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“Go surf on the other side!” the fisher yelled down at me from atop a pier in San Diego.

“Why don’t you go fish on the other side?” I called back. And so it began, another conflict between a surfer and a fisher over a patch of ocean both wanted to use at the same time. Although I yielded some space from the pier, ultimately he cast his line far out and I unwittingly surfed across the invisible thread, becoming entangled. I spent several minutes unwinding the unbreakable line from my leg, and looked up at the pier to find him gone. Did it have to be this way? Can’t we all just get along?

The ocean is vast, but surfers and fishers sometimes compete for the same small portions of it

The ocean is vast, but surfers and fishers sometimes compete for the same small portions of it. Particularly near piers and jetties, disparate users lay claim to overlapping space. Fishers angle for the sealife that swims where the waves are breaking, while surfers relish the bigger and better-shaped waves sculpted by the structure jutting into the ocean and like to ride out on the rip currents that often form alongside it. When the two activities collide, tempers can flare and people may get hurt.

The physical dangers to surfers are obvious: fishing line cuts, hooks impale, and sinkers bruise. Too, surfers can be at risk from hooked prey; sharks, for instance, may lash out at anyone in the water. Fishers suffer financially when they cut lines that have captured surfers instead of fish, dropping hook, line and sinker into the depths. And everyone involved in a clash looses the sense of enjoyment their day at the ocean was intended to foster.

Surfers v Fishers

In this running dispute, each side often wishes the other would just go somewhere else. Yet there’s a certain myopia about the other’s requirements. While fishers may claim there’s a lot of coastline for surfers but only a few good fishing spots, they don’t seem to understand that the best waves may be found at those same spots. And the converse is true as well. Surfers who tell fishers to move farther out on the pier, outside of the breaking waves, may not realize that deeper water doesn’t hold what they’re trying to catch. Territoriality plays a part as well; I was here first. This is my spot.

Whenever one group is competing with another, in this case for use of the wave zone, there’s a tendency to circle the wagons and objectify those on the other side

Whenever one group is competing with another, in this case for use of the wave zone, there’s a tendency to circle the wagons and objectify those on the other side. Dehumanization, according to Michelle Maiese on the website BeyondIntractability.org, “is a psychological process whereby opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration.” Empathy disappears; the “evil enemies” on other side are not seen as entitled to fair treatment, and any harms that befall them may be seen as justified. Fishing forums are dotted with rhetoric that dehumanizes surfers. On the World Sea Fishing Forum, Herbie from Wales complains that he caught a surfer who snapped his new line. “I did go onto it as it came out of the water – I LOOKED AT ITS FEET and asked did it have my line – to which it answered no it did not and but its ok now? He mistunderstood [sic] me and thought I was concerned for him…” Others on the forum joke about treating “it” like fish. “Just like rays they are a bugger to skin and when you do manage to get all that black horrible skin off them they all tend to smell of weeeee,” writes lazy_hooker John. “Nah mate dunt skin it,” replies dounut, “taints the meat i prefer to skewer them and sprinkle mixed herbs over a bbq.” Army_Warrior suggests “Next time the surfers get in the way try a 7/0 hook with a wire trace, just make sure you seat the hook well if you intend to beach it!”

Surfers v FishersSurfers v Fishers

This attitude oozes out into the real world. When a snagging occurs, intentional or not, fishers sometimes show more concern for their gear than the person caught in it. Brian Hughes recounted the time he was surfing with his young daughter in San Diego and a fisher cast his line far out from the pier. “They’re not supposed to do that,” Hughes said. He got a hook imbedded in his finger and another in his wetsuit, and yelled up at the fisher that he’d been snagged. The fisher gave no slack and didn’t cut the line, which Hughes had to bite through to free himself before heading home to have the hook extracted from his hand by a friend.

The vitriol seems more tempered on the surfers’ side, but they are not above acting out. Several surfers told me that they sometimes tie a fisher’s line to a pier piling, then laugh while the fisher tries to reel in his big catch. Fishers also engage in non-confrontational retaliation; one told me he stuffed fish under the car seats of surfers who had seemed to deliberately get in his way.

Surfers are known to break the rules in search of waves, potentially inviting conflict

Surfers are known to break the rules in search of waves, potentially inviting conflict. By surfing closer to a pier than allowed, or surfing the “wrong” side, or shooting the pier (surfing underneath to the other side), they may put themselves in the path of a fishing line. At that point, a fisher may decide to take matters into his own hands and deliberately target a surfer with weight or a hook. Conflicts sometimes escalate from there. In Florida, a brawl at a jetty saw surfers and fishers slinging sinkers, bottles and obscenities as well as fists.

Pamela Taylor is on Crystal Pier in San Diego daily at her bait-and-tackle shop. “There is very little conflict” between surfers and fishers, she’s observed, a sentiment echoed by many fishers. But she blames wave riders for the infrequent clashes, which happen “mostly when the surfers are on the wrong side of the pier. They can only surf on the north side.”

That sort of regulation is one way communities seek to balance the competing interests of fishers and surfers and keep people from getting hurt. Last year in Manhattan Beach, California, a swimmer was attacked by a shark that had been hooked by a pier fisher. This led to the pier’s closure to fishing for two months. When it reopened, the city imposed stricter rules on fishing intended to reduce the risk of another such attack. Fishers complained about the rules, which didn’t go far enough for some surfers and swimmers, who sought a permanent ban.

Surfers v Fishers

Other communities also try to impose surfing and fishing zones. In west Australia, the government extended buffer zones at two popular surf breaks to exclude irate rock lobster fishers, while still allowing them access at three other locations. South Africa’s large population of surfers finds itself at odds with fishers in places like Durban. Several years ago, officials banned fishing from two piers while continuing to allow it at four others. Fishers opposed the ban as a threat to their livelihood, and indeed, for some, it is a matter of subsistence. Fishing’s propensity to attract dangerous sharks is also a concern in South Africa, where the city of Cape Town brokered a compromise between fishers and surfers to close a popular beach infrequently for net fishing of yellowtail. At Cromer beach in England, the local council tried various warnings and restrictions, revising them as affected parties complained, to address the dangers of crab fishing boats nearly hitting surfers in the water when they returned from sea. Balancing competing interests and ensuring public safety is tricky business. And when there’s no one around to enforce the rules, it’s left up to the honor system with limited success.

He thought he landed a fish and started reeling in hard. Winzeler yelled at the fisher to stop, and the man gestured apologetically

Fortunately, interactions between fishers and surfers don’t always end in shouting or worse. Josh Winzeler, who surfs near San Francisco, recounts the time his leg was snagged by a shore fisher’s line. “He thought he landed a fish and started reeling in hard.” Winzeler yelled at the fisher to stop, and the man gestured apologetically. Winzeler feels that fishers and surfers both have every right to enjoy the ocean but should exercise common sense. For example, a surfer shouldn’t paddle out where someone is already fishing. And conversely, a fisher shouldn’t start casting in the middle of a group of surfers.

San Diego fisher Jared Virusso agrees. “It’s all about respecting proximity,” he says. “Just treat them like you’d want to be treated.”

As Koalaboi, a fisher near Sydney, wisely said on the Fishraider forum, “At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself why you go fishing. I had to, and my answer was to relax, get a feed and talk a bit of s&#t with the other people fishing. If you’re going to a place to fish that’s impinging on your enjoyment I reckon pack up your gear and find somewhere else.” The same goes for surfers. It’s a big ocean. We should share it.

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