Sunday, June 26, 2016

STATES CAN'T AFFORD TO MANAGE RED SNAPPER

On June 14, advocates of rational fisheries management lost a round, as the House Natural Resources Committee approved H.R. 3094, Rep. Garret Graves’ (R-Louisiana) Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act, which would strip the National Marine Fisheries Service of all management responsibility for Gulf red snapper, and hand that responsibility over to the states.

Last week, the opponents of rational fisheries management were very surprised and upset to learn that the top fisheries manager in at least one of those states, Louisiana, has no desire to accept such management responsibility, and urges the defeat of Rep. Graves’ bill.

Charlie Melancon, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries issued a statement in opposition to H.R. 3094, which raised a point that the anti-NMFS elements in the angling community never mention as they race blindly down the dead-end path that leads toward H.R. 3094:  Fisheries management costs money.  And states don’t have too much of that.

Secretary Melancon made it quite clear.

“Without federal funding, Louisiana could potentially lack the proper resources to manage the red snapper fishery.  H.R. 3094 would not be a viable option for Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.  It would be fiscally irresponsible for the Department to support any mandate that would result in an unknown amount of fiscal burden placed on the State of Louisiana for the management of a single species of fish.”
The statement was reportedly written on state letterhead, which included the name of Louisiana’s governor along with that of Mr. Melancon, so the anti-H.R. 3094 sentiment may be shared by folks higher up in the state’s administration as well.

Louisiana regulators probably would have felt better about H.R. 3094 if there was some chance that the expenses related to red snapper management, currently included in the NMFS budget, would continue to be paid by the feds even after the states took over all responsibility for the species.

However, such federal funding is not in the cards.  Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob  Bishop (R-Utah), very much in tune with a House and Committee majority that appears to believe that natural resources are to be exploited for quick profit rather than managed and conserved, amended Graves’ bill during the Committee markup, to assure that no federal funds would be paid to state red snapper managers.


“I am opposed to having a bill passed that comes in and causes people in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the people of the state of Louisiana heartburn over however many millions that we’re going to have to fork up.  And it’s going to be in the millions—I just don’t know if it’s in the low millions or the high millions.  So then are we going to be able to do a Cadillac job or a Yugo?  My best bet is that if we have to fund it on what I think we have available, it’s going to be a Yugo—if not a horse and carriage.  And that’s not good science.”
That statement, coming directly from a top fisheries manager, pretty well debunks claims coming from the militant angling industry and anglers’ rights groups that

“It’s abundantly clear that the states are best equipped to manage this valuable fishery.”
Federal management of red snapper may not be perfect, but at worst, it’s somewhere around the Ford/Chevrolet level.  Maybe not a Cadillac, but far better than the Yugo—or non-mechanized transport—that, by their own admission, is the best that the states can provide.

And even though Louisiana’s Melancon was the only state fisheries director who has so far spoken out against the unfunded mandate of H.R. 3094, the smart money says that he isn’t alone.  In fact, he notes that, at the last Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council meeting

“other state directors he spoke with…were also concerned about the lack of federal funding.”
Of course, little things like a lack of funds don’t mean too much to the folks trying to overthrow the federal fisheries management system.  They are still attempting to deny reality, despite Mr. Melancon’s comments, and perpetuate their delusion that the states can manage red snapper more effectively than the feds.

David Cresson is Executive Director of Coastal Conservation Association Louisiana, one of the anglers’ rights groups that is aggressively supporting H.R. 3094.  Despite speaking to Mr. Melancon twice after he announced his opposition to Congressman Graves’ bill, Mr. Cresson continued to insist that

“The states have the best science, and that’s been proven, and the Graves bill would give the authority to the states to implement that science.”
Note to Mr. Cresson:  Science that the Secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries likens to a Yugo, if not a horse and buggy, is not the best available science.  If it is, the red snapper is in a lot more trouble than anyone thought…

It is always possible that people like Mr. Cresson just don’t understand how much is involved in managing a fish such as red snapper.  While expressing his dissatisfaction with Mr. Melancon’s prudent approach to H.R. 3094, he noted that his organization supported an increase in the cost of Louisiana’s salt water fishing license, which increase was supposedly earmarked to support fisheries research through the state’s new creel survey program.   

Mr. Cresson observed that

“When fishermen in Louisiana asked for the license fee increase, they did so with the expectation that a portion of that would go toward managing red snapper.  The department has been doing a great job of collecting data with that new money, and all of a sudden, we can’t?  It just makes me wonder.”
Such comments just ignore the fact that management of red snapper, or any other fish, involves a lot more than just counting and measuring what anglers bring back to the dock.

Creel surveys tell managers nothing about current recruitment, or the amount of red snapper left in the water once the fishing is done.  They tell little about the size and age structure of the remaining spawning stock, about the impact of illegal (and thus largely uncounted) harvest or about the survival rates of snapper tossed back over the side by anglers.

As Mr. Melancon pointed out, managing red snapper properly is an involved an expensive process, and the states are either unable or unwilling to spend the money required just to manage that one species of fish.

Thus, this recent twist to the red snapper story just reinforces what most folks observing the issue realized a long time ago.

The aggressively anti-NMFS, anti-Magnuson Act, pro-state management organizations aren’t really looking for better management at all.

They’re just looking for ways to kill more fish.


And if handing over management responsibilities to underfunded state management agencies, which are unable to properly assess the state of the stock, is what it’s going to take to do that, well, that’s just fine with them.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

DO ESA PETITIONS ENDANGER GOOD FISHERIES MANAGEMENT?


There’s little doubt that the tuna deserves such a listing.  

The spawning stock is down to just 2.6% of its overall potential, and many of the fish that remain are harvested before they have a chance to mature, which means that there won’t be many new spawners entering the population.

On the other hand, everyone should realize that even if the Pacific bluefin is considered “endangered” under United States law, it’s not going to do the tuna a lot of good, for most of the killing occurs outside U.S. waters.  The United States only accounts for 2% of commercial landings, with Japan and Mexico harvesting most of the fish.  And given Japan’s stance on whaling, among other things, we can be pretty sure that nation couldn’t care less about U.S. view on threatened species.

An ESA listing will keep some southern California anglers from killing a few bluefin, and might prevent U.S. dealers from importing some sushi-grade fish, but ending either of those endeavors isn’t going to rebuild the Pacific bluefin, as they have relatively little impact on the stock.

It would accomplish far more to have the Pacific bluefin listed on Appendix I to CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.  

That would lead to a complete ban on international trade, which would certainly have a bigger impact on Pacific bluefin landings than a unilateral U.S. action.  But as I suggested earlier, a lot of the Pacific bluefin that are caught end up in Japan, and Japan has a long history of keeping its favorite foodstuffs off of a CITES Appendix.  A number of developing nations that can make a quick buck off dead fish also have an aversion to any sort of international agreements that might interrupt their cash flow.  Thus, for now, the Pacific bluefin tuna remains, literally and figuratively, dead in the water.

However, the effort to use the Endangered Species Act to protect various marine species remains very much alive.  It’s a relatively new strategy; the first effort that I recall was an unsuccessful attempt to list white marlin, which occurred about 15 years ago.  Since then, we have seen efforts to list a number of species that swim in U.S. waters, ranging from apex predators such as sharks down to forage fish such as river herring.


Too often, the only thing that listing petitions do is consume a lot of scarce management resources, most particularly the managers’ time, in an effort that, on most occasions, sees the petition rejected.  So the question is, on balance, do the petitions do good or harm?

It’s a tough question to answer, and any answer probably differs depending on the species involved.  When it comes to pelagic fish such as white marlin—which were the subject of a new listing petition in 2012, after previous requests were denied—it’s hard to see much good going on.


White marlin may not be sold in the United States, nor harvested by U.S. commercial vessels, although a number are discarded dead in the pelagic longline fishery.  There is a recreational fishery, but it emphasizes catch and release, and landings are minimal.  According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, between 2002 and 2015, annual recreational white marlin landings have ranged between 56 and 365, with annual dead discards for the same period varying between zero and 24. 

A report prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Servicein 2002, in response to the first petition to list white marlin under the Endangered Species Act, estimated that U.S. commercial fishermen accounted for about 5% of overall commercial white marlin mortality, while U.S. recreational fishermen accounted for about 4% of the overall mortality attributed to their sector.

NMFS regulations affecting white marlin have become more restrictive since 2002, but even if we assume that United States’ fishermen are still responsible for the same share of the species’ mortality, that still means that 95% of the white marlin killed would be completely unaffected by an ESA listing.

Thus, it’s hard to argue that the expenditure of time and resources needed to respond to listing petitions for wide-ranging pelagic species, which are neither killed in large numbers by U.S. fishermen or present in significant quantities in U.S. markets, are justified by any possible benefit to the species involved.  Instead, the repeated filings merely consume scarce agency assets that could be more effectively utilized in other efforts.

If the petitioners are truly interested in restoring the ocean to some semblance of its former abundance, their efforts could be put to far more productive uses.

For example, the Endangered Species Act has provided very meaningful protections for salmon on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

In New England, listing the Gulf of Maine Distinct Population Segment of Atlantic Salmon as “endangered” has led to the creation of the Recovery Plan for the Gulf of Maine Distinct Population Segment of Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), a document now in draft form which will form the blueprint for the restoration of that salmon stock.  While that recovery plan can’t protect the Gulf of Maine salmon from all serious threats—gillnetters operating off Greenland still have the capacity, and likely the will, to doom the stockit goes a long way to remove threats posed by domestic fishermen, agriculture, aquiculture and habitat degradation.

On the Pacific coast, the Endangered Species Act’s application to depleted salmon stocks is far more complex, given the multitude of species, combined with local and seasonal “runs,” some of which are badly endangered while others remain healthy.  In total, 28 stocks of Pacific salmon and steelhead (sea-run rainbow) trout are listed as either endangered or threatened, 3 more are being watched as “species of concern” and 21 are considered healthy.

Arguably, only the Endangered Species Act has the legal clout to cross multiple federal, agency and state jurisdictions, to promote the survival of fragile salmon and steelhead populations.  No other federal law is capable of addressing the threats posed by the multiple dams that deny salmon access to their spawning grounds, by agricultural interests seeking to rob the rivers of water that salmon need to survive, by a timber industry that strips vegetation from hillsides and cause the headwater streams to run too silty and warm to support nesting salmon.

At the same time, ESA is no panacea.  On the Columbia River, for example, litigation has been continuing for well over three decades, as industries accustomed to using the river’s water for their own purposes, without regard to the impact on endangered salmon, and a government bureaucracy dominated by the Army Corps of Engineers, which serves the industries’ needs, have fought tooth-and-nail against any suggestion that dams might have to be removed in order to rebuild salmon stocks.


“Judge Redden [who had previously ruled on the salmon issue], both formally in opinions and informally in letters to the parties, urged the relevant consulting and action agencies to consider breaching one or more of the four dams on the Lower Snake River.  For more than 20 years, however, the federal agencies have ignored those admonishments and have continued to focus essentially on the same approach to saving the listed species…Those efforts have already cost billions of dollars, yet they are failing…The 2014 [biological opinion] continues down the same well-worn and legally insufficient path taken during the last 20 years…”   
Although nothing is certain, we may yet see one or more dams removed from the Lower Snake River in order that salmon might survive.  Should that ever occur, we can be certain that it would never have happened had the Endangered Species Act not been there to protect the fish.

Thus, there is no question that the Endangered Species Act can play an important role in fisheries management—or, perhaps better stated, can play an important role when fisheries management fails. 

However, both the fish and conservation advocates would undoubtedly be far better off if less effort was spent trying to apply the law to species that face their greatest threats outside the jurisdiction of the United States, and more effort was spent on species, or distinct population segments of species, that are primarily caught in U.S. waters.

In such cases, managers and conservation advocates can work together, as they do in the case of Atlantic salmon, to rebuild an imperiled stock, and avoid the adversary relationship that can arise when petitions are filed that demand agency action on species that, even under the best of circumstances, NMFS cannot rebuild on its own.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

UTILIZING BYCATCH: THE HIDDEN HAZARD

For many years, reducing or eliminating “bycatch,” unwanted fish or other creatures incidentally caught by fishermen while seeking other species, has been a goal of fisheries managers.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), defines “bycatch” as

“fish which are harvested in a fishery, but which are not sold or kept for personal use, and includes economic discards and regulatory discards. Such term does not include fish released alive under a recreational catch and release fishery management program.”
Magnuson-Stevens also includes a set of National Standards that provide a framework for fishery management plans and the actions of fisheries managers. National Standard 9 states that

“Conservation and management measures shall, to the extent practicable, (A) minimize bycatch and (B) to the extent bycatch cannot be avoided, minimize the mortality of such bycatch.”
Recently, to further its efforts to reduce bycatch, NOAA Fisheries issued a draft National Bycatch Reduction Strategy (Strategy), which lists multiple approaches that the agency plans to take in order to comply with National Standard 9’s mandates.

Most of those measures make sense. There are too many to list all of them here. However, among other things, NOAA Fisheries plans to:
“Consider whether ‘best practices’ can be developed and applied across managed fisheries and protected species to improve bycatch estimates as needed for fisheries management.”
“Continue to support the development and implementation analyses of species-specific bycatch reduction measures (e.g., circle hooks, TEDs, and ‘hot spot’ area closures), and modify those measures as needed.”
“Improve understanding of post-release mortality of fishery and protected species through the implementation of the Action Plan for Fish Release Mortality Science and current best practices for protected species, respectively.”
It’s hard to argue against any of those efforts.
On the other hand, NOAA Fisheries also intends to
“Encourage research that explores increased utilization of incidentally caught fish that would otherwise be discarded,”
and to
“Support efforts to encourage utilization of discards…”
At that point, the agency’s plans enter uncertain and potentially dangerous territory.
At first hearing, the concept sounds good. All fish sold, even if caught accidentally, are excluded from the definition of “bycatch,” so utilization would certainly reduce the amount of bycatch that’s caught, and most people would probably prefer seeing any fish killed put to use, rather than merely dumped back into the sea.
However, the key issue isn’t whether economic discards can be utilized. The most important question is whether such fish should be killed at all.
By definition, economic discards are composed of fish that currently have little or no market value. The species that comprise such bycatch are likely to be little-studied, and are probably not subject to any federal fisheries management plan. There is a very high likelihood that the impact of fishing mortality on such bycatch species, and on the ecosystems in which they function, is unknown. In the case of some bycatch species (e.g., alewife, blueback herring, American shad), fishing mortality may already be greater than the stock can tolerate.

Utilization of such low-value and no-value species would require the creation of new markets where they can be sold. However, once such markets exist, fishermen will have an incentive to direct effort on species that they previously tried to avoid or, at the least, made no effort to seek out. If such fishermen can find a way to make directed fisheries for such previously unwanted species profitable, there is a substantial risk that fishing mortality of such fish will increase. At the same time, there will be no federal fisheries management plan in place that will allow NOAA Fisheries to determine whether such increased harvest poses a threat to any of the newly marketable stocks.
NOAA should avoid creating such a high-risk situation by prohibiting, rather than encouraging, the sale of any species not included in a federal fisheries management plan.
Any effort by NOAA Fisheries to actively encourage the sale of current economic discards would also frustrate regional fishery management councils’ plans to protect currently unmanaged forage fish stocks. For example, the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment currently being prepared by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council seeks to “freeze the footprint” of current forage fish landings by prohibiting the creation of new fisheries for many unmanaged forage species until NOAA Fisheries can determine the impact of any such fishery on the health of the stock and the health of the overall ecosystem. Encouraging the sale of economic discards, including those species that constitute forage, would hinder such management efforts.

Instead of seeking ways to utilize economic discards, NOAA fisheries should be concentrating its efforts on developing gear, regulations and procedures that meet not only the letter, but also the intent, of National Standard 9, which is to reduce the harvest of non-target species. Relabeling bycatch, by creating markets for such low-value, non-target species, arguably complies with the letter of National Standard 9, but is not in accord with the conservation imperative, which lies at the heart of Magnuson-Stevens.
While the Strategy contains many well thought out proposals, and is generally worthy of implementation, NOAA Fisheries should not attempt to seek or develop markets for fish currently categorized as economic discards, as the dangers of doing so outweigh any possible conservation benefits. Any such effort must be held in abeyance unless and until there is enough information available with respect to the relevant species to assure that creation of markets for such economic discards will not lead to overfishing or deplete stocks so badly that they become overfished.
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare noted that, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In a similar vein, fish killed as bycatch, even if labeled with some other name, can still do real harm.

Utilizing economic discards is not the right solution to the bycatch problem. Avoiding such bycatch in the first place is.

----

NOTE:  This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.  "From the Waterfront" may be found at http://www.conservefish.org/blog/

Thursday, June 16, 2016

WHY IS STATE MANAGEMENT "BETTER"?

Yesterday, the House Committee on Natural Resources marked up H.R. 3094, Rep. Garret Graves’ (R-Louisiana) so-called Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act.  

The approval came on a 24-14 vote, with Republicans from important coastal states such as Idaho, Arizona and Utah enthusiastically supporting the bill, and most Democrats expressing real doubts.

The support of inland Republicans shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone, for the bill, which would strip the National Marine Fisheries Service of all authority to manage red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, and turn such authority over to the states, is very much in line with the landlocked legislators’ philosophy. 

In the same session, the Committee also approved H.R. 3650, sponsored by Don Young (R-Alaska), and H.R. 2316, sponsored by Raul Labrador (R-Idaho). 

H.R. 3650, titled the “State National Forest Management Act of 2015,” it would permit each state to take over up to 2 million acres of National Forest Service land within such state, and included provisions that would assure that both the timber and hard rock mining interests would be able to exploit any such natural resources found on the relevant lands.

H.R. 2316 had somewhat more modest goals.  Titled the “Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act,” it would allow state “Advisory Committees” appointed by each state’s governor to manage parcels of federal land.  Such parcels, designated “community forest demonstration areas,” would be no less than 200,000 acres in size,  and important federal conservation laws, including the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Clean  Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, could only be enforced to the degree that they could be imposed on a state or private party, and not as they would normally apply to federal lands.

Taken together, H.R. 3650 and H.R. 2316 are the sort of bills that are usually supported by the sort of folks who drill for oil, strip mine coal, clearcut timber and, in the not so recent past, occupied a federal bird sanctuary in order to demonstrate their patriotism and defend their Constitutional rights.

Now, with H.R. 3094, the anti-government folks in Congress have taken their fight to the coast, in an effort to de-federalize red snapper.


“The federal government has been a lousy landlord for western states and we simply think the states can do it better.  If we want healthier forests, better access to public lands, more consistent funding for public education and more reliable energy development, it makes sense to have local control.“
That sounds benign.  However, it’s hard not to suspect that the real motivation of Rep. Stewart’s (and Rep. Bishop’s) Federal Land Action Group is to get out from under federal regulations intended to prevent overgrazing, unsustainable timber harvest and unsound energy extraction practices.

It also sounds a lot like some of the rhetoric being spouted by anglers’ rights groups supporting H.R. 3094, which have said that

“The state approach is simply a better way to manage a fishery as a whole.  State agencies put more stock in what a fish population actually looks like and how it’s responding to management in real time, rather than basing everything on estimates of what is caught…
“The federal government has had decades to get red snapper management right.  It’s time to let the states finally provide the remedy.“
Again, it all sounds good, but federal law is already rebuilding the stock, based on the best scientific information available.  Thus, it's hard not to suspect that the state management proponents just want to kill more red snapper than federal law or good science allows.

Still, the Committee’s approval of H.R. 3094 is the sort of thing that should make the states’ rights folks proud.  It's the sort of thing that might make some of the “patriots” who bailed out of Malheur want to go out to the Flower Garden Banks and drag around some illegal anchors in a show of support…

The myth that state fishery managers do a better job than their federal counterparts persists, despite evidence to the contrary.

The Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority proposed by H.R. 3094 would be peopled by the salt water fisheries directors of each of the five Gulf states, and is modeled upon the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is responsible for managing a number of inshore stocks that inhabit the waters between Florida and Maine.

Ironically, ASMFC was only given real management authority in 1984, after Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, in order to gain some control over squabbling individual states that were unable to put their parochial concerns aside long enough to begin rebuilding a collapsed striped bass stock.

Once given that authority, ASMFC did manage to recover the striped bass stock, which was declared fully rebuild in 1995.  However, it has failed to rebuild even one other stock since then, while federal managers, acting pursuant to federal law, have fully recovered 39 once-overfished populations since the year 2000.

The success of federal fisheries managers can be attributed directly to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which requires that overfished be promptly halted, that overfished stocks be rebuild within a time certain that, in typical circumstances, should not exceed ten years, and that fishery management plans be based on the best available science.

ASMFC’s failure to rebuild a single stock in the past 20 years can be attributed to the fact that it is not subject to Magnuson-Stevens, leading its various management boards to perpetuate overfishing, delay rebuilding overfished stocks and ignore scientific advice when there is a short-term economic benefit in doing so. 

And if one looks hard enough, such short-term benefits can almost always be found…

One of the most striking examples of the failure of state fisheries managers can be found in North Carolina.  In a recent op-ed piece published in the News-Observer, Chris Elkins, President of the North Carolina chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, notes that

“At best, North Carolina has a sordid history of fisheries management, with only four of 16 managed finfish stocks listed as viable.  In large part, that is because North Carolina has the most relaxed commercial fishing regulations in the country.  The decline of the commercial fishing industry in N.C. is not due to regulations, but to the lack of regulations that have depleted state-managed stocks…”
To explain why state fisheries management in North Carolina is so weak, Mr. Elkins describes the state’s failure to enter into a “joint enforcement agreement” with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which would give North Carolina the right to enforce federal fisheries regulations, and in return, would see federal money flow into the state to aid fisheries enforcement efforts.  

Every coastal state except for North Carolina has entered into such agreements, but as Mr. Elkins explains

“the [Joint Enforcement Agreement] committee composition was predetermined by the legislature and thus the outcome was predetermined.  The committee voted not to recommend entering into a JEA.  Only commercial fishermen or charter fishermen were allowed to sit on this committee; all recreational fishermen were excluded.  Of the one million or so total saltwater N.C. fishermen, about 99 percent are recreational fishermen.  Nonfishing North Carolinians,  (about 9 million) were also not represented.
“So only 1 percent of the stakeholders, those who have a financial interest, will provide input as to whether federal regulations are enforced properly and whether our nation’s marine resources in territorial waters off the N.C. coast are protected.  The majority of us, who truly own the resource, are denied a voice in improving law enforcement…”
In other words, the reason that North Carolina’s fisheries are badly managed is purely political.

So is H.R. 3094.

Loggers, miners and ranchers perpetuate the myth that state land managers can do a better job than their federal counterparts, in an effort to exploit natural resources to a degree, or in a manner, that federal law would not allow.

Similarly, H.R. 3094 argue that state fisheries management provides a “better way” to manage red snapper because it would allow them to harvest more fish than the current science-based federal rules permit.

Whether we’re talking about red cedar or red snapper, state management is only “better” because it allows more such resources to be harvested now.  It is worse if we look to the future.


Yet, if we take the long view, it’s only the future that matters.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

SO HOW DO WE "FIX" GULF RED SNAPPER

Today, at 12:01 am, another federal recreational red snapper season drew to a close in the Gulf of Mexico.  From some reports, it has been one of the most unsatisfying seasons so far, not only for its length, but for a host of problems ranging from a dearth of willing fish off Florida to the weather system that eventually became Tropical Storm Colin creating hostile sea conditions in much of the Gulf, which led the National Marine Fisheries Service to add an extra two days to the season.

So what happens next?

Maybe a month ago, in a Manhattan restaurant, I chanced into a couple of old friends, who I once worked with on fisheries matters.  We’re on different sides of the red snapper debate these days, but we enjoyed a good meal and a good discussion.  At the end, one of them asked me the question:  “How would you fix red snapper?”

I couldn’t provide an immediate answer.  But I did note that folks needed to admit one simple truth:  There will never be enough red snapper to make everyone happy; demand will always exceed supply.

Anglers need to face up to some other things, too. 

They need to accept the true impacts that recreational fishermen have on the stock.  For example, I once received a comment to another red snapper essay that asked

“[M]e as a recreational angler will probably get out fishing offshore dependent on the weather and finances 20 times a year, and will only fish red snapper certain times of the year.  How am I responsible for the decimation of this stock?”
The person asking that question, he forgot is that he is not alone, but instead is is just one of many other anglers, all having an impact on the red snapper stock.  

According to a report issued by the American Sportfishing Association in 2013, in just one year salt water fishermen spent 1,480,312 angler/days fishing in Alabama, 1,532,519 angler/days in Louisiana, 2,293,475 angler/days in Mississippi and 8,157,241 angler/days in Texas.  They also spent 36,347,825 angler/days fishing in Florida, although that wasn’t broken down between the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  Even if the Florida number was cut in half, the figures show that, in the aggregate, anglers made more than 30 million fishing trips in a single year in the Gulf of Mexico.  While only a minority of those trips targeted red snapper, the overall effort was still clearly large enough to have an impact on the stock, even if each angler’s individual impact was very small.

Then there’s angler behavior.  The fishing mortality attributed to the recreational red snapper fishery is a combined estimate of the number of fish landed and an estimate of the number of released fish that die, as determined by the Marine Recreational Information Program and various studies on released fish’s survival.  What isn’t accurately reflected in those numbers is the practice of “highgrading” or “culling,” in which an angler keeps a limit of fish, but keeps on fishing; when a larger red snapper is caught, the smallest fish is discarded, dead, into the ocean and replaced by the larger one.  It’s impossible to know how serious such problem is, but I have spoken with Gulf Coast charter boat captains with many years’ experience in the red snapper fishery, and they tell me that such activities take place on far too many trips.

Finally, anglers need to take full ownership of the fact that, even without highgrading being taken into consideration, current regulations are the result of anglers consistently overfishing the red snapper stock for many years—although that was not the case in 2014, when anglers stayed within their annual catch target, nor was it the case last season, when recreational anglers substantially exceeded the annual catch target, but did not exceed the annual catch limit, thus proving the worth of the 20% buffer between the target and ACL, adopted at the behest of a federal judge to impose accountability on the fishery.

That 20% buffer, and the fact that it has apparently prevented recreational overharvest in recent years, demonstrates that the fishery can, in fact, be “fixed,” even if progress is made in very small steps.

The fact that recreational overfishing has apparently been halted, at least for now, also raises the question of whether the fishery needs any “fixing” at all and, if it does, what, exactly, needs to be “fixed.”

If you ask the folks who condemn the system, the biggest problem is the short federal season, which limits anglers’ ability to access the red snapper.  In some ways, complaints that

are both disingenuous and dishonest, as they completely ignore much longer state seasons (as long as 365 days in Texas), that both allow anglers to harvest fish in state waters and give them cover to run farther offshore and illegally harvest red snapper in federal waters, an opportunity that far too many anglers are willing to exploit.

There are only two ways to lengthen the federal season—either find a way to provide more fish to anglers, or find a way to limit the number of anglers catching the fish that are currently available.

So far, all of the effort has been spent on ways to provide more red snapper to anglers.  That has proven a difficult and generally unproductive process; the only successful effort has been a recent increase in anglers’ share of the harvest, from 49% to 51.5%, a change so small that it was hardly worth the effort involved.

Otherwise, the angling community’s efforts have been aimed at weakening the conservation and stock rebuilding requirements of federal law, or by evading those requirements completely by taking management authority for red snapper away from federal managers and handing it over to the states.  Both efforts, if successful, would provide anglers with higher red snapper landings in the short term, but over a longer period of time would likely cause real harm to the stock, and leave anglers worse off than they are today.

Fortunately, for the moment, such efforts have stalled.

The only other way to get anglers more fish is to give them access to the commercial quota.

The recent allocation change will probably be the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s last word on the subject for now.  Given that the commercial red snapper fishery is well-managed and completely sustainable, and supplies the non-fishing public’s desires to dine on red snapper, there is little or no objective reason for shifting fish from the commercial to the recreational sector.

On the other hand, there is also little or no objective justification for preventing commercial fishermen from selling some or all of their quota to anglers on a willing buyer/willing seller basis—that is, for selling or leasing such quota if the commercial fishermen found it economically advantageous to do so, and voluntarily decided to transfer quota to recreational fishermen, just as they might lease it to other commercial fishermen, in any particular year.

Doug Olander, the Editor-In-Chief of Sport Fishing Magazine, took a look at the question a couple of weeks ago.  He notes that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council allows such inter-sector quota transfers in the Pacific halibut fishery, and laments that the Gulf Council isn’t willing to do the same.  Mr. Olander then suggests that the only way to get it done is to shift responsibility for red snapper management to the Gulf states.

Although I agree with his basic premise, that inter-sector quota sales would be a good thing, the downside of stripping NMFS of its authority to manage red snapper would be greater than any advantage gained, primarily because doing so would strip the red snapper of the protections granted by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  Without those protections, authority to manage red snapper would be shifted from a science-based federal management system to a state system where politics and short-term economic considerations would be the primary drivers.

As an alternative, I suggest that angling interests should sit down with representatives of the for-hire, commercial and conservation communities, and work in good faith to find a solution.

That would require them—and everyone else—to leave their egos at the door.  Organizations would have to be willing to forgo tub-thumping press releases that impugn others’ interests while throwing red meat to such organizations’ members.  Each side would have to forthrightly confront its own faults and flaws, as well as others’ legitimate concerns, and try to craft a compromise that takes all such things into account.

The biggest obstacle to inter-sector transfer is probably accountability.  The current commercial fishery is fully accountable, with vessels calling in to regulators before making a trip, monitored by a vessel monitoring system throughout the voyage, and calling in again to provide regulators with the time and place that a catch will be landed.  Anglers are currently subject to few such strictures, although in some states, they may be required to report red snapper landings after their return.


“NOAA estimates that compliance with recreational bluefin reporting requirements is a mere 20 percent.  I’d suggest it’s even lower.”
As an active member of New York’s tuna fishing community, I’d agree.  Reporting is particularly problematic when a boat brings in 2 or 3—or 8 or 10—bluefin above the legal bag limit, and/or illegally sells its catch through the back door of a restaurant or fish store, which are, unfortunately, common practices here on Long Island.

It’s hard to believe that similar issues wouldn’t arise with Gulf red snapper.

Another suggestion that’s making the rounds is to limit the number of anglers able to access the red snapper resource, probably by issuing a limited number of tags that would each allow an angler to harvest a single fish. 

One proposal that has recently been making the rounds would have the recreational fishery more closely resemble the for-hire and commercial fisheries, in that each fish would have to be tagged, and fishermen couldn’t pursue red snapper without having an unused tag on board.  

Supposedly, such a program would benefit the fish, because it would make anglers more accountable, and it would benefit the anglers as well, because it would do away with the need for closed seasons and, except as limited by the number of tags on hand, bag limits.  Fishermen with excess tags would be able to transfer them to those needing more.

It sounds like a great idea, except for one thing.

There are millions of recreational fishermen operating in the Gulf of Mexico.  If every one of them killed just one red snapper, they would blow right through the recreational quota.

Thus, tags would have to be limited to accord with the size of the recreational quota.

The easiest way to do that would be by some sort of lottery.  Here in New York, when hunters applies for a license, they have the opportunity to try for a “deer management permit” which allows them to take a doe, in addition to any buck that they might take pursuant to their general license.  The number of management permits is limited; for a fee of $10, the hunter gets to enter a lottery and perhaps win a the right to kill a doe.

The same sort of approach could be used for red snapper, with each state assigned a limited number of tags to offer, provided in lots of 5, 10 or some other number.  Unsuccessful anglers would receive a “preference point” that would give them a better chance in the following year’s lottery.  Federal managers would make possession of such state permit a prerequisite to possessing snapper in federal waters. 

It would require a voluntary/state federal agreement to implement, and otherwise sounds as if it would work, but…
Last year, only 46% of successful New York deer hunters reported their kills, as required by law.  That’s less than half.  While better than the reporting rate for bluefin tuna, it’s still pretty dismal, and that’s even after the check stations and enforcement roadblocks aimed at ensuring compliance come into play.

There’s no reason to believe that Gulf red snapper anglers would report at higher rates.

The issue remains one of accountability.  And that is an issue uniquely within anglers’ control.

Putting together something that works would be neither easy nor impossible.  So to the question “How would you fix red snapper,” I’d now give the following response:

In many ways, the system is not broken.  The commercial and for-hire fisheries seem to be staying within their annual catch targets, and in the past couple of years, overfishing by private boat recreational anglers appears to have finally been constrained.  The stock is being successfully rebuilt, with more fish and more and older age classes appearing in the population.  Those are all good things.
However, the length of the recreational season in federal waters remains a sticking point.  In order to extend that federal season, I would do the following things.
1.       Bring states into compliance with the federal season and regulations.  Since red snapper landings, wherever they occur, affect the length of the federal season, shortening state seasons would result in a longer federal season, not coincidentally because it would make it far more difficult for anglers to poach red snapper in closed federal waters, where the bulk of the population is found.  With poaching brought under control, the number of fish reported as caught in state waters is likely to plummet, allowing the federal season to expand.
2.       Allow the inter-sector transfer of commercial quota on a willing buyer/willing seller basis.  No commercial fisherman should be forced to give up any part of his or her quota.  However, if such fisherman chose to sell or lease quota to a recreational fisherman or other clearly identifiable and responsible party, such transfers should be permitted.
3.       Implement a tag system covering the entire recreational quota.  No angler would be allowed to land, or possess, a red snapper unless that fish was marked with the proper tag (anglers purchasing/leasing commercial quota would have alternate reporting requirements).  All such tags would have to be of a construction that only permits one-time use (such tags are common in the commercial fishery) and would have to be attached immediately upon landing the fish.  Reporting would be required within 24 hours, and a failure to report or return unused tags would render a fisherman ineligible to apply for tags in future years.
4.       Implement meaningful accountability measures.  A red snapper fisherman would have to call in to an established number before leaving the dock, providing regulators with the name of the boat, port and expected time of return.  Upon return, the fisherman would have to call in before reaching the dock, providing regulators with the number of fish on board and the tag numbers used, thus helping to prevent re-use or the non-attachment of tags.  Anglers buying/leasing commercial quota would have to comply with commercial regulations re reporting harvest, but not vessel monitoring.
5.       Implement penalties strong enough to deter violators.  This one is self-explanatory.  However, the regulations must be zero-tolerance, with no allowance for “accidental” failures to call in on departure or return,  failure to tag fish, etc.  Fines must be substantial, sanctions on future ability to obtain tags imposed, and forfeiture of vessel and gear a possibility in the case of repeat offenders.
Yes, I know much of that is pie-in-the-sky.  But I also know that if I can come up with some sort of workable framework, folks intimately involved with the fishery can too, and probably devise something far better.

That is, they can if they are willing to embrace cooperation instead of confrontation, are willing to reach a compromise that meets the dictates of science and federal law, and are willing to consider the wants and needs of sectors along with than their own.

Would the result be perfect and make everyone happy?
Absolutely not.

But it would still be a lot better than what they have now.