This interview with International Game Fish Association President Rob Kramer is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations and people.

Few fishing organizations are as venerable and well-respected as the International Game Fish Association (IGFA). Currently headquartered in Dania Beach, Florida, the organization is most well-known for keeping records of the largest and most impressive angler-caught fish in the world. However, IGFA President Rob Kramer says record-keeping is only a small part of the association’s activities.

“The IGFA’s mission, as stated, is to be a not-for-profit organization committed to the conservation of game fish and the promotion of responsible, ethical angling practices through science, education, rule making, and record keeping,” Rob told me.

Above all, IGFA exists to ensure that the next generation of anglers will have the same opportunities their parents and grandparents did. The association actually started out with a very simple idea—that there should be one unified code of fishing ethics for all anglers. Before IGFA’s founding in 1939, sporting ethics varied from individual to individual and from club to club.

“There was a need, just like any other sport, to lay down some rules,” Rob said. “Game fishing and big game fishing predated the IGFA with the likes of Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway—who later became vice president of IGFA. For some time in the late 1930s, the idea of a worldwide association of anglers had been brewing among fishermen in Europe, Australia, and the United States.

“There were efforts to establish a headquarters in England, but of course our friends in England didn’t always get along with our friends in Australia, so they decided to turn to the United States. A very accomplished angler and explorer at that time was a fellow by the name of Michael Lerner, and he was selected to be the one to pull things together.”

Along with famed Australian angler Clive Firth, Lerner contacted fishing clubs, industry notables, and renowned anglers and shared with them the idea of forming an international association of fishing clubs. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of setting up headquarters in the United States, but the anglers still needed a place to call home.

“It was around that time that the American Museum of Natural History heard about this and an offer was made to locate this organization in New York,” Rob shared.

On June 7, 1939, the association was formally launched and its first meeting held inside the museum. The museum’s head of Ichthyology and Comparative Anatomy, Dr. William King Gregory, became the first president of IGFA. Rob said that it was Gregory’s influence that kept IGFA focused on research first, and fishing second.

“This organization could have ended up like any of the other fishing clubs formed during that time,” Rob stated. “But its association with the museum set the tone and priority of the research that became the core of IGFA.”

The early leaders of IGFA recognized that the issue of fisheries management was a complex one, and it required not only prioritizing habitat preservation and ethical fishing practices, but also a balance between recreational and commercial fishing. As an international organization, IGFA is ideally suited to pursue research subjects that affect migratory species such as tuna, marlin, sharks, and swordfish. The organization has been active in a number of studies including circle hook research, tagging bonefish and sharks in the Pacific, and tracking marlin. More importantly, IGFA relies on its member anglers to provide invaluable data.

“Since our beginning we have partnered with scientific institutions throughout the world,” Rob shared. “We as anglers are very formidable troops on the ground, if you will. There are over 100 million anglers worldwide and these are people, some of [whom] spend 100-plus days out on the water, [who] can collect data.”

One project that Rob is especially excited about is the IGFA Great Marlin Race, a partnership between IGFA and Stanford University to tag marlin at billfish tournaments. It is hoped that the project will provide better insight into the fish’s distribution and biology, and help explain how they interact with their habitat.

You can learn more about the Great Marlin Race in the video below:

With such a large number of members in so many different countries, it can be difficult for an organization to communicate across borders. This is where IGFA’s International Committee of Representatives comes in. Composed of 300 of the organization’s most knowledgeable and experienced anglers, these men and women work to support IGFA projects and research in their country.

“Since 1941 we have been developing a network of ambassadors throughout the world,” Rob said. “Today we have over 300 men and women in 90 countries who serve as a connection to the IGFA headquarters here in United States and work locally in research and outreach projects. They are also our eyes and ears in regional fishing issues.”

Among the most important of those issues is educating anglers with information gleaned from IGFA’s research partnerships. Recently the organization turned more of its attention towards getting kids involved with fishing, and the effects and benefits recreational fishing has on marine conservation.

“For the past 15 years we’ve been doing much more with children’s education,” Rob explained. “We understand that children will be the future users of these resources and the decision makers on how to protect these resources. We now have an extensive education program and a budget of over half a million dollars a year to fund that. We help utilize fishing as a vehicle to connect children to the environment. They can get a lot of information through the internet these days, but getting their hands wet and getting outdoors means a whole lot more.”

Expand your own knowledge. Learn how to create a simple ballyhoo rig for a circle hook in this IGFA tutorial:

Educating the next generation of anglers is one of Rob’s biggest goals during for his tenure as IGFA’s sixth president. He came to the organization after working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and founding Fish Florida, a non-profit that seeks to provide more fishing opportunities to anglers statewide. Since he settled into his office at IGFA in 2002, Rob has been focused on leaving a lasting legacy.

“I want to do things that can’t be erased,” he said. “I want to leave behind things that are permanent. Teaching children and getting youth involved in angling is something the cannot be erased. Collecting data, working with respected intuitions and leaving behind knowledge that can be accessed by students and professors long after we’re gone is permanent. That to me is a big focus.”

That focus is a necessary one—overfishing and habitat degradation are even bigger problems now than they were when IGFA was founded over seven decades ago.

“I think the biggest challenge in marine conservation today is the sheer pressure on our resources,” Rob said towards the tail end of our talk. “We as a people today have the capacity to entirely eliminate species, and that’s a very scary thing. If you look at species such as bluefin tuna that command such an amazing price on the commercial market, the industry is being throttled all the time just to keep them from overfishing. When you have 7 billion people on a planet that’s mostly covered with water, they have to get protein somewhere. It’s all the more important that we understand the situation and what is at stake. The most important thing is having an educated public. Without fish, there’s no fishing.”

We would like to thank Rob for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with MidwayUSA CEO and Founder Larry Potterfield.

Image courtesy Rob Kramer

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