could be higher. The study takes particular note of the rapid growth of the bowfishing market which has helped to eliminate native species.
- Support native fish science. Game fish receive 11 times more research and management attention in the journals of the American Fisheries Society than “rough fish”. To know the true value of native fish, more research is needed.
- Co-manage species that have co-evolved, such as freshwater mussels and the fish that host them.
- Correct misinformation and improve science education through outreach and education for all ages.
“We have a chance to reorient fisheries science and conservation and develop them with respect for biodiversity and diversity,” David said. “It’s been a long time coming. Change is slow, but we have an opportunity here, and we should take advantage of it.”
The study was funded by the Peter B. Moyle & California Trout Endowment for Coldwater Fish Conservation and the California Agricultural Experimental Station at UC Davis.