When you think about fishing clubs, are you more likely to envision a bunch of overweight guys named Bubba holding a pole in one hand and a frosty beverage in the other, or do you imagine newly-minted graduates throwing their mortarboards into the air? It’s no contest—Bubba is front and center. Unless, that is, you’re someone like Pete Abbott, President of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association (MSSA) Scholarship Foundation. Abbott and the fund’s supporters (full disclosure: I’m personally among them) know that their love of the water, fishing, and boating in general is threatened by an ever-increasing assault on the environment. And they also know that the best way to fight back is with knowledge and science. Hence, the MSSA Scholarship Foundation.

striped bass fish

How's the health of our Atlantic waterways? According to a 2012 Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation study, as a result of malnutrition today's average striped bass may weigh just 70-percent of the historical average, and significant numbers carry mycobacterial infections.

Taking the Reins

The foundation was first conceived of in 1992, with the idea that qualified students who displayed a sincere concern for the health of our watery playgrounds should be supported by those of us who benefit from that health—or suffer from a lack thereof. In 1995 the foundation obtained 501(c)(3) non-profit status and made its first grant, in the amount of $1,000. Since then, over $200,000 has been raised for more than 50 students who focus their studies on environmental sciences, marine biology, and fisheries management. In 2011 alone, over $25,000 was awarded to 12 students.

Laudable though the program may be, most of us realize that those numbers amount to peanuts in today’s world of sticker-shocking higher education. That’s why, when Abbott took over the reins of the foundation a few years ago, he and the board of directors launched a new fund-raising initiative. The goal: to generate over $100,000 a year in donations, establish an endowment, and build a self-sustaining foundation that could contribute to the education of countless students in the future.

Why is Abbott so convinced that education is the key to solving environmental issues, and by extension, improving the health of our nation’s watery playgrounds?

“We are products of our experiences,” Abbott explained, “and through my 77 years of observing the performance of people in a variety of careers, education is the differentiating factor in their success. Whether you look at the profession of law, medicine, dentistry, higher education, or the military, the common thread is an educational system with specific learning requirements that must be met to gain access into each.”

fish kill

Problems like fish kills, poor water clarity, and oxygen depletion simply can not be solved, without highly educated and motivated people.

And there’s little doubt in Abbot’s mind that successful professionals are a key to solving the environmental problems we face. “What kind of people do you want doing the work?” Abbott asks. “The only real hope we have of solving the problems of pollution, disease, and deterioration of the natural habitat is developing a cadre of well-educated, motivated professionals. And we citizens have to be the ones to focus on the environmental problems. We can’t just leave it to the politicians to get this job done. If we don’t do it, no one will.”

Abbott became convinced that it would take public action, not just that of the government, after first becoming involved with the MSSA. Originally organized as a fishing club with a political agenda—to give anglers a seat at the table when striped bass stocks were divvied up between recreational and commercial interests—today the MSSA’s stated mission is to provide a unified voice to preserve and protect the fisheries resources, the rights of recreational fishermen, and activities that enhance the marine environment. And through time, environmental concerns have come to dominate the groups’ legislative agenda. Unfortunately, the MSSA also became familiar with the fragmented, ineffective, and failed efforts of federal, state, and local governments. Governments that were (and are) unable to come to grips with what it would take to stop the destruction of the marine environment.

“I’ve asked myself countless times why government is incapable of instituting programs and regulations to stop the deterioration of conditions in the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean,” Abbot said. “My conclusion is a simple one: the need for specific actions and investments are identifiable—and in many cases, well known. But there’s not enough political payoff for the legislators and regulators to place marine environmental problems high on the priority list. That’s why we have to step in. We have to prime the pump and produce a small but steady stream of smart, motivated, well-educated graduates who can do research, field work, and liaison with government—without creating crippling regulation or taxation.”

Capital Gains

The return on the educational investment is huge; even with the so-far limited nature of the funding, foundation recipients have followed careers in environmental research and education, environmental mitigation, fisheries management, and more. Tracy Dirks, a foundation beneficiary who today sits on the foundation’s board of directors, is a prime example.

“I always had an interest in science and ecology, and I received funding from the MSSA Scholarship Foundation throughout my college career,” she said. “The financial support not only helped take off some of the pressure associated with the cost of a quality education, it also helped me realize that my field of interest was important and necessary. When you know that people have the confidence to invest in you and your education, it makes it even more important to give back and pursue a career in that field.”

marine biologist

Foundation beneficiary Tracy Dirks, seen here showing a blue crab to a boat-load of students, joined the Foundation's Board of Directors after completing her education and entering the workforce.

And just how did that education “give back” to the fishermen who helped support it? Dirks spent three summers interning with the Fisheries division of the Department of Natural Resources, conducting research on the relationship between impervious surfaces and fish populations. Since research like this has established a direct link between land development and declining fish habitat quality—caused by increased flooding, erosion, sediment flow, and toxic metal levels, as well as water temperature changes—it’s helped regulators establish development thresholds and targets used by urban planners. There’s no denying the direct benefit this has for you and me, whether we prowl the heavily-developed shorelines of the Severn River casting for striped bass, or pole through the flats of Biscayne Bay on the hunt for redfish.

But the pay-back didn’t end there. Shortly after graduation Dirks went to work for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, teaching a range of students from middle-schoolers to college age.

“We led activities from boating to marsh exploration to oystering,” Dirks explained. “It was our job to actively engage and educate the students with outdoor learning techniques, and spark their interest in the bay. It’s amazing to me that some students are so disconnected with the environment that surrounds them—we desperately need to increase their awareness.”

Speaking as an angler and a supporter, it sounds to me like the foundation got one heck of a deal by investing in Dirk’s education. Unfortunately, deals like this aren't nearly as plentiful as we need them to be if we, as anglers, want to have a significant impact on the aquatic environment and environmental awareness.

While scholarship programs like this one aren’t unheard-of, they are few and far between. The Atlantic Salmon Federation supports a program offering scholarships to those studying salmon management and research. The Marin Rod & Gun ClubDiablo Valley Fly Fishermen, and California Fly Fishermen Unlimited all support scholarships for students studying related fields at the UC Davis Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture. And several Coastal Conservation Association chapters have similar small-scale scholarship programs. But all of these are limited in scope and funding, with most scholarship amounts ranging between $500 and $2,000. Is this good? Yes. But is this good enough? The sad state of the health of our waterways provides the answer.

fishing for striped bass

A solid education is a must to turn today's fishing kids into tomorrow's problem-solvers.

If our youth—the kids we've raised with the same intrinsic attachment to fishing and love of the water that we have—grow up well-educated and interested in finding ways of improving our fisheries and the environment they dwell in, they will find the solutions we all need. They will have the initiative and the intelligence to solve the problems our aquatic environment faces, and we will all benefit for having invested in them.

“Having been in the program, from scholarship recipient to Board of Directors member, I've seen the program full-circle,” Dirks said, summing it up. “And I have complete confidence that the financial support given by the MSSA Scholarship Foundation has had a direct and positive impact on the health of our water, through its beneficiaries.”

To show your support, please visit the MSSA Scholarship Foundation.

If you belong to a fishing club and would like to find out how to emulate the Foundation’s work or further its mission, please contact Pete Abbott via the Foundation.