Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront

If you take care of the fish, the fish take care of you | Tony Friedrich

March 08, 2022 Ocean Conservancy Season 1 Episode 1
If you take care of the fish, the fish take care of you | Tony Friedrich
Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
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Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront
If you take care of the fish, the fish take care of you | Tony Friedrich
Mar 08, 2022 Season 1 Episode 1
Ocean Conservancy

Join me as I talk with Tony Friedrich, lifelong fisherman and policy director at the American Saltwater Guides Association. We chat about Tony fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, what motivated him to start an association of fishing guides fighting for healthy fish resources, and how fish along the Atlantic are responding to our changing climate. And even…fish farts? 

Show Notes Transcript

Join me as I talk with Tony Friedrich, lifelong fisherman and policy director at the American Saltwater Guides Association. We chat about Tony fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, what motivated him to start an association of fishing guides fighting for healthy fish resources, and how fish along the Atlantic are responding to our changing climate. And even…fish farts? 

Alliyah Lusuegro

Welcome to Fish & Us: Climate Stories from the Waterfront. This is a podcast series of recorded interviews and stories about the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries, as told by the people who spend their days catching, managing and researching fish from the ocean. In today's episode, we talk to Tony Friedrich, a fly fisherman and fisheries policy director from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I'm Alliyah Lusuegro and this is a production of Ocean Conservancy.

Hello everyone. I hope you’re having a mighty fine day, whether it’s morning, afternoon or night for you. I am here to share my host thoughts on this interview with Tony before we dive right on in. One, Tony is really funny and I mean like one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. We had so many laughs together, so I really hope that you get a sense of that here. The other thing is a theme that Tony brings up and hits home for me. Fighting for what you love. For Tony, that’s his family, it’s striped bass along the Mid-Atlantic, and it’s making sure that his son gets to see striped bass in the future. To me, it’s also family, and like Tony’s experience of fishing outside, it’s the times I feel most at peace outside, seeing mountains and swimming under waterfalls. And this is a cheesy theme maybe, but I think it’s important. Through this episode, I hope you think about why you do what you do, what got you to that place, and what will it mean to fight for it, now and so on. Okay, let’s get right into it.

Tony Friedrich

My name is Tony Friedrich. I am the policy director for the American Saltwater Guides Association. I've been doing fisheries policy work for a good chunk of my life. The only thing I really know how to do is fish and build things and fix stuff, and that's about it. I'm a pretty, I am the dictionary definition of that simple man song. I just fish. And if I'm not around my family and I'm not fishing, I'm probably a pretty grumpy person to be around.

So it's the only thing I've wanted to do since I could think deeply enough to actually want to do something. My first memories are of fishing. My last memories are of fishing and everything in between then and there has been fishing.

Alliyah

Yeah, you're saying first memories. Like, that's something that's sticking out to me, and I'm wondering like what your first memory of fishing is because it must have been like maybe a revelation for you or I don't know, or was it simple? How was that moment? 

Tony

I was, I think I was like two and a half or three years old and my grandfather had taken me to retriever trials in Tennessee and and he brought along a cane pole and a bobber just to kind of keep me occupied because I think he was looking at, he was looking at hunting dogs to buy. And I just sat down next to the bank and he put a little piece of worm on it. And I threw it in and I watched the bobber forever and it went under and I caught about a two and a half or three inch bluegill, and I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen in my life.

You know, my gran tagged along with my grandfather a lot growing up, and he was a pretty well-known outdoorsman where we were from. He was an excellent, excellent shot. He was known for his trick shooting and his skeet shooting. He loved to fish. 

I have actually have, I’ve been meaning to put it in, been meaning to put it in something safe. But I was going through some old stuff a few weeks ago and I found a photo album of my grandmother and my grandfather on one of their first dates. And you know, we're talking 1920 old black and white photos, and they were fishing. They were my grandfather's, a little skiff fishing.

Alliyah

So that was in Tennessee. Is that where you grew up? Is that where you're from?

Tony

Yeah, I was born. I was born in Tennessee. My. Real close ties to Louisiana as well. You know, my dad is from there. My mom is from Tennessee. Two of my sisters were born in New Orleans, and me and my other sister were born in Memphis.

So yeah, it's. It's what's home to me. I've lived in Maryland on the eastern shore, which is in between the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean. I'm about a block right now, looking out my window from Chesapeake Bay. And you know it, it has a special place in my heart too. But that kind of deep south corridor, Memphis, Mississippi, that will always be my home.

Alliyah

I have a question about like that area where you are like the eastern shore of Maryland because I've never really spent time there.

Tony

Yeah.

Alliyah

Yeah. What is it known for? Can you describe the culture, the environment?

Tony 

Look man, this is coming. It's coming from. It's coming from somebody who's not from here. And a lot of people would say, where I'm from is weird. Man. Let me tell you something. 

This is one of the most, was one of the most isolated pieces of land on the East Coast because, you know, the Chesapeake Bay cuts it off. And prior to the, I guess, the seventies, when they built the Bay Bridge, there was only one way in and one way out. You just had to go up and around through Delaware, and it's a solid, you know, three and a half hours driving from Delaware down to Cape Charles.

The people who live on the islands here are the same people who lived on the islands since the Revolutionary War. And it's, you know, there's very isolated pockets. They have their own dialect. They have their own little mini culture.

And, you know, it comes down to, there's seven or eight prominent family names and they've been here forever. So where I live, the farm across the street from me was established in 1643. 

Alliyah

Oh my gosh. 

Going back to my question, what's fishing like at the bay and like where you're from? Where you are right now?

Tony

It's horrible.

Alliyah

It’s horrible?

Tony

It's the saddest, most depressing thing I've ever experienced in my fifty years of fishing on this earth. I moved here when my wife got pregnant, because whatever it was, we didn't even know at the time, I just wanted them to grow up in the outdoors like I did, because I think it's a lot better. You get a much greater appreciation for the world. 

I don't, I don't really think you understand and appreciate nature and your connection to the food chain until you kill something and eat it and then you understand what it means to take something's life. So I, you know, and it's a pretty deep thing. And your connection, you know, the hope is that when somebody gets involved in the outdoors that they fight for it because you fight for what you love. A lot of times that doesn't happen.

But I wanted my kids to grow up here. I wanted them to. This was the closest place to where I worked, where it provided an environment where they had. They would have a chance to do that. And, you know, twenty-five, twenty-six years ago when I moved here, you could go out and catch seven or eight different species in the bay. It was nothing. You know, to catch big fish any time of year, it was spectacular, you couldn't, you couldn't not catch fish. It's amazing.

And we have managed it into a hole and I have, you know, I have two boats. I have a twenty-seven foot center console and I have an eighteen foot skiff. And my son would rather go to a pond and fish. Because he catches things in the ponds, I have ponds in my neighborhood. And the bay to him. It's just a place where we go and don't catch very much. 

You know, I'm pretty knowledgeable about where I live and where the fish are. And it's not because I can't find them. It's because they're gone.

Alliyah

Gone. Wow. 

Tony

And that's, and when it's my job to protect them, it's pretty profoundly upsetting. You know, I'll never get these years back with my son. They’re only twelve years old once. And, you know, he still kind of thinks I'm cool a little bit and wants to spend time with me. Never get it back. Not for, not a second of them. And by, and if the bay you know if striped bass recover, if whatever happens in the bay happens, he'll probably be in college by then. So I'll have lost his entire childhood and the whole reason why I moved here.

Alliyah

Wow, yeah, that's yeah, that's really deep and powerful. And I really resonate with your motive for moving there and like really wanting that for your family and like the future that they were going to have, like being outdoors, like those have been like the most profound impacts on my life, like that's why I'm doing the whole conservation thing. 

Tony

That's why you do what you do, right? 

Alliyah

Yeah, exactly.

Tony

That's why we all do what we do. 

Look, this was written about hundreds of years ago with The Complete Angler right? It's one of the oldest fishing books, one of the greatest works of literature ever, and it was Pescator, Venator. And oh my god, I'm going to forget the third one. But it was a falconer, the fisherman and the hunter.

And it was a debate amongst the three of them on whose sport was the best. And ultimately, Pescator, the fisherman, won. And he won because his argument was he had the opportunity to release his prey. And a falconer and a hunter, it's a done deal. 

Alliyah

Yeah, I never thought of that. 

Tony

But as a fisherman? You can hold that in your hands and you can say. Is this my gift to the next fisherman that hopefully catches this? Or should I take this home and harvest it?

And I think the older and the more experienced that you get as a fisherman, you evolve. It's about the whole experience. And yeah, I still go to catch fish, but I'm going to treat them the right way. I'm going to be ethical and, you know, I think you find yourself, you find yourself not only releasing most of the fish that you catch, but you find yourself like educating yourself on the best practices to do that, the biology of the fish, you know, to make sure that you give them the greatest chance of survival. And so, you know, it almost comes full circle. 

You start out and you're just like, “Oh, what a catch, you know, I’m gonna bring it home and eat it.” And then like you, you know, you get to where a lot of people that I know are. And you're just so appreciative to have that interaction that it's almost unthinkable to kill it. It's weird as you go through life, it's really really weird how you look at it differently and and especially if you spend time taking people fishing. It makes you a different fisherman. Like, when you take other people fishing, it changes how you approach it.

And I think the difference is besides wanting to catch a million fish, wanting to catch the biggest fish, I think for me, like I want to catch the hardest fish. I would rather just catch one fish a day.

Alliyah

So you, you're saying the experience that you have. When it's different, when you take someone else fishing, can you dig into more about that? Like what makes it different? 

Tony 

Oh, man. So, you know, I think like. So I generally fly fish now. I know the people listening can't see the video. But I have a pile of fly rods stacked up and my wonderful host will tell you I have like a pile of fly reels that I'm doing maintenance on. I have my vice, I have all my stuff. It's just what I do, so I can really only speak, you know? For fly fishermen, right? 

My mentor is probably the most famous fly fisherman that ever lived, and his name was Lefty Kreh. And Lefty died in his early nineties a few years ago. And he was going until six months before his death. And when I mean going, I mean, like hopping on a plane and going to the Bahamas and like bone fishing and teaching casting classes and traveling all over the friggin world, telling people, you know, how to be a better fly fisherman. 

And you, like I've said it a couple of times, you never master it. You never stop learning. So when you take people fishing, you look at, you have all this in your head and all your experience, your life experience, which is your own and you watch what they're doing. And you realize, like sometimes the difference between a good day and a bad day is like the most simple details.

So like, you know, I've watched people who are poor casters fly fishing, and they can only cast twenty or thirty feet. And I adjusted the way that we were fishing and they still caught fish. So the lesson that I took from that was you don't have to cast a hundred feet to catch a fish. And the reality is there's a lot of fish that are like twenty feet away from you, and all you're doing is you’re stroking your own ego. 

Alliyah

That’s a good lesson.

Tony

So like, that's one thing, right? And the other thing is like, especially newer people to the sport. You watch like their wonderment, and it's stuff that we see everyday. In an Osprey taking a menhaden, a dolphin corralling fish. You know, a striper exploding on a topwater lure, you know, make your heart jump out of your skin.

To see people like through new eyes, it really makes you pause and appreciate how lucky you are. Because somebody is actually paying you to take them and show them what you see every day, and that's pretty wild.

Alliyah

Shifting gears a little bit, what is the American Saltwater Guides Association? Yeah, can you talk about that, your policy background, and maybe how ASGA got started?

Tony

So. John McMurray, captain John McMurray, and I started it, and it was pretty much the equivalent of two guys sitting on a couch really angry about some bad fisheries decisions, drinking beers and being like, “you know what we ought to do, we ought to start an association and we'll show them.” And that's pretty much what happened. 

John and I have worked on fish policy stuff for forever. And we were actually state executive directors, him in New York and me in Maryland, for a fisheries group a long, long time ago. And that's kind of where we were introduced to each other. And we saw where fisheries were going. About four years ago,

Alliyah 

Where was it going?

Tony

In the crapper. And that is a technical term. They were, they're really being managed poorly in a lot of instances. I think federal fisheries are managed a little bit better than state fisheries, and we knew that our inshore fish within three miles, the stuff that we relied on, weakfish, striped bass, they were being managed very poorly. And we knew that, we knew that we could make a difference.

And I mean, gosh, I built the website and John convinced a couple of his well-heeled clients to give us enough money to file our paperwork with the government and build, build that website and come up with like a little bit of a platform and get some of counsel help to make sure that we were doing everything correctly by the rules. And that's it. Like, we lit the candle and this thing took off.

Alliyah

So how long ago was this? 

Tony

Three years ago. 

Alliyah

Three years ago. Okay. 

Tony

And now we have board members from Maine to Florida. We're looking at expanding further into the southeast. We have people from the Pacific Northwest that have reached out to us. We even have some people in Alaska who have reached out to us.

But I think it's not because we're awesome, but I think more than anything, we filled a vacuum. That there wasn't a voice for the small boat guides, the six pack guides, conservation minded recreational anglers, small, very small tackle shops that do under two or three million dollars in sales a year, they had no voice. And what they felt was not being portrayed on the management level, whether it was federal, regional, more localized in states, they just felt like they had no voice. 

And it's really hard to understand the nuances of fisheries policy. And John and I had that experience, and we also had their trust as fishermen because they knew us and they knew that we were legitimate and that we were the real deal. And that's been missing in our community. It’s because our message and our experience in previous work kind of spawned legitimacy. So our tagline is “better business through conservation.”

Alliyah

Yeah. You describe yourselves as a resource first organization.

Tony

Correct.

Alliyah

Yeah. Can you explain that more? What does it mean to be resource first?

Tony

We realized that what's best, what's best for everyone is a healthy resource. So, if you put the resource first everything else kind of works out, instead of fighting for your last piece of the pie. We just want to make the pie bigger. So we don't pick winners. We don't do things that would hurt the commercial sector. You know, we purposefully try to work with them in a meaningful way on the things we can agree on.

You know, what we say is do whatever you have to do to recover the stock as quickly as possible, do whatever you have to do to restore the resource because this, you know, my members need to make the decision if it's worth buying fifty thousand dollars worth of motors next year. Or should they just sell their boat? And with stocks on the decline it's really frightening. 

So, you know, if you take care of the fish, the fish take care of you. It's just that simple. 

Alliyah

Mhm.

Tony

Fixing something doesn't just mean pointing a finger and blaming somebody else, it's having the hard conversations, the like, “Hey, you know, maybe. Maybe fishing for those fish on their spawning run is a terrible idea. You know, maybe we should just lay off them, and that may cost us money on trips.” But ten years from now, when there's a vibrant population. We'll be glad we did this. 

Alliyah

Yeah.

I have pretty much an overarching question. Yeah, you've hinted at experiences that you've had of poor management. Like stocks declining. You've been fishing for fifty years, right?

Tony

Technically forty-seven.

Alliyah

Forty-seven. A long time. So,

Tony

Thanks for that, by the way. Yeah, whew. That’s forever! I’m kidding. Joking again. 

Alliyah

Yeah, so. With all those things like we know, and you've said this before, like that stuff is changing. And I was wondering if you could talk more about that, like why is stuff changing? And especially with, we've talked about like climate before in our previous chat and the environment and ecosystem and habitat and maybe like why stuff is changing in like that context.

Tony

So Alliyah it's like death by a million cuts, right? It's not one thing and there's no silver bullet to fix it. And I kind of say this story to anyone who will listen. 

You know, we didn't have depth finders when I was a kid. We didn't have reliable engines. We didn't, you know, fiberglass boats were just becoming a thing, you know, like we. We didn't have the superior fishing line that we have now. We didn't have the composite, super thin, laser sharpened hooks that we have now. We didn't have the completely invisible fluorocarbon line that we use. We didn't have the no stretch braid where you can feel anything on the line.

My friend sent me a screenshot of his sonar last week. And I could tell, you know, forty feet out from his vessel, twenty feet down. 

Alliyah

Yeah.

Tony

I could tell what kind of fish it was. And I could tell which way it was facing from his sonar. 

Alliyah

Oh my gosh. 

Tony

So it's one of those things where like, I'm waiting to see one fart, like I'm waiting to see the bubbles come up out of that. I mean, that's how accurate, it's unbelievable. 

So that's one thing that's changed dramatically. And the other thing that's changed dramatically is, you know, you have this convergence of all these environmental conditions and we have habitat loss, we have overfishing and we have stuff getting warmer.

And these fish are pretty delicate. Some of them are more robust than others. And you have species of fish interacting that never interacted before, that are crossing their natural borders because the waters only warmed by a couple of degrees.

Nothing, nothing shocking. It's not like you're boiling. But you know, if one fish’s preferred range, you know, maxes out at seventy degrees and another fish is, you know, sitting there kind of on the southern border. And that water just warms up a little bit and that southern fish can go into that northern water and that maybe that habitat’s even better for them. And next thing you know, what do you got? You got black sea bass eating all the lobster. Lobster never had to worry about black sea bass. Here they come. 

Alliyah

I remember you saying that there are going to be some losers and winners.

Tony

Oh yeah.  

Alliyah

You said, yeah, winners with black sea bass and losers with lobster, maybe. 

Tony

Yeah. There's I mean, there's cobia. You're probably going to be winners if we don't kill them all. Yeah. You know, striped bass are a great example. They're going to be even though the stock is at a twenty-five year low due to overfishing. Period, the end. There are an incredibly, if you look at striped bass, the way their coloration, their fins, how they, the habitats that they can, you know, thrive in.

You know, you have slow moving, slow moving waters in the Chesapeake Bay where they spawn. You have fast moving waters further up, you know, all the way up, you know, the Hudson and in other prime spawning areas from Connecticut North that are much smaller but still effective spawning areas. They can run the shoreline. You can catch them in deep water on the structure. They're a jack of all trades. And they'll be able to respond well. 

But when you have these certain fish that have all of these requirements. “Oh, this is my favorite food. My temperature's my temperature range, my comfort level’s really narrow.” They're not going to win. They're not going to win. They're too delicate.

So you just kind of have to, I look at it from my fishing perspective. And I know that this fish is delicate, and this fish is bulletproof. And I know that I've caught this fish in fourteen states, in twenty different places, and that is a resilient, he's going to find a way, he's going to find a way. And then there's this other thing that if you look at it, it croaks and you're like, “Hmm.”

You know, and it's all. We don't know what we don't know. But we have to manage these fish better because things are changing. 

Alliyah

Yeah, that was my next question about those more delicate fish, like what can we do?

Tony

Well, look, Alliyah,

Alliyah

With the control that we have. 

Tony

I'm a realist, right? And like, again, the listeners can't see me, but I don't think if you could, if you pick three descriptive words for me to tell the audience, I don't think tree hugger would be one of them, like that's not who I am. 

Alliyah

Uh-huh. 

Tony

But I know enough and care enough about the outdoors that I want to protect it, so what do we do? The only thing that we can do, the only thing that we can do is to make sure that the fish have habitat and that there's a lot of them in the water. The more of them in the water is the greatest insurance policy. That we can have to adjust to these changes.

And that doesn't mean you can't kill any of them, you know? It just means better management that is less risk averse. We're we're very. Oh I’m sorry, more risk averse. You know, we take a lot of risks in fisheries management. And if we were risk averse, we would be a lot better off for it twenty years from now. And I mean, that's what this is really all about, right?

Every time something tragic has happened in my life, I've said, I'm going fishing. Every time, you know whatever. It centers me and you think about future generations. And are we going to be the generation that takes that away from them?

And that's what really bothers me to my core is I know what it did for me in my life. And it would be a shame if future generations didn't have that opportunity. So even if you don't believe in climate change, even if you think it's just a hokey made up thing? I'm telling you we know for a fact that biomasses of species of fish have moved hundreds of miles north.

Alliyah

Yup.

Tony

That's a fact. So if we know that's happening and we know all these crazy interactions are taking place, we know there's going to be winners or losers. And you take a step back and you manage it like, let's say, a business.

You would say, okay, I don't know. You know, this stuff is in motion. It may take us fifty years, it may take us a hundred years to start reversing this. However, what can we do in the interim to make sure there's enough left when it gets reversed that things can snap back real fast?

Alliyah

Exactly. 

Tony

And that's have a lot of fish in the water. And protect your habitat. 

Alliyah

Abundant stocks, healthy habitat. 

Tony

Clean water.

Alliyah

Good conservation, clean water.

Tony

Good management.

Alliyah

Yeah, good management. All those things to make sure that there are healthy fisheries into the future.

Before we go, is there anything you want to, anything else you want to say or final message that you want to leave with those who are going to tune in to this? 

Tony

I guess for any of the listeners, I just like you to know that there's a legion of super committed, extremely passionate, extremely intelligent advocates that are doing everything they can, and they work way more than five days a week.

And I guess, you know, just for the listeners. If there's one message of hope, it's generally speaking, we're very different people, but we're working together towards a common goal. And I think that's the biggest takeaway. Is that even though we're different, even though we may not agree on everything, even though we may live completely different lives? 

Alliyah

Yeah. 

Tony

That we found something that we agree on. And we decided that we're going to fight together on these issues to try to make it better for everyone.

And, you know, if people feel hopeless or, you know, it's overwhelming or all that kind of stuff, it's, you know, take heart, take heart. There's a lot of good people giving everything they have to this. And you know, what was the one thing left in Pandora's box?  Hope. 

Alliyah

Yes, you heard it right there folks. Hope. I know that’s what keeps me going. Thank you Tony for the stories and the laughs, for highlighting that “when we take care of the fish, they take care of us”. To our audience, thanks for listening in, you can read more about ASGA at saltwaterguidesassociation.com. This is Alliyah signing off, till next time.