NMFS red grouper decision could set precedent for new Gulf of Mexico catch reallocations

Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishermen are expecting to face off in court against the National Marine Fisheries Service later this summer.

Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishermen are expecting to face off in court against the National Marine Fisheries Service later this summer as they challenge the agency’s recent reallocation of commercial red grouper individual fishing quota to the recreational sector.

Gulf of Mexico commercial-fishing groups filed suit against the U.S. government on 6 May, alleging a reallocation of red grouper catch shares illegally favors the recreational-fishing sector. The lawsuit challenges the National Marine Fisheries Service’s implementation of Amendment 53, which was announced on 2 May, 2022, and which went into effect 1 June, 2022. The rule amends the fishery management plan for reef fish resources in the Gulf of Mexico so that the allocation of the red grouper catch to the commercial sector is lowered from 76 percent to 59.3 percent, while increasing the recreational catch-share from 24 percent to 40.7 percent.

Fishermen have more at stake than the cut in their grouper quota, according to Eric Brazer, deputy director of the Galveston, Texas, U.S.A.-based Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance. NMFS and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council are already forging ahead with serial reallocations of other fisheries and the lawsuit may be their best, if not only, chance to stop them from doing so, he said.

Other plaintiffs in the suit include A.P. Bell Fish Company, of Cortez, Florida, and the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, a longliner group based in Madeira Beach, Florida. The courts sided with commercial fishermen in 2014 and 2017 when they challenged the council and NMFS over actions to extend the recreational red snapper season and reallocate more quota to the sector.

“The council took action that harmed the commercial fishermen and rewarded the recreational fishermen. We told them it was not legal, they didn’t believe us. They approved the document, we took them to court, and we won,” Brazer said.

Environmental groups Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund likewise sued NMFS in 2017 for allowing private red snapper anglers to exceed their catch limits, even after the agency stated in the Federal Register that it would lead to overfishing. That case didn’t proceed to trial after NMFS convinced the judge that its temporary rule was a one-time event.

Unlike these court cases, which challenged measures that were overtly taken to benefit the recreational sector, the red grouper reallocation is billed as a technical fix. The change stems from the 2018 revamp of NMFS’s recreational survey, which made revisions to the way the recreational sector’s historical catch was calculated.

“As a reminder, the recreational sector did not bring this amendment to the council,” American Sportfishing Association Vice President of Conservation and Public Policy Kellie Ralston said during a June 2021 meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. “The amendment is simply a result of the recalibration from the MRIP Coastal Household Telephone Survey to MRIP-FES and the subsequent corrections of historical recreational landings.”

The Marine Recreational Information Program, and its associated Fishing Effort Survey, is called MRIP-FES in fish management jargon.

NMFS adopted its current recreational Fishing Effort Survey in 2018. A 2006 review by the National Research Council found the agency’s longtime telephone survey was deficient, in part because of a decline in the use of household landlines.

After years of development, the new MRIP-FES began operating in 2018. To maintain a consistent series of recreational catch statistics, NMFS converted the historical estimates back as far as 1981 to the “currency” of the 2018 methodology.

The current recalibration increases virtually all the recreational sector’s historical catch estimates. NMFS argues that if recreational catches were higher, overall quotas should have been higher and the recreational sector should have had a larger allocation percentage. Red grouper allocations are based on landings from 1986 through 2005.

The agency urged the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to increase the recreational share of the three-million-pound grouper quota from 24 percent to 40.7 percent and reduce the commercial share from 76 percent to 59.3 percent. Roy Crabtree, then the NMFS southeast regional administrator, formally introduced the call for amending the reef fish plan at a council meeting in October 2019.

“If the FES data found the historical recreational landings to be higher than previously thought, the number of dead discards by that sector was also greater than previously thought,” Brazer said.

By that argument, reallocating more fish to recreational anglers therefore violates the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s National Standard Nine, which requires bycatch to be minimized, he said. The reallocation violates several other of the MSA’s national standards, as well as other laws, according to the fishermen’s suit, which Brazer expects to be heard by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia around August 2022.

Meanwhile, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is now applying the same technical fix to the amberjack and gag grouper fisheries.

The amberjack’s 484,280-pound quota is currently allocated 73 percent recreational and 27 percent commercial. Proposed reallocation alternatives would reduce the commercial quota to 22 percent, 20 percent, or 16 percent. The council expects to hold hearings on the amberjack amendment in August 2022. Rebuilding deadlines for the overfished species must be implemented by April 2023.

The gag grouper’s 385,055-pound quota is allocated 61 percent recreational and 39 percent commercial. The council’s rebuilding plan for that overfished species includes a possible reallocation that would increase the recreational share to 79 percent and reduce the commercial share to 21 percent. The council plans to have those new regulations in place for the 2024 fishing year.

Reporting by Robert Fritchey

Photo courtesy of Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock


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