WASHINGTON — During a conversation in her Washington office last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann asked me if I was working on any interesting stories. I told her that, oddly enough, I was doing a story on sport fishing, at which point she asked me if I’d heard that President Obama might be trying to ban sport fishing.
In fact I had heard that rumor, though about two thirds of the people I surveyed last week in both Democratic and Republican offices hadn’t. It’s a small rumor by Washington standards, but has spread around the conservative talk circuit, including the microphones and pens of Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Glenn Beck. It sparked a pair of questions (and an official denial) in a congressional hearing and is worrisome enough to the White House that they’ve moved aggressively to quash it in its infancy.
The worst-case scenario for the White House is that “fishing” becomes “ammunition” — the rumor that Obama would restrict or ban ammunition upon taking office. That one got so big it sparked record sales of firearms and ammunition so much that one store in northern Idaho somewhat-jokingly placed a cardboard cutout of Obama behind the gun sales counter with a sign on him that said “Salesman of the Year.”
“They just make up stuff, I mean, this is just silly talk, it’s crazy talk,” said Rep. Keith Ellison of both the fishing and ammunition rumors. “They make up these god-awful lies to distract people from the real issues facing them.”
The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenco, was asked twice Wednesday about the rumor at a House Science Committee, replying that “we are not proposing any blanket ban on recreational fishing. I would strongly oppose that, and it is not in the works.”
Back to that conversation with Bachmann. I told her I’d heard the rumor too, but the White House had pretty flatly denied it when I asked them about it.
“Oh yeah, just because the White House says it, you can take THAT to the bank,” Bachmann said sarcastically. “I’d believe legislation more than I believe anything Obama says.”
Tensions between anglers, regulators
To see how we got here, let’s back up a few months.
Obama formed the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force last summer to develop standards for managing oceans, coastlines and the Great Lakes, saying the United States “needs to act within a unifying framework under a clear national policy, including a comprehensive, ecosystem-based framework for the long-term conservation and use of our resources.” [PDF]
Among the many listed challenges facing those aquatic ecosystems is “fishing impacts,” a point of almost no contention among environmentalists who worry that species like bluefin tuna are being overfished to the point of possible extinction.
“The task force has a wealth of opportunity to make our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes healthier — both environmentally and economically,” said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Recreational anglers are used to dealing with regulations — things like catch limits and size guidelines. However, any abbreviated fishing seasons are certain to reduce catches and, by extension, paychecks for commercial fishers. Thousands stake their livelihoods not just on having a healthy stock of walleye in Minnesota, flounder in New Jersey and red snapper in Florida, but on being able to get those fish out of the water and on to a dinner plate.
A group of 3,000 fishing enthusiasts held a rally on Capitol Hill last month to protest increasing regulations on where and what people can fish, saying that a movement to tighten regulations is being driven by ideology, not science.
“The days of managing fisheries by ideology have got to end,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat. “We need sound scientific findings that put the needs of fish and fishermen on the same playing field.”
That simmering concern was heated to a boil on Tuesday, when an article was published on ESPNOutdoors.com that suggested the task force was on track to severely restrict fishing despite the task force, led by Lubchenco, having shown “no overt dislike of recreational angling.”
Writer Robert Montgomery warned the ensuing federal policy “could prohibit U.S. citizens from fishing some of the nation’s oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes, and even inland waters.”
The story spread from there, getting picked up by some of the biggest names in conservative media, including Limbaugh, Beck, Malkin and Drudge.
“How about a fishing ban?” Beck asked incredulously on his Fox News show last week. “A fishing ban that would put jobs at risk in the middle of an economic crisis, but beyond that, you and your son being told you can’t go there to fish! What the hell is happening to us? How are people not seeing this? [Obama is] going to do it through executive powers, without consulting the public.”
Pennsylvania Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper, whose district borders Lake Erie, was one of those who questioned Lubchenco at the House Science Committee. She followed the hearing with a statement:
“Regrettably, wildly inaccurate information is circulating online, fueling a rumor that the federal government plans to ban recreational fishing. That claim is entirely untrue. Neither the administration nor the Congress is seeking to ban recreational fishing, plain and simple.”
White House officials also moved quickly to quash the rumors.
“The draft reports issued by the Ocean Policy Task Force have involved extensive stakeholder input and public participation as they were being prepared, which has included the interests of conservationists and the recreational fishing community. These draft reports are not map-drawing exercises, they do not contain a zoning plan, and they do not establish any restrictions on recreational fishing or on public access, nor make any judgments about whether one ocean activity or use is better than another,” said Christine Glutz, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
“The Ocean Policy Task Force sincerely appreciates the conservation activities of recreational users, who have a long history of actively participating in the stewardship of the ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources. The Task Force strongly believes in the ability of recreational fishermen and women to continue to enjoy these activities that are critical to the economic, social, and cultural fabric of our country. In fact, one of our main goals is to ensure healthier ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes, which will benefit all recreational activities and the communities and economies that rely on them.”
ESPNOutdoors Executive Editor Steve Bowman later published a clarification noting that the article was actually an opinionated column, admitting that as one of “several errors in the editing and presentation of this installment.”
The White House can only hope those denials work. The difficulty they face is that the rumor is spreading through specialized media sources that they don’t have much access to, said Steve Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St Louis who lives in Minnesota.
“More and more people in the general public only listen to news outlets that reflect their point of view,” Smith said. “To combat that sort of thing in the specialized media is very difficult,” both because the hosts aren’t inclined to take the administration’s word for it and because the audience is more predisposed to believe a story that works against the White House.
“What you can hope to do is get to the standard media before they report it so [the administration] can get their opinion out there.” Even then, Smith said, folks like Bachmann aren’t likely to believe this administration, no matter what they say.
“I think the White House has to figure that 25 to 30 percent of the electorate is simply out of reach,” he said.