Fundamental Right to Fish?

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October 31, 2014 8:45 p.m.

Is voting a fundamental right? How about privacy? What about the right to fish?

Well, if you live in Mississippi, next Tuesday you can vote to enshrine the fundamental right to fish and hunt in the state constitution.

Now let me frame everything that follows in the proper context which is that I grew up fishing and love to fish. I’ve never been a hunter. But I’ve got no problem with it. The first magazine I ever subscribed to as a kid was Field and Stream. But I’d never thought of fishing as something that was a right as opposed to something you just did. And I also wasn’t aware that fishing rights were under threat.

When a reader first informed me of this ballot initiative, I wondered if it might be some sort of constitutional block against fish bureaucrats assigning creel limits. So if I want to take home 1000 crappie in one totally epic day of dishing I can do it if I want because of my constitutional right to fish.

But that’s not it. The proposed amendment clearly states that your right to fish and hunt is subject to established wildlife and game conservation and management policies. So this isn’t some sort of fishing libertarianism. As far as I can tell, it’s another case of gun rights groups getting people riled about fantasy challenges or movements to restrict their fishing and hunting pastimes. Indeed, this entry on ballotopedia points pretty clearly to the NRA as the prime mover.

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NRA spokesperson Lacey Biles, says, “Years down the road, even a hunter-friendly state might turn the other way. It might be 20 years down the road, it might be 50. That’s the whole point of a constitutional amendment, to protect the future, and a hunting heritage that is rich in Mississippi currently, we want that to be enshrined for generations to come.”

Not surprisingly Ballotopedia says there is no organized opposition to the initiative and the most they could come up with was someone from the Humane Society who says the law might prevent bans on particularly inhumane kinds of traps.

What I have learned in looking into this is that fishing rights is a real movement. Since 1996 16 states – mostly but not all Southern – have passed right to fish and hunt constitutional amendments. And two more, California and Rhode Island, guarantee your fishing rights but not your hunting rights. But, you know, liberal states. There’s even some law review literature on the movement.

The big exception is Vermont which enshrined this right in 1777 in Section 67 which states …
The inhabitants of this State shall have liberty in seasonable times, to hunt and fowl on the lands they hold, and on other lands not inclosed, and in like manner to fish in all boatable and other waters (not private property) under proper regulations, to be made and provided by the General Assembly.

Notably, this language is likely part of a much older popular or liberties tradition in the British Isles and Europe more generally which say the right to hunt increasingly restricted to the wealthy or the noble – look at the horrifically draconian punishments for what was expansively defined as poaching in 18th century Britain.

So perhaps the NRA thinks we need to start building the legal ramparts now to resist a recurrence of that said state of affairs.

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