Points North: Despite Differences, Fishing Is Our Common Thread

"Sharing and conserving Minnesota’s wonderful natural resources must be the common thread that binds us all"

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In May, outdoor writer Sam Cook spent a night on the banks of the St. Louis River near Duluth with a group of Southeast Asian anglers who were fishing for walleyes. In a story published in the Duluth News-Tribune, Cook explained how dozens of Southeast Asians from the Twin Cities travel to the St. Louis every spring to fish with their families and friends.

The anglers keep what they catch, because they like to eat fish. Cook interviewed a state conservation officer who said the Southeast Asians have as good or better compliance with fishing regulations and limits as other Minnesota anglers. Cook pointed out that in the past, Southeast Asian immigrants didn't always comply with bag limits, leading the DNR to initiate an outreach effort to explain fishing rules. Apparently, the outreach only went one way. Cook quoted the conservation officer saying, “Where they come from, they find it, they catch it, they eat it.” While this is true in a historic sense—some of the older anglers likely immigrated to Minnesota from Southeast Asia--the anglers Cook met along the riverbank live in the Twin Cities. That makes them Minnesotans.

About a week later, the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune reported a Minnesota angler of Southeast Asian descent was arrested with more than 400 panfish over the legal limit. A day later, Star-Tribune outdoor writer Dennis Anderson suggested this one arrest lent credence to complaints by some non-Asian anglers that Southeast Asians don’t obey fishing limits. He called upon the DNR to do more educational outreach to Southeast Asian communities. Funny, but we never hear calls for outreach when a couple of retirees from Indiana are nabbed with too many panfish on a Minnesota fishing vacation.

The above news stories illustrate the vexing issue of diversity in the outdoors. Public lands and waters, where anyone with an appropriate license can go hunting and fishing, are the cornerstone of Minnesota’s outdoor heritage and a measure of our quality of life. However, we seem to have trouble fitting everyone under our big outdoor tent, especially if they differ from mainstream outdoor users and their traditions. Then, unfortunately, we focus on our differences rather than on what we have in common.

Southeast Asians often fish from shore in large groups, which makes it easy for the rest of us to develop an “us and them” perspective. Human nature being what it is, we immediately look upon “them” with suspicion. We see a big group of “them” keeping everything they catch and tossing the fish into a bucket. Surely, we surmise, they’re doing something wrong. If we looked more closely, we’d see the large groups include families with kids and grandparents, all of whom are enjoying a day on the water, likely followed by a fresh fish dinner. In other words, they’re out there for the same reasons as everyone else. In fact, Southeast Asians may do a better job of making fishing a family affair than the weekend warriors who pound the waters in single-minded pursuit of muskies, walleyes or other popular activities. From experience, I can say such activities are anything but kid-friendly.

Another group mainstream Minnesota anglers find difficult to accept are Native Americans. This is primarily due to treaty rights decisions which recognize tribal sovereignty and allow tribes to establish their own fishing and hunting rules and bag limits. The greatest angst regarding treaty rights is at Mille Lacs, where tribal members from Minnesota and Wisconsin converge in the spring to gill-net walleyes, an unacceptable harvest method for mainstream anglers. As a result, Mille Lacs state and tribal differences over treaty issues dominate the news. What we don’t hear is that most of us in northern Minnesota—regardless of race or ethnic background--share a common outdoor culture. Sure, some families make lefse while others make fry bread, but we’ve lived side by side and used the same natural resources for generations. Aside from gill-netting walleyes, I suspect most northern Minnesotans would say the recognition of native treaty rights hasn’t been a big deal.

While I’m not naive enough to think we can throw a potluck supper at the local legion hall and make all of our differences go away, I suspect we have much to gain by recognizing what we have in common—such an uncertain future for fishing and hunting. Regardless of culture and race, fewer people are participating in these outdoor activities. Statistically, those who are participating are growing older. Few kids have an opportunity to try fishing and hunting, much less make these activities part of their lifestyle. Without them, we’ll lose not only our outdoor traditions, but also the base of support for fish and wildlife conservation.

Youth represent not only the future of conservation, but also our best chance of moving beyond cultural differences. Today’s kids don’t see Southeast Asians as immigrants, but instead simply as other kids in the classroom. The treaty rights court cases and controversies of the 1980s and ‘90s are little more than history to a new generation of Minnesotans. Hopefully, they’ll view the issues from fresh perspectives and step past the differences of diversity.

Until then, perhaps the best way to get beyond the differences that divide us is to take a closer look at ourselves. While mainstream anglers have difficulties accepting other cultures which view fishing largely as a means to acquire food, members of those cultures undoubtedly have trouble understanding the motivations of a culture for whom fishing is primarily a form of recreation. During the past 30 years, we’ve managed to make fishing an awfully complicated and expensive pastime. Perhaps we now have something to learn from cultures with a less sophisticated approach to one of mankind’s oldest endeavors. And, as anyone who has learned the special satisfaction that comes from catching and releasing a fish knows, we have something to teach those cultures as well. Sharing and conserving Minnesota’s wonderful natural resources must be the common thread that binds us all.

Airdate: June 22, 2012

Photo courtesy of Jacob Tomaw via Flickr.

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