Commercial fishermen threaten legal action over Gulf red snapper quota reallocation

Published on
April 7, 2016

A reallocation of the 2016 and 2017 quota of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico will benefit recreational anglers at the expense of commercial fishermen, and may result in legal action.

The decision, made in August 2015 by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and approved 30 March, 2016, by the National Marine Fisheries Service, will transfer 2.5 percent of the Gulf red snapper quota, or 352,000 lbs. whole weight, from commercial to recreational use, lowering the commercial share of the quota to 48.5 percent and raising the recreational share to 51.5 percent. As a result, the decision will extend the 2015 red snapper fishing season for private anglers fishing from their own boats in federal waters from six to nine days.

Andy Strelcheck, NMFS deputy regional administrator for the Southeast, said the change was made after new and improved survey methods gave his agency a more accurate picture of how many snapper recreational anglers were harvesting.

“Once we began implementing those improvements, our data essentially indicated that our catch estimates for recreational fishermen fishing for red snapper previously were underestimated,” Strelcheck said.

Strelcheck cited the difficulties of accurately surveying the recreational sector as a factor in the decision to change past catch estimates retroactively, and said his organization continued to search for solutions that would improve data collection accuracy.

“There are numerous challenges we face in terms of geographically sampling states and locations, and recreational landing statistics, because of the large universe of anglers we have to sample, are especially challenging to do. But that said, continuing to work on refinements of our surveys and methods to best estimate landings,” Strelcheck said. “We always say that we want to continue to drive to improve our science and look at ways to improve that program and refine the data collected from it. We are also very carefully and jointly working with many of our state partners in the Gulf to develop state-based surveys that can estimate recreational landings that may better meet the needs of the Gulf states. “

In response to the decision, the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, which includes commercial red snapper fishers in the Gulf, threatened action to contest what it called “numerous fatal legal flaws” in the process.

“We believe the decision-making process involved clear violations of the law,” said Eric Brazer, the alliance’s deputy director. “The decision was not right, fair or justified.”

The organization contends that the reallocation is based off data that show recreational anglers overfished their quota in 21 of the last 24 years, while the commercial sector generally adhered to its catch limits.

“Their reward for bypassing scientifically-based catch limits is that they’re getting more fish now,” Brazer said. “That violates the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which clearly says reallocation can’t be based on past overharvesting.”

In addition, Brazer argued the reallocation would threaten the health of the red snapper population in the Eastern half of the Gulf – namely Florida, where the bulk of recreational fishing for red snapper occurs.

“The law clearly states you need to protect and conserve fisheries stocks however those fish stocks occur - you can’t just protect part of red snapper stock, you need to protect the full population,” Brazer said. “We believe it’s illegal, not to mention bad policy, for the NMFS to be implementing policies that are going to effectively destroy a big portion of the Gulf’s red snapper population.”

According to the new NMFS rules governing Gulf red snapper, the decision will cost commercial fishermen USD 1.48 million (EUR 1.30 million) in 2016 and USD 1.45 million (EUR 1.28 million) in 2017. The per-boat average reduction in revenue for each of the approximately 375 vessels fishing for red snapper in the Gulf will be about USD 3,893 (EUR 3,434) annually, or 4 percent of total per vessel revenues, the NMFS predicted.

Strelcheck, of the NMFS, said the issue had been “very contentious” and that recreational anglers also felt the reallocation should have been greater than the 2.5 percent shift ultimately awarded to them. He said the council and the NMFS review made the “most informed decision based on the best available science.”

It was going to be a contentious decision no matter what, and we knew all along that people on both sides were going to strongly support or oppose the decision,” he said. “Ultimately, we are satisfied that the process and decision were fair, equitable and in the best interest of the nation,” he said. “

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