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Fish and Fishing

The Evolution Of U.s. Wildlife Law, The Federal Government's Role In The Conservation Of Fish And Wildlife

State and federal governments share authority over the regulation and management of fish and fishing in the United States. Although states must defer to the U.S. government in areas preempted by federal regulators, state governments nonetheless play a primary role in the day-today management of fish and wildlife. The federal government oversees the actions taken by states in this area, funds state programs, and resolves disputes that might involve conflicting state interests, the rights and powers of Native American tribes, or INTERNATIONAL LAW.

From earliest times, fish and fishing have played a crucial role in the life of the people of North America. Native Americans of all tribes depended heavily on fish to eat and to trade, and fishing also held an important place in native cultural practices and religious rites. Beginning in the sixteenth century, and possibly even earlier, European adventurers were drawn to the rich fishing grounds off the coast of New England, and the settlers who followed them eagerly harvested the tremendous stocks of fish they found in America's lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. Fish were considered to be an inexhaustible resource, a common property available to all.

As early as the late eighteenth century, however, it became clear that the rush to exploit fish and other species of wildlife was jeopardizing the continued survival of several species. Eventually, state governments passed laws regulating hunting and fishing practices, and established fish and game agencies to enforce those laws. Because these state laws met with very limited success, the federal government soon stepped in and passed legislation designed to strengthen them and make them more enforceable. Over time, the federal government's role in managing and protecting fish and wildlife grew, occasionally conflicting with state authority. The question of wildlife jurisdiction was ultimately resolved by the Supreme Court, which found the federal government to be the ultimate authority in the area of fish and wildlife management.

Though states must ultimately defer to federal authority, state governments continue to play the primary role in fish and wildlife management, determining details such as harvesting seasons, methods, and limits. The federal government plays a broader role in protecting and managing wildlife, including funding state wildlife programs, regulating the commercial harvesting of fish, managing national forests and wildlife refuges, and negotiating international treaties involving ocean fisheries. Finally, the federal government has played a principal role in adjudicating the fishing rights of Native American tribes, determining what rights are guaranteed by the treaties signed between the tribes and the federal government, and working to ensure that those rights are protected.

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