To spearfish in our technologically advanced society is looked upon with great disdain by the ecological movement to save our oceans. Many view the pastime as a large contributor to the depletion of many species of underwater creatures.With such a big misconception hanging over it’s head, it may seem to appear that the sport will become a thing of the past. I talked with Skip Hellen about the future of this sport and what his objectives are as president of the International Underwater Spearfishing Association, and it’s goals for the future.
The majority of people out there who are aware of spearfishing have a misconception of the sport. "We [really] are environmentalist’s" says Hellen. "We’re not involved in massive slaughter of marine life as many would have you believe".
So how will being president of the IUSA make a difference to change this perception?
In 1994, Hellen himself became a world record holder for spearfishing a White Sea Bass at Palos Verdes, California. As he put it "My ship came in as a spearfisherman".
After this, Hellen saw a duty to represent the sport. "It was time for me to give something back" he said. So he volunteered to become president of the organization, taking over for it’s original founder, Ralph Davis, who started it back in the early 1950’s. TO change its focus , Hellen decided to reorganize the structure of the IUSA back in March of 1994. As he put it "it hit me like a bolt of lightening". The organization decided to become a multifaceted body, with Hellen as President and a board of Directors, giving an official presence to it’s goals.
The goals include creating a new Mission and Ethics for the sport, which they hope will eventually be given international input to establish a "code of conduct" that represents the responsibility and accountability of all divers as stewards of the oceans.
Although they now have the groundwork for this new vision, which was been in the works for about a year, not all of the members of the board were unanimous in the makeup of all the rules, but Hellen said that "once the Board made the decision, we all agreed to stick by it, whether we agreed with it or not." That was the consensus all involved said they would stick to. "We are still evolving as an organization" Hellen continued. Since establishing itself as a unified organization, it has also tried to begin developing a way of gaining more recognition as a governing body for world records in spearfishing. Hellen’s vision is to see the IUSA "become the spearfishing IGFA" (International Game Fishing Association, which is the official body that records world record catches on fishing tackle). The other two important issues that the IUSA is wanting to create is the impression that spearfishing is an honorable sport, by emphasizing two primary areas. One is to honor human accomplishment and, 2) emphasize that the environment is in a precarious state. "We are responsible for less than 1/2 of 1% of the take from the oceans." Hellen said. Yet many view spearfishing as an easy and sedate sport, where you go and spear fish to your hearts content.Nothing could be further from the truth."There is one underwater hunter for every 1000 traditional fisherman" stated Hellen. So the competition for the fish is fierce. And as to it being easy, Hellen gave these statistics. "First of all, you’re in somebody else’s world, you have to use all your cunning and skill as a hunter and freediver, and the instincts of a good underwater hunter is something the majority of people would never be able to do. Secondly, most spearfisherman spend between 10 and 15 hours hunting in the water for a single fish, on average, which is not as easy as it has been made out to be" he said.But how do you change the already distorted perception that the public has about the "cruelty" of spearfishing?" We are true environmentalists. We are the ultimate selective hunters, just by one decision, we catch and release every fish we choose to, or choose to harvest a meal from the ocean." he stated. It is true that spearfisherman only take what they need for food, and there is nothing wrong with that. Many environmentalists get on there soapboxes and say that we shouldn’t eat any meat because of the depletion of species. Man has always harvested from the ocean for food, and as such this attitude causes a lot of division between groups that actually have a common goal in general principle.
"We need to look at the sea as a farm, not a bottomless pit" Hellen said. "If a farmer harvests his land, and then does nothing to replenish the soil with nutrients or rotates his crops, he eventually is going to lose productivity from his land." That is what is happening right now with indiscriminate over-fishing from foreign countries."What we need is to identify common grounds or causes with other organizations in order to build a strong enough group of people to make a difference" Hellen said. To keep smaller groups from combining and becoming a more powerful force for change is a typical strategy that those with opposite goals try to instigate.
To help change the views of the public towards spearfishing, The IUSA is developing a network of public speakers to go to community groups and organizations, to educate the public about the conditions of the oceans, and to raise the consciousness of the average person. They are also changing the rulebook for world records. As of Dec.31, 1996 at 12:00 p.m. midnight, all world records up to that point will be considered "20th Century records". After that, the process of world records will adhere to the new rules for the 21st Century as outlined by the IUSA.
Hellen has been in this sport for over 35 years, and has seen the decline of many marine species due to overharvesting. But he is optimistic about the future for all those involved. "This sport has a rich history, and I hope to see a change for the better in my lifetime".