Sunday, March 15, 2015
A SHORTAGE OF COMMON SENSE
A few weeks ago, it appeared that there was some good news coming out of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery. The red snapper population continues to rebuild, and as a result, managers approved a 30 percent increase in the annual catch limit, raising it all the way from 11 million to 14.3 million pounds.
That’s a pretty clear sign that the current management system is working, and working pretty well. You would think that it would make anglers happy.
After all, a 30% increase in black sea bass quota would pretty well eliminate the problem facing us in the northeast, and a 30% increase in summer flounder would take us back to seasons and size limits (or maybe bags) that we haven’t seen for a decade or more.
But red snapper anglers are a different breed, and they are not happy at all.
Instead of presenting the increase as good news to their readers, outdoor writers in the region are characterizing the 30% increase as “a few extra crumbs” and complaining about managers creating a buffer between the recreational annual catch limit and anglers’ share of the allowable biological catch—even though such buffer (or other accountability measure) was mandated by a federal district court about a year ago, after anglers repeatedly demonstrated that they could not stay within their annual catch limit if it was not imposed.
And the states are just as bad.
One of the big complaints we keep hearing from red snapper fishermen is that the season in federal waters, where most of the anglers used to fish, is distressingly short. Last year, it went on for only nine days. As a result, landings data provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service show that, at least in some states, the catch is shifting inshore.
In 2012, for example, only about 35 percent of Florida’s Gulf red snapper landings came from state waters. In 2013, the proportion of fish caught in state waters jumped to nearly half (48%). Last season, the proportion of state-waters fish increased again, to 55 percent.
Thus, if folks are concerned with the length of the federal season, it would seem to make sense for state fisheries managers, in Florida and elsewhere, to freeze the length of their seasons—and thus presumably the number of fish harvested in state waters—so that the entire increase in the annual catch limit could be used to extend the time that people could fish in the federal sea.
But that would make sense, so we could be sure from the start that it’s not what anyone would propose for Gulf red snapper.
Instead, fisheries managers in Florida and Louisiana, and perhaps other states, are talking about extending their state seasons, moves which can only perpetuate the very short federal season.
Some red snapper anglers understand that the red snapper annual catch limit creates a zero-sum game, in which extending state seasons inevitably means that federal seasons will be shorter. Martha Bademan, a member of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who also holds a seat on the Gulf Council, has acknowledged that
“Florida catches a lot of red snapper. If we have a lot of going on in state waters, you can expect a shorter federal season.”
Even so, the Florida Commission is considering extending the state’s red snapper season, which doesn’t make much sense at all.
But if the decision making process in Florida seems a bit perplexing, what’s going on down in Louisiana is completely confounding.
Louisiana, like Texas, eschews participation in NMFS’ Marine Recreational Information Program, which means that the state’s harvest data isn’t directly comparable to that provided by NMFS, and can be a little difficult to locate. However, according to information the state has released, roughly three-quarters of Louisiana’s red snapper are caught within state waters.
With a statistic like that, you’d think that Lousiana’s fisheries managers, as well as the state’s anglers, would want to freeze state-waters harvest in order to extend the federal season. But if you thought that such common sense would prevail, you’re clearly new to the red snapper debate...
Randy Pausina, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, has reportedly said that
“…we feel like this year, we’ll start with two fish and go into the federal season, and when we come out of the federal season, we can go up [in bag limit].”
So not only will Louisiana go out of compliance with the federal its season, it’s planning to exceed the federal bag limit, too. And it is also planning to take over a pretty big piece of the federal ocean, unilaterally extending the state’s management authority out to three nautical leagues—a little over ten miles—when according to federal law, Louisiana’s territorial sea, and thus its authority, peters out three miles from the beach.
Again it doesn’t make too much sense, unless you believe in what Louisiana and the other Gulf states apparently see as their endgame.
“We want complete control of red snapper, for starters, and we want the [federal] money [to pay for it], too.”
Their goal is to strip management authority for red snapper in federal waters from NMFS and the Gulf Council, and hand it over from the states.
And that probably makes the least sense of all.
The five Gulf of Mexico states are asking Congress to create a new entity, which will be called the “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority.”
Such Authority would take the form of a panel composed of the “principal fisheries manager” from each of the five Gulf states. Each state would be permitted to come up with its own management plan for red snapper in its waters and in the federal waters allocated to each state. The Authority would then decide, by majority vote, whether each state’s management plan was acceptable.
Overfishing would apparently be frowned upon, although firm annual catch limits need not be established. Instead,
“The states would be required to ensure overfishing will not occur through the full range of management and assessment strategies available to each state or each group of states acting in concert. These strategies would not be limited to those based on total allowable catch.”
That’s vague enough to make it unlikely that any state will ever be accused of overfishing, no matter how many snapper its anglers harvest, but it’s an order of magnitude better than the rebuilding language, which reads
“If the status of the fishery in each state is in equilibrium or expanding, no change in management actions may be required. If the status of the fishery is below equilibrium or declining, the responsible state or states would be required to take appropriate action to revise existing management actions to restore equilibrium…”
I would hate to be the judge who had to interpret that one for the first time…
It seems to say that if you have a lousy fishery, with the fish scarce but not seeming to get any scarcer (think tautog—a/k/a blackfish—here in New York), that’s OK because you have "equilibrium," even if the stock remains overfished. If it gets any worse, you have to rebuild it, but only until you rebuild it back to the same lousy and still-overfished "equilibrium" level. You never need to bring it all the way back.
In that way, and in many others, the Authority management model seems to be very roughly modeled after that of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Like ASMFC, the Authority would be authorized to invite federal intervention
“if a Gulf state or a group of Gulf states adopted management measures or regulations significantly inconsistent from the red snapper management framework identified in the Plan when such inconsistent measures could negatively impact the interests of other Gulf states with regard to red snapper management.”
But as anyone familiar with ASMFC’s concept of “conservation equivalency” and the mischief it engenders knows, allowing states to deviate from an established management plan can create a variety of problems, leading to endless debate about whether one state’s deviation causes harm to another. The history of summer flounder management, along with the current debate over New Jersey’s new striped bass regulations, should give the Gulf states reason for pause.
Even if those Gulf states aren’t familiar with the problems at ASMFC, they certainly know what’s going on in their own region. So it makes absolutely no sense to read that any federal intervention
“would be limited to the federal waters adjacent to the state(s) that adopted inconsistent management measures or actions. Under no circumstances would federal authority or action supersede that of an individual state within designated state waters.”
In other words, the Authority would merely perpetuate the problems that exist today, allowing any state to thumb its nose at the feds and/or neighboring states by overharvesting red snapper within its own waters, regardless of the impact on others.
Does that make sense to you?
But then, the whole thing is a conundrum.
Why replace a system that is working, successfully rebuilding the stock, increasing annual harvest and, at least lately, preventing overfishing, by adopting an untested authority that could halt rebuilding and lead to stagnant landings levels, perpetuate current problems and likely lead to new conflicts between the states?
Nothing about that makes sense at all.
In fact, the only sensible thing that I’ve read about red snapper recently appeared in the Pensacola News-Journal, where a local for-hire captain, Gary Jarvis, wrote
“…there is no avoiding the fact that the health of the Gulf’s red snapper fishery depends on cooperation between federal and state fisheries managers.
“The National Marine Fisheries Service must set sustainable catch limits and must keep Gulf anglers within that sustainable fisheries budget. If state managers take more than that budget allows or spends at a burn rate that threatens to exceed it, federal managers must act by reducing the federal season to compensate for the state’s overspending…
“Unfortunately, the states often set their spending rates at levels that are not based on sound scientific principles…
“The [states’] non-science-based red snapper management and lack of partnership [with the feds] is unfair.
“As long as Gulf states like Florida and Texas willingly continue to be bad partners with their federal counterparts, Gulf anglers who do not have red snapper in their state waters will have to stand by and watch privatized state-water fisheries devour any chance of a federal-waters season.”
Finally, we find common sense.
It doesn’t require a bill in Congress to extend the federal season. It doesn’t require a “Red Snapper Management Authority” or a wholesale restructuring of the management system.
It just requires some partnership and cooperation, and the willingness of some states—and their anglers—to take the long view and work with their neighbors to restore the red snapper stock, rather than grabbing what they can for themselves at every opportunity.
It requires everyone involved to think about the future, and not merely the upcoming season.
But given the attitudes that both the states and the anglers have shown up to this date, what it probably requires to get the job done is some sort of miracle.