Resistance mounts to proposed changes in Gulf red snapper regulations

Published on
February 16, 2016

A bill that would shift management of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery from federal agencies to five southern states is meeting resistance from commercial interests and conservation groups.

The Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act (House Resolution 3094), introduced by U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), proposes to give the wildlife departments of the five U.S. states bordering the Gulf of Mexico full management authority for Gulf red snapper while removing it from its current federal regulators, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“There’s a better way to sustainably manage the fishery to allow for increased opportunities for recreational (including charter) and commercial fishers,” said Kevin Roig, Rep. Graves’ chief of staff and communications director.

Roig called current federal management practices “a failure,” citing a lack of adequate data for poor decision-making regarding quota limits and distribution.

“The current structure is driven by flawed science, and the resulting mismanagement has adversely affected commercial and recreational red snapper fishing in the Gulf. Louisiana (through LA Creel) and other Gulf States have more accurate and thorough data than what is being used to inform management decisions today,” Roig said. “The state can leverage better data to provide for tailored solutions in real time, and states have demonstrated the ability to manage fisheries in state waters. The Graves bill is a solution similar to management of crabs on the West Coast, salmon in Alaska and striped bass on the East Coast. Better methodology and tailored management will improve sustainable management strategies.”

Resistance to the bill has emerged from commercial interests in the Gulf, who argue that since the Individual Fishing Quota was established by NOAA in 2007, the fishery has rebounded and now is able to offer a regular supply of fresh red snapper to consumers and restaurants.

“The science is good and we use it to make good, scientific-based decisions,” said Eric Brazer, the deputy director of Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, which includes commercial red snapper fishers in the Gulf. “[Federal regulation] has brought red snapper fish stocks back from near-depletion. Because of it, we have a lot more fish to catch now and you can buy Gulf red snapper in the supermarket 365 days a year. Nothing is perfect, and we should always look for ways to improve the system, but the federal management plan has worked really well for fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Breet Veerhusen, executive director of the Seafood Harvesters of America, a national commercial fishing group including two commercial fishing associations in the Gulf of Mexico, called the state takeover proposal “a recipe for disaster” and said it would undermine the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary vehicle used by NOAA to regulate U.S. fishing.

“We have built a fisheries management structure in the U.S. through the Magnuson-Stevens Act that Americans should be proud of and is looked at by the rest of the world as the gold emblem. By eroding the act, this bill depletes the integrity of the American federal fisheries management system. Decisions on fisheries management must be led through a scientific-based public process -- one that the Magnuson-Stevens Act helps establish -- not through an overarching law that circumvents that process,” Veerhusen said.

Roig, speaking for Rep. Graves, said the congressman had no desire or intent to repeal the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

“Allowing continued federal fishery management failures while states can do it better is irresponsible. [The Magnuson-Stevens Act]’s mission is to promote the optimal utilization of coastal fisheries. What’s happening now is not optimal,” Roig said.

Roy Crabtree, NOAA’s regional administrator for the Southeast, backed the regulatory structure that has rebuilt red snapper stocks in the Gulf and called claims the fishery was not managed by the Gulf states misleading.

“The fishery stock is in a rebuilding plan and it is still considered to be overfished and not rebuilt but it’s probably in the best shape it has been in over the last 40 years or so,” Crabtree said. “Right now, management of the fishery is done by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, and that council has 17 voting members, of which I am one. All of the state fishery agencies in the five Gulf states have a voting member on the council, and the other members are nominated by state governors and appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. The entire council is made up of representatives of Gulf states except for me, so the fishery is already effectively managed by the states.”

The scientific basis for the council’s decisions, including those setting annual quotas, is strong, Crabtree said.

“Our overall stock estimate, which is the only estimate there is, takes into account all the information we have, including data provided by each of the Gulf states. It all gets reviewed by the council’s scientific and statistical committee, which is composed of state biologists who review and approve the annual catch or quota recommendation. Would it be improved with better catch sampling from a wider range of habitats? Yes. But additional sampling costs money, and I think what we have now is best available research can be done with resources we have,” he said. “To specifically address the longstanding criticism that our surveying doesn’t include fish on artificial reefs: that’s just simply wrong. We do get portion of data from reefs because a portion of the overall catch which we sample when it comes in is taken off reefs.”

Brazer, of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, said there have been complaints from recreational anglers that their season is too short (in Louisiana, it has been as short as 11 days per year recently). However, increasing the red snapper quota for recreational fishing shouldn’t be done if it hurts commercial fishermen and other commercial interests, such as restaurants and seafood suppliers, who require a steady and reliable stream of product, he said.

“If the problem is a broken recreational system, why does this solution include rules that will hurt commercial fishermen? Nobody’s been able to give us a straight answer on that,” Brazer said. “Essentially, it comes down to a math equation. There are 6 million fish for 1 million recreational anglers. We want to them to find a solution works for them, but we don’t think hurting commercial fishermen is the way to do it.”

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