Why Lifelisting is Problematic - and How it Can Still Evolve
The fishing community is stubborn to the core. For better or for worst, most self-proclaimed fisherman would probably agree - or they would be too stubborn to do so. Fundamentally, it is traditionalist, and has existed as such for decades in the modern era. But in an age of expeditious progressiveness, steeped in politics and social activism, especially towards the environment, fishing is becoming increasingly partitioned. New generations of outdoorsmen are showing ideological patterns never before seen. The ideas coming out of this group stem from all areas; conservation for nature, an urge to appreciate the outdoors, a respect for climate change. These factors are invariably bringing about change to the antiquated nature of fishing, in some aspects. While often at odds with many traditionalist perspectives, this new assortment of viewpoints can certainly exist as a fusion, and it would be unfair to discount the progress this newfound ecological probity has achieved.
One of the most virulent and notable trends in the fishing community over the past decade or so is the lifelisting movement. This is the global phenomenon defined as the quest for new species; at almost any cost. Members of this community add all new species to a "lifelist", or a defined, and at times ambiguous, and organized collection of unique animals. This institution is inherently steeped in competition. The globalized nature of this sport creates unspoken rivalries, and creates a never-ending feud for presupposed Internet prowess. Veteran lifelisters such as Steve Wozniak keep track of their collections in blog forms, while many use websites such as roughfish.com and specieshunters.com. These websites foster competition, and yet often times discussion is strained or nonexistent here. Lifelisting exists as a massive bubble teetering on some presupposed moral outcropping; there is no centralized moral authority here. It's like inviting people to your home for game night and playing with house rules. Lifelisting is a massive, and rapidly growing community, attracting members daily attempting to share their lifelist and join the competition. It is also a conveyor belt for organized competition. Any good factory will have quality control; and yet there is no set of written rules here; there is a subliminal agreement among members, but it is not enforced at all. The moral responsibility and arbitration of this society does not come from a leader, or a council, or a document created long ago to determine a set way to do things. In a way, this attracts many to the community. The idea of freedom is alluring, the idea that it is "your lifelist". I would prefer if it were this way. Many anglers will add subspecies or hybrids to their list. Many anglers will keep track of species even if they don't have proof of capture. This is all mostly fine; honesty falls on the members here and it is mostly a trustworthy community. At least it seems. But what happens when the underlying quest for species turns to moral impurity? What happens when it becomes ecologically unethical? What happens when the motivation for imaginary online rankings outweigh a basic compassion for wildlife and a goal to protect ecosystems at all costs? I began as a lifelister, and even today I am frequently active in most of the communities. However, I choose not to identify with this movement. After watching the group evolve over time, I have seen things that have confused and often hurt me. And these aren't one-time events. These aren't condemned universally within the group. And currently, these issues show no indication they are going away. While these problems are only sporadic at the moment, the exponential growth means an exponential amount of new, uninitiated members. With some of the biggest names in the community apathetic towards basic, but virtuously poisonous ideals, what is the standard that is being set for the young and impressionable joining?
In the following I am going to attempt to analyze these problems, as far as I have seen, to the best of my ability. I am going to attempt to limit conjecture, but I will not attempt to deny it may be egregiously subjective. I'm a self-proclaimed asshole, and in general, a cynic. But above all - I care about the environment. I care about the creatures that inhabit it, those with no advocates and those being negatively affected by the actions of humanity. As far as I can tell, what began as a simple movement to track species counts and promote the appreciation of fish great and small, has developed tendencies that I don't agree with as a conservationist. This is not an attempt to be presumptuous or haughty. I simply care to address the problems I am witnessing, because I don't feel they are currently addressed in an adequate manner. If you consider yourself a lifelister, I encourage you to continue reading until the end. I may call you out, but I am in no way insinuating you are a bad angler or a bad naturalist. I encourage introspection both in one's self and the community overall. And hopefully, even if I am missing the mark here, perspectives like mine can improve the community over and advance it into the future.
Despite my criticisms, lifelisting has abundant positive aspects. Perhaps my biggest compliment to the movement is its ability to change the picky sport fishermen into anglers that appreciates all species. Many lifelisters also participate in microfishing - a proven way to remove the stigma of baitfish and educate anglers on the balance of ecosystems and the natural biodiversity that exists beyond the guise of sportfish. In a lot of cases it creates small sub-communities of like-mined species hunters, perhaps hailing from the same country or region. Despite some inherent issues with competition I will address soon, friendly competition is healthy; and lifelisting has plenty of that. Despite these positives, lifelisting has some notable flaws.
This article is going to hopefully stay concise despite my strong feelings towards the subject at hand. Like a horseshoe effect, the most extreme lifelisters are not too far off from the most hardcore sportfishermen. These two groups may be explicitly at odds with one another; however implicitly, they share many negative characteristics. One of the key downfalls of lifelisting is the objectification of the fish at hand. At its worst, lifelisting puts at-risk species in danger of habitat destruction and in other cases, population declines. There have been recorded cases of lifelisters targeting endangered species with the specific intent to catch a rare fish; the rarity analogous to the size of fish sportfishermen crave. It is this scarcity, and the undeniable exotic feel of some catches that draws lifelisters to them. In fact, in these cases, the selfish nature of many is revealed. It makes me wonder whether these people truly care about the fish they are targeting. Whether their goal is really education, conservation and respect towards the outdoors, or whether their quest to be number one in an irrelevant internet contest is really more important. When you intentionally target these rare fish, you are implying that their safety is on the back burner for you, and you only care about sticking them with a hook and putting them on social media. Many multi-species fisherman will criticize monster hunter fisherman for solely targeting the big fish, the "desirable" fish, and ignoring roughfish and other non-game or micro species. However, I contend, is the feeling gained by lifelisters when they search and capture a rare fish not the same feeling quenched when a world record game fish is caught in another context? Is sharing these rare fish and soaking up the ogling from one's peers on a species hunting website not the same gloating that is involved in sport fishing community? Was this not one of the main distinctions at first between multi-species fisherman and game fishermen? And yet, today, both are simply different sides of the same trophy-hunting coin. This issue reveals the blatant hypocrisy of the microfishing community. For years, multi-species fisherman like me have struggled and succeeded often at proving the moral and ecological worth multi-species appreciation brings; and yet, to disregard the safety of fish is to disregard its existence in favor of your own interests. Catch photo release is a good mantra. My good friend, Leo Sheng of ExtremePhillyFishing lives up to this and uses his platform to spread it. I believe no one is perfect but if this is your intention then you are still focused in the right direction. How often do fish have to die at the hands of lifelisters in order to get the perfect picture? I am no saint; the occasional minnow dies. If it is the heat of summer, if we are fishing in stagnant water, if we don't have a photo tank for the fish's benefit, then can we really call ourselves naturalists? Why do we pretend to care for the populations of fish if we can't take simple precautions to ensure its safety? Of course, sometimes we slip up, sometimes we are unprepared, it is simply being human. But to address this to the community means instant rebuttal. What does it matter if one minnow dies? To be faced with such a question, easily answerable by the Tragedy of the Commons dilemma, is disappointing to say the least. I see far too little in the form of proper fish handling and care in a group that feigns advocacy for such. Lifelisting is rife with hypocrisy and with lies. But that's not all.
How can lifelisting exist if it can't uphold its participants to basic moral principles and basic guidelines? Famous lifelister Steve Wozniak states "if you think I have a shred of dignity, welcome, you must be new here!" A lame one-liner at best, but important to note. The blog contains hundreds of lines of the angler's hijinks across the world. It's clear that Wozniak's goal is too stack the species on at whatever cost. Is there any line though? It seems as though Wozniak's tactics, and for that matter the tactics of many of the "big-wigs" in the community is often treated as the elephant in the room. Why do we allow bucket fishing? Why do we allow anglers such as Wozniak to walk into a fish hatchery, stick a hook in the fragile closed ecosystem of a fish hatchery, and pull out a fish and count it? How do we allow pay lakes in lifelisting? How is fishing a paylake with sweaty, fat, British pensioners in Thailand any different than walking into an aquarium and sticking a tanago hook in the coral reef tank. Obviously it isn't my place to criticize every angler that does that; I am a cynic, but I'm not a hack. And while paylake fishing isn't for me, I'm not attempting to attack the institution of paylake fishing in general. I'm attempting to attack the practice of elitist world-travelers camping on the shore of stocked ponds and attempting to call their bloated, pellet-fed Redtail Catfish from French Indochina a lifelisting accomplishment. In the end, it may be an accomplishment to them. And more power to them; but if lifelisters attempt to be taken seriously, how can they allow hatchery fishing? Who is to say you can't order a fish to a bucket to your house and put a hook in its mouth? The thing is, many lifelisters would objectively frown upon this. And yet there is no quality control present in the system. No one is held accountable. There is an assumption of honesty - and yet, there seem to be lies and hypocrisy at every corner.
Another big gripe I have with lifelisting is networking. Networking is a significant problem in my opinion, and a problem that is never going away. In the end, I believe networking to be parasitic in nature, a process that really seems elitist in nature. I define it as the piggybacking off one another to chase rare species, in lieu of doing independent research. In my opinion, researching and being rewarded is one of the most fundamentally righteous things within fishing. It is like making a meal from scratch to finish; growing the ingredients, harvesting them when they're ripe, preparing it to perfection. It is the magnum opus of fishing in my opinion; and yet networking eradicates it. Nearly everyday you can find posts on social media; begging for spots to fish. Big names across the country and world courting other lifelisters to benefit off the research they've done. I have even heard rumors of some taking payment in order to lead other to secret havens holding rare micro fish with small ranges. If a fishing tournament will not count guided catches, why should the game of lifelisting catch these networked catches? Again, it comes down to the social side of this. There is nothing wrong with meting new folks, catching new species, and getting some help. There is an issue when you take credit for a catch, when you attempt no research yourself, when your catches rely solely on others' charity and when you get put on the exact spot and coaxed onto a fish and reap in the praise on the sites for weeks afterwards.
One of the last gripes I have with the competition itself is the lack of accountability. I have seen fish snagged and the anglers admit to it. yet still add this to their list, still claim it was a fair catch. Lifelisting can inherently support dangerous tactics. If we legally fight for centuries to eradicate snagging practices, why is it fair some lifelisters get to exercise it for personal gain with no consequences? How can you go home at night after snagging a fish and counting it personally and be proud of that catch? Others have worked hard to track down and catch fish fairly. What does this say to the honest working members when you show up with a sabiki rig, run it through a school of fish, photograph a couple limp, dead victims and call it a day? If this is you I encourage you to take a step back and reflect on what matters more. Having your dick sucked across the interwebs by swathes of people waiting on your next cool post or the integrity of fishing at its core. And if you see this and allow it - you are just as complicit in the system. You are at fault. Call it out or call it quits. If you can't stand up for what's right might as well not stand up for anything at all.
In the end, how are these tactics not considered cheating? Perhaps those involved may call it resourceful or cunning simply to help them sleep at night. But if lifelisting is too be treated seriously, why can't it have rules? I undesrtand the point of view that encourages the idea that your lifelist is your lifelist. You make the rules. But if these rules violate simple morals, if they objectify the fish and harm their ecosystems, if your actions in creating your lifelisting marginalize others, then its not really your lifelist is it? If your lifelist leads a body trail of dead fish in the background, it can no longer belong to just you. Not when its tendrils are wrapped around the problems created when you weaponized it.
I am being sensationalist, sure. Perhaps I am simply an asshole too jealous and sick of seeing exotic fish in exotic places. Or perhaps I am making a valid point. The call is yours to make. I want to be clear; I encourage you to fish. I encourage you to fish to the point you enjoy it. But I encourage you, when participating in a worldwide contest with lots of different folks, play fairly. Cheaters never win.
How can lifelisters change? Standards must be enforced. People like Wozniak must be publicly and unanimously condemned. This may be difficult, but if the group wants to keep evolving as a bastion of conservation in naturalism as a whole, which I believe it has the inherent faculties to become, then it must grow the cojones to confront the problems within it. I am a conservationist and a multi-species angler, two subsets that interact quite easily. Should be the case of lifelisting; however at its current state it does not wholly represent the interests of nature; lifelisting exists to represent the interests of its members, vying for the top spots in the arbitrary internet list. It is akin to a car show, or coin collecting. The rare, the unknown win. And while it definitely acts as a learning tool at times it exists in no way that can't simply be described as a trophy hunting contest. It is sport fishing disguised by those who claim to be morally superior to sport fisherman. And yet, they aren't. And even more so, they continuously show disregard for rules, laws, morals and the well-being of the fish and ecosystems themselves. And I want to make it clear I am not generalizing, or attempting to claim that all lifelisters do these things. I am simply insinuating that the amount that do them is too high and the amount that condemn them is too low. If you keep your mouth shut and congratulate the flagrant offenders in the group, you are complicit and just as guilty. And until the wrongdoers are shamed and the group returns to its roots; as a way to wholly emphasize the appreciation of all forms of ichthyological life; lifelisting is pathetically unsustainable.
In the end, I hope my perspective at least elucidated something within you. If you are not an angler, I hope at least reading this you may have learned something or will be encouraged to do some extemporaneous research. If you are a lifelister, I hope you feel called out. Maybe you agreed with me, maybe you don't. I simply have the best in mind for the fish, and not my followers. Advocating for the fish might not get you a dumbass pixellated plaque on Roughfish.com, but it might be the difference for our kids and our kids' kids who can still experience these aquatic marvels years down the line.