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A U.S. federal court has ruled that the American government violated its own law by failing to properly manage the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.

The court ruled in Washington on five counts in favor of 21 commercial fishing plaintiffs against the U.S. Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The court ruled that NMFS violated several mandates to properly manage red snapper stocks.

The 51-page ruling noted that recreational fishing landings of red snapper continued to grow over the past 10 years, with NMFS, through a local fisheries management council, continuing to raise quotas to match pace with the landings and not taking action to limit catches. The ruling also showed the council and NMFS, without reports of a current year's landings, set catch limits and season lengths for subsequent years. The court documents mentioned most recently the 2013 season, when NMFS reopened the season in the fall as usual despite getting landings reports in June showing recreational fisheries had gone over previous quotas by 2 million pounds.

"If NMFS's estimates in previous years had come at all close to accurately predicting recreational landings, or if NMFS had some credible reason to believe that 2013 would be different, the court might have been limited to sympathizing with plaintiffs' frustrations at watching an agency fail to accomplish a statutory mandate," Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote in her decision. "Administrative discretion is not a license to engage in Einstein's definition of folly — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

At the same time, according to the court documents, not only did NMFS not raise quotas for commercial fishermen, but by failing to act indirectly reallocated part of the commercial red snapper industry to the recreational sector.

The court's ruling also granted that, regardless of what happens with the commercial fishing sector, it's possible that overfishing by the recreational sector could have an impact, as could poor action or inaction by NMFS.

"Overharvesting of red snapper is as likely to injure commercial as recreational fishing interests, and overharvesting is directly traceable, indeed dependent upon, NMFS's management actions or lack thereof," Rothstein wrote.

Buddy Guindon, owner of Katie's Seafood in Galveston, Texas, said he was pleased with the ruling, but didn't want to have to take the matter to court in the first place.

"Litigation was not our first choice, but the agency's mismanagement posed a real threat to the entire red snapper fishery, and to the businesses dependent on it," he said. "We look forward to working with NMFS and the Gulf Council to solve a longstanding issue in this fishery — the need for accountability measures in the recreational sector."

The court ruled NMFS' decisions violated the Magnusson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. No penalties have yet been assigned for the violation, but in a statement the Gulf Seafood Institute said the decision will force NMFS to revise the way it handles the recreational red snapper fishery.

"We are very excited that the judge agreed with us on all counts," said one of the plaintiffs in the case, David Krebs, president of Florida's Ariel Seafood and a Gulf Seafood Institute board member. "For years recreational fishermen have been frustrated, it is past time to fix their recreational accountability problems. The Gulf Council has continued to fail them."

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