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Published: Wednesday, 2/11/2009

No subsidy for recklessness

LIKE salmon returning to the river where they were born, some fishermen can't seem to help but venture out onto the ice of western Lake Erie when common sense, that most uncommon of traits, tells them to stay on shore. But that's no reason for cash-strapped towns, counties, and federal agencies to foot the bill for their reckless behavior.

On Saturday, some 175 fishermen who were forced to use plywood to bridge a crack in the ice off Magee Marsh to even get out on the lake to fish for walleye, began drifting away from shore when warm temperatures and brisk south winds conspired to turn the crack into a chasm and their fishing platform into an ice floe.

Some of the anglers were able to make their way east until they found a safe route to shore near Camp Perry, but most had to be rescued.

Twenty-one governmental agencies sent boats, helicopters, and personnel to the rescue, at a cost that is likely to be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Some of the stranded fishermen were unrepentant, claiming they were never in any danger, and a few were even back out fishing the next day. But as Jerusalem Township police Chief Larry Stanton reminded us all, "The reality of it is that ice out there is dangerous 24/7. The moment you think it's safe, you'll be one of our potential clients, unfortunately."

One fisherman said he just "followed 3,000 other people out there," which is a pretty scary and lemming-like thought but, as Chief Stanton said, "they have the right to be stupid, I guess."

Or maybe they don't, at least not on the taxpayers' dime. The scale of Saturday's rescue was larger than usual, but it is an event that is repeated on a smaller scale several times each winter. But if people are going to insist on being wilfully foolish, perhaps the agencies in charge of preventing stupidity from becoming fatal ought to have the right to recoup their expenses.

Currently there are no penalties for repeat stupidity except in Ottawa County, where ice fishermen are asked to take a safety class after their second offense and may be issued citations after a third offense. But even there, no one has ever been fined.

That's no way to discourage reckless or negligent behavior. Professional fishing guides bring a boat along as a safety measure when they go out on the ice, and they don't go out at all when wisdom dictates otherwise. A veteran fishing guide noted that the reason there weren't more people who needed rescuing was that most veteran fishermen had heeded the warning signs and stayed off the ice.

Some fishermen apparently need a stronger deterrent, and having them pay the cost of their bad choice would be an appropriate penalty.

The rest of the taxpaying public should not be forced to subsidize their wantonly reckless behavior.

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