Sunday, March 30, 2014
RED SNAPPER ANGLERS EMBARRASS US ALL
This week, red snapper anglers down in the Gulf of Mexico, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, got spanked by a federal judge and—of all people—a bunch of commercial fishermen who sued to uphold the Magnuson Act.
I met some responsible commercial fishermen when I served on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. But I can say with some confidence that it wasn’t anglers who wiped out our groundfish back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, nor was it anglers who killed off most of the fluke at about the same time.
So when I hear that the commercial guys went to court to stop “my side” from killing too many snapper, it’s just a little embarrassing.
I understand that red snapper are tough to manage. They live long, mature late and, even at the best of times, are far less abundant than northern groundfish could be. Because they bunch up on structure; where you catch one, you usually catch a lot more. As a result, they have been badly overfished by both commercial and recreational fishermen.
Early efforts to restore the stock bore little fruit. Anglers placed blame on the shrimp trawlers, who killed a lot of juvenile snapper. First, they sued to require “bycatch reduction devices.” The shrimpers lost that round, and sort-of complied, but still killed a lot of little snapper.
The anglers sued again, further restricting the trawlers. Again, they won. And again, the snapper moved forward slowly.
The National Marine Fisheries Service revised the snapper management plan in 2008, and set a rebuilding deadline in 2032 (yes, to a full 24 years).
The recreational harvest limit dropped from 4.47 million to just 2.45 million pounds in 2009, while season length was cut by two-thirds, but anglers still overfished their quota by more than 50%. In the succeeding years, anglers overfished by as much as 88%; the only exception was 2010, when the BP oil spill halted fishing.
Throughout that time, commercial fishermen had a slightly higher quota—they’re allocated 51% of total landings. Because they fish under a catch share program, their harvest was predictable and they didn’t overfish a single time. Catch share programs have their flaws, but they keep overfishing under control.
Suddenly, anglers in the Gulf had a problem. They had a history of conserving other people’s fish by imposing bans on the use of various nets, and outlawing the sale of various species. In the case of red snapper, they had already sued over shrimp trawls.
Any time some fish stock fell ill, they blamed the commercial guys. If someone could just stop them from overfishing, and lift their gear from the water, all would be right with the world.
But this time, commercial harvest was under control. It was time for the anglers to cut back on their own kill for a change, because red snapper were being overfished by—and only by—recreational fishermen. Given that undeniable fact, the recreational snapper fishermen…began attacking everyone. According to them:
NMFS is the problem, because it doesn’t understand anglers and is trying to force them off the water.
Scientists are the problem, because they say that a bigger harvest would be bad for the fish.
The Marine Recreational Information Program, which estimates recreational catch, is the problem, because it overstates anglers’ landings.
Environmentalists are the problem, because they are trying new things to recover the stock and keep anglers from overfishing.
Commercial fishermen are the problem, just because they exist.
If you believe the red snapper anglers, the only people who don’t seem to be the problem are the red snapper anglers themselves, and they are the ones killing too many fish…
Federal regulations don’t apply in state waters, so anglers in Texas convinced state regulators to write their own rules. Texas set its bag limit at 4, its size limit at 15” and has no closed season; in federal waters, the bag is 2, the size 16” and the season last for just 40 days. That was nice for anglers in Texas, but bad for everyone else, who had to their harvest cut to make up for the Texas fishermen’s excesses.
By law, fishermen are accountable for their overages, but NMFS never did much to keep Gulf red snapper anglers from chronically overfishing. Biologists suggested a 20% buffer between the annual catch limit—the amount fishermen were permitted to land—and the annual catch target used to set the regulations. Such buffer would accommodate the “management uncertainty” that led to overfishing. But anglers opposed it, and NMFS gave in to their cries.
Anglers argued that NMFS overestimated their catch, and they called for a better survey. When NMFS unveiled the improved MRIP survey, it turned out that the old data probably had been wrong. Anglers probably killed even more red snapper than NMFS had believed.
To fishermen, the new data was clearly “bad,” because it would lead to a shorter overall season—“good” data lets anglers kill more fish. NMFS eventually agreed, and replaced the MRIP estimate with a “good” number, even though overfishing would inevitably occur.
In a recent article describing the situation, David Sikes (who happens to be the President of the Texas Outdoor Writers’ Association), wrote in the Corpus Christi (TX) Caller-Times that the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the organizations representing the red snapper anglers
“is behaving like a parent who would rather be friends with their kids (members) than make the difficult and unpopular decision to keep them in line.”
I don’t quite agree. The National Marine Fisheries Service is really the overindulgent parent; groups such as CCA—and the folks who represent and speak for them—are more like spoiled children.
So the commercial fishermen took the brats to the woodshed and sued, not to get more fish, but merely to prevent anglers from again killing more than their share, and thus harming the snapper’s recovery.
The commercial folks won in a walk. The case, decided in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, was Guindon v. Pritzker. The court’s decision included the following language:
“…To summarize the sequence of events: (1) In July 2013, the Council proposed increasing the 2013 quota and suggested reopening the season in the fall, contingent on there being unused quota available; (2) in early August, NMFS published a proposal discussing the possibility of reopening the season, contingent on available quota; (3) in late August, NMFS received MRIP landings estimates indicating an overage that exceeded both the current and proposed quota; (4) NMFS reopened the fall season anyway…
“The administrative record is replete with references to the high degree of management uncertainty in the recreational sector, as compared to the commercial sector, which had none…NMFS administrator Roy Crabtree described the recreational sector’s particular management uncertainties to the Council’s Reef Fish Management Committee in January 2013, and to the full Council in June 2013…All this evidence of high management uncertainty explains why the SSC recommended a 20 percent buffer for the recreational sector. The Council well understood this. In the July Framework Action, the Council discussed the SSC’s buffer recommendation as one possible alternative…Yet the Council rejected the buffer, while proposing no other accountability measures for the recreational sector, and NMFS approved the Council proposal…”
In other words, the anglers threw a tantrum when told to behave so NMFS, not wanting to hear them scream any more, gave in. Fortunately, there was another adult in the room, garbed in the robes of a federal judge, and the proper discipline was imposed.
Yet what was truly shocking was the anglers’ response. On March 28, the Coastal Conservation Association characterized the decision by saying “Ruling Against Recreational Angling Confirms Federal Fisheries Management System Broken” (http://www.joincca.org/articles/656).
And then it went on:
“In a case brought by commercial fishermen, seafood processors and trade groups closely associated with the Environmental Defense Fund, a federal district judge acknowledged this week that federal management of recreational anglers is deeply flawed and in need of overhaul. The lawsuit essentially challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service’s policy of setting hard quotas for the recreational sector without timely or reliable means to manage to such a standard…”
Having read the opinion, I have to say that’s a bit of a stretch, and spun so hard that reality got a little distorted along the way. But it gets worse.
“After decades of mismanagement, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper population rebounded wildly after successful efforts by recreational anglers to reduce juvenile red snapper mortality in shrimp trawls in the mid-2000s. As the red snapper population increased, the recreational sector began to catch more and larger fish, and thus met their outdated quota faster. Even with recreational seasons that were as short as 27 days, the lawsuit alleged that ‘it became commonplace for the recreational sector to exceed its quota by a large margin even though individual anglers followed the rules.’”
In CCA’s particular universe, red snapper problems were the shrimp trawls’ fault, and that was inexcusable. But anglers only exceed their quota because the quota is “outdated,” and the fact that “it became commonplace for the recreational sector to exceed its quota by a large margin” is somehow OK because “individual anglers followed the rules.”
Even thought the same “individual anglers” fought against newer, potentially more effective rules…
Fantasy is confused with fact. Chester Brewer, Chairman of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee, actually stated that
“It is no longer theoretical – we are in a situation now in which the red snapper population is as healthy as it has ever been, and recreational anglers may be unable to access it for more than a few days due to an inadequate management system and a ridiculously outdated allocation.”
That’s demonstrably wrong. It’s not even debatable. Far from being “as healthy as it has ever been,” the red snapper stock remains overfished (http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sustainable_fisheries/gulf_fisheries/red_snapper/overview/), and even when fully “recovered,” will retain just 26% of its spawning potential.
(I’m not picking on CCA here; they're just the most active player in the game. Another “anglers’ rights” group, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, has made comments that are nearly as bad http://joinrfa.org/2013/06/62613-red-snapper-wars-come-to-washington/.)
I know a lot of the folks involved. Many are very good, very bright people, but when red snapper issues arise, they seem to take leave of their senses.
Personally, I don’t understand what all of the fuss is about. I have caught red snapper. Functionally, if not biologically, they're little more than a big scup (i.e., northern porgy) with a sunburn. Like scup, they’re not sought for their fight; they appeal largely to headboats and folks out to fill coolers.
Yet despite all the fuss, they’re not even a big recreational target. Only about 2% of the fish caught and about 2% of the fish killed by recreational anglers in Gulf-coast Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana (Texas doesn’t participate in the federal catch estimate program) last year were red snapper. Twenty years ago, the percentages were about the same. Current regulations haven’t reduced anglers’ landings; because federal management has had some success, anglers actually took home more than twice the red snapper—measured in pounds—than they did in 1993.
Even so, they're dissatisfied.
If the thoughtless, self-serving demands of Gulf-states fishermen only affected red snapper, I would have discussed something else today. But the antics surrounding that one southern groundfish can—and very possibly will—hurt anglers on every shore of the United States.
Commercial fishermen will probably use the decision in Guindon v. Pritzker to punish anglers when the opportunity arises. I can easily see them trying to penalize us in the Mid-Atlantic, should we overfish black sea bass or fluke. Recreational fishermen, everywhere on the coast, risk being tarred with the same brush as the red snapper anglers, even for inadvertent overages rather than the kind of chronic and predictable overfishing that takes place in the Gulf.
On a larger scale, the red snapper fishermen down in the Gulf are now trying to gut the conservation and rebuilding requirements of the Magnuson Act—America’s federal fisheries law, and the finest such law in the world—so that they can kill a few more fish.
They want to take management authority for important recreational species away from NMFS and hand it over to the states. That way, there will be no inconvenient federal law forcing managers to use the best available science and rebuild overfished stocks.
They may want Louisiana and Texas to manage their snapper, but I’m not sure that any of us wants Maine and Massachusetts to manage or cod stocks, or New Jersey and North Carolina to manage our fluke…
They want to end current rebuilding deadlines—24 years doen't seem long enough—so that they can continue to overharvest and abuse a public resource and maybe never fully restore the stock. Their counterparts up here tried that with summer flounder, but Magnuson prevailed and we have more and bigger fluke than we could have hoped for ten years ago. Thanks to Magnuson, our sea bass and scup are doing well, too.
So, to those red snapper anglers in the Gulf, I say this:
As sportsmen, you’re an embarrassment. You make us all look bad when you sound just like the boys up in Gloucester, out to kill the last cod.
As advocates, you’re dangerous. You want to change the law so you can kill too much snapper. But the law is just fine--just like it is--for those of us who want to rebuild cod stocks. And the folks who hope that their kids—and if not them, then their grandkids—might still catch winter flounder. It's fine for the guys on the Pacific coast who want rockfish restored.
You emphasize the short term, and what you might kill next year; those of us who care about the future find that not only frightening, but remarkably dumb.
Maybe it’s just a matter of age. You’re getting a lot of gray hairs now. So you can have your fun and leave rebuilding our fish stocks, just like fixing the national debt and living with too much CO2 in the air, as problems for your kids and your grandkids to address when you're gone.
That wouldn’t be right, but you stopped worrying about “right” a number of years ago.
Or maybe you’re just myopic, and can’t see past your own problems. You neither know nor care that we don’t have red snapper on Long Island, or off Cape Cod or Point Reyes or in Prince William Sound, and you can’t get your head around the fact that what you do down there can affect folks everywhere else on the coast. And are you so self-indulgent that you won't fish for something else for a couple of years? Red snapper are only 2% of your landings; isn’t the other 98% enough?
It’s well past time for you all to get your heads out of the Gulf—or wherever else they've been stuck these days—and come back to reality. The earth does not revolve around red snapper, and it certainly doesn’t revolve around you. So consider the chance that you might be wrong, sit down, shut up and just think for a while.
Things need to change.
Because right now, you’re embarrassing—and threatening—us all.