Sunday, November 2, 2014


A little time has now passed since the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council passed Amendment 40 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico, which introduced the concept of “sector separation,” that is, splitting the recreational fleet by giving for-hire boats a defined percentage of the landings, distinct from the allocation allotted to private boat anglers to Gulf waters.

Some people liked the idea and some simply despised it.  In the aftermath of the Council’s action, the first volleys of rhetoric have been filed and forgotten, and folks on both sides of the issue are plotting their strategies for what to do next.

Whatever they decide, sector separation in the Gulf red snapper fishery will likely become the law of the land by 2015, unless opponents put together a strategy far more successful than those they’ve come up with so far, that will convince the National Marine Fisheries Service to reject the Council’s advice.

The fight over recreational red snapper regulations, and sector separation in particular, was a triangular conflict that pitted private-boat recreational anglers against the party and charter boat operators and members of the marine conservation community, which as time went on became somewhat aligned with the for-hires, although I suspect that, in their minds, they’d argue that they were fighting on behalf of the fish.

I know and have spoken to—and sometimes argued with—people who stood on all three legs of that triangle.  From my observations, it seems that everyone believes that they’re trying to do the right thing and, in fact, so believed so deeply in the rightness of their efforts that they saw little or no reason to consider any of the ideas or suggestions that others have made.

They were so focused on this single issue that no one seemed to give any thought to the policy or political fallout that might flow from the sector separation decision.

And as I watched the three sides alternately stumble and march toward the Gulf Council meeting last month, my thoughts traveled back about one hundred years, to the day when a lone Serbian gunman killed an Austrian archduke, causing a lot of people and nations who really knew better to ineptly maneuver themselves into a long and brutally murderous war.

I’ll admit right out front that I don’t like sector separation.  I believe that anglers are anglers, and should all abide by the same set of rules, whether they fish from their own boats, for-hire boats, beaches, bridges or piers.  Balkanizing the angling community into parochial sub-groups does little save ignite petty jealousies that split anglers apart and hinder efforts to conserve and rebuild affected fish stocks.

At the same time, the private-boat anglers in the Gulf grew so stiff-necked and self-righteous with respect to their own situation that they never stopped to acknowledge that the for-hire folks had their problems, too.

They did plenty of howling over their 9-day federal season, with but never mentioned that seasons ran longer in the inshore waters of every Gulf state—from a 365-day season in Texas (which also allows anglers to keep twice the federal limit of red snapper, which may be one inch shorter than the federal rules allow) and Louisiana (which is attempting to usurp federal jurisdiction for red snapper in a band of water between 3 and 9 nautical miles off its shores) to a 52 day season in Florida, to far shorter seasons in Alabama and Mississippi.

Thus, private-boat fishermen shut out of the red snapper fishery in federal waters by the short open season could often still pursue red snapper in state waters, and in Texas and Louisiana, could harvest them year-round.  On the other hand, party and charter boats with federal snapper permits are bound to follow federal regulations even when fishing in state waters, which means that they had no recourse that allowed them to keep catching red snapper when the federal season closed.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service doesn’t segregate or count federally caught fish or fish living in federal waters from fish that are living or caught in state waters. They combine those as one stock and one resource and then that’s how the quota is drawn from.”
Private-boat anglers had no problem with that reality; in fact, they provided much of the impetus for the extended state seasons that not only gave them exclusive use of the inshore red snapper resource, but also caused the length of the federal season to shrink.  However, many party and charter boat operators viewed that system as unfair, and badly in need of change.

What happened in Alabama for instance is we had 9 days for federally charter boats. The private recreational angler or the guy who owns his own boat continued to fish for 27 days and that is unfair because the people who come to our Gulf Coast and contribute to our booming economy deserve access to those fisheries."

“This year, Florida anglers who rely on charter boats to go fishing only had nine days to fish for red snapper, while individuals who own their own offshore boats had the luxury of being able to fish for red snapper in state waters for 52 days. This is not acceptable…The folks that fish from Florida charter boats or headboats deserve a system that makes sure that their ability to fish for red snapper isn't curtailed by the interests of those who are lucky enough to own their own boats.”
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, agreeing that changes needed to be made, and voted 10-7 to set aside up to 47% of the recreational red snapper quota for the for-hire vessels.  That immediately led to new cries that the system was unfair, but this time those complaining came were the private-boat fishermen, who took a position essentially the same as that expressed by Bill Bird, Chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association’s National Government Relations Committee.
“This amendment will create such striking inequities for private recreational anglers that it is difficult to understand how this amendment will be sustainable. It is infuriating that the Gulf Council continues its give away of a public resource when the public has neither a reasonable season nor reasonable size and bag limits for that same resource.
Of course, what Bird doesn’t say is that the “striking inequities for private recreational anglers” that he mentions are largely self-inflicted wounds.  Camp Matens, a recreational fishermen from Louisiana who sits on the Gulf Council, worried that

“On Jan. 1, the total allowable catch begins for next year and now that we have states that are noncompliant, any [red] snapper caught between then and when the feds will allow the recreational season to begin, that catch from the noncompliant states will have to come off the top of that allowable catch.”
A “noncompliant” state is one which has a season, size or bag limit (or, in the case of Texas, all three) which are more liberal than the corresponding federal regulation.  So if anglers are really concerned about extending the federal season, bringing state regulations into compliance with the federal rules would be the first step.
But don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.  The thought that anglers in Texas, for example, might voluntarily ask Texas regulators to shorten its 365-day season, or change its four fish bag and 15-inch minimum size to the federal two fish at 16 inches, so that their counterparts in Mississippi or Alabama might enjoy a few more red snapper does not reflect today’s reality at all.
Still, the private-boat anglers’ anger continues to simmer, and the for-hire sector would be well-advised not to let it simmer too long.
The present uneasy armistice will hold only so long as the anglers feel that they can’t change the status quo.  In the meantime, they will think and plan, and try to come up with a way to get back into the fight and this time emerge with a win.
For just as a one-sided armistice signed in Versailles in 1919 planted the seeds for another terrible fight twenty years later, the adoption of sector separation could, in the long run, end up hurting not only red snapper, but every fishery on every coast of the United States.
As we sit days away from a midterm election that may sweep supporters of federal fisheries legislation out of their positions of power in the Senate, we see organizations that once stood tall in support of such legislation calling for red snapper management to be handed over to the states, and backing papers that advocate weakening the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Working relationships between such angler organizations and fisheries conservation groups that they once worked with have been badly weakened, and conservationists may well find themselves standing alone in defense of the Act.
That would be a very bad thing.
Fortunately, Amendment 40 itself may provide a way out, as it was given a life of only three years.  After that, the Amendment will be reviewed, and its provisions only renewed if they are found to provide a real benefit.
This, then, is the time to find middle ground. 
The for-hires, and those in the conservation community who supported sector separation, now hold a position of relative strength.  They can, and should, be willing to continue talks with those representing the private-boat anglers, knowing that if they can craft a compromise, they will be helping both fish and fishermen in the end.
I suggest that they begin with the issue that vexed the for-hires, and now troubles anglers as well. 
That is the non-complaint states.
The Magnuson Act is a federal law, and normally doesn’t apply in state waters.  But there is an exception written into Section 306 (b) of the Act, which reads
(1) If the Secretary finds, after notice and an opportunity for a hearing in accordance with section 554 of title 5, United States Code, that--
(A) the fishing in a fishery, which is covered by a fishery management plan implemented under this Act, is engaged in predominately within the exclusive economic zone and beyond such zone; and
(B) any State has taken any action, or omitted to take any action, the results of which will substantially and adversely affect the carrying out of such fishery management plan;
the Secretary shall promptly notify such State and the appropriate Council of such finding and of his intention to regulate the applicable fishery within the boundaries of such State (other than its internal waters), pursuant to such fishery management plan and the regulations promulgated to implement such plan.
If that doesn’t describe the primary problem in the red snapper fishery, I’m not sure what does.

It’s exactly the opposite approach of those who would weaken the law by handing management over to the states, just so they might kill a few more fish a little sooner.

And it would level the playing field for everyone.

Which means that it is probably a pretty good place to start.

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