Sunday, January 24, 2016


Anyone who follows fisheries issues down in the Gulf of Mexico knows that the red snapper debate went off the rails a long time ago. 

The important issues, such as how to best restore the stock to real abundance and how to prevent overfishing, have been more-or-less set aside.  Instead, a recalcitrant faction of the recreational fishing community, fanatically intent on seeing their own desires placed above the needs of the red snapper stock, has been fighting a dogged retrograde action, trying to block every Council move to improve the management process.

They recently tried to block a Council effort to split the recreational harvest limit into separate allocations to private vessels and to federally-licensed charter and party boats, but were shot down in flames by a federal district court in Louisiana.

The target of their latest blockade is, of all things, an advisory panel made up of recreational, private-boat red snapper fishermen.  The sort of people that, one might believe, are the very souls that such recreational angling groups represent.

But if you believe that, you haven’t been paying attention.  You missed the rhetorical battle that has been raging down there for the past half-decade or more.  And you missed the distant thump of the rotors that whirl in the distance, as black helicopters approach to whisk the red snapper away.
Because, if you believe some of these folks, there is a vast conspiracy

“by those who favor privatization policies that place ownership of public resources in the hands of a select few businesses…The alliance includes commercial fishermen, seafood processors, a select handful of charter/party boat operators, portions of the restaurant industry—basically anyone making a buck selling a publicly owned, wild fish in some way.  That alliance has been painstakingly and crafted by environmental groups with enormous resources…
“Everyone in the alliance gets something—the environmental groups get closer to their vision of the oceans as ordered aquariums.  The selected for-profit operators get a personal windfall they have no right to own.  The federal management system, which has historically been commercially biased anyway, gets to claim it is doing its job…”
If all of those folks—essentially, everyone other than the militant anglers—really do constitute some sort of conspiracy, it’s hard not to label it the “Conspiracy of the Responsible.”

For it’s composed partly of commercial fishermen who, beginning in 2007, haven’t exceeded their annual catch limit once and who, along with the seafood processors, actually sued the National Marine Fisheries Service a couple of years ago—and won—for the Service’s failure to keep the recreational sector from chronically overfishing their annual allocations. 

It is partly composed of federally-permitted charter and party boat owners who asked for their own, dedicated catch limit, so they wouldn’t be adversely affected by a steadily increasing private boat harvest that threatened to cut the for-hires’ season in federal waters—the only place that they’re allowed to fish—to nothing, while the private boats could continue to kill red snapper inside state waters once federal waters was closed.

 It is composed partly of environmental organizations, which want nothing more than healthy, sustainably-managed fish stocks, free of overfishing, and of federal fisheries managers who are legally required to end overfishing and manage fish stocks in just the way that the environmental groups—and any responsible users, as well—would prefer.

What the conspiracy theorists really don’t want anyone to know, is that the “conspiracy” also includes a lot of responsible anglers who recognize the value of federal management, don’t want red snapper stocks overfished and believe that anglers should be held to scientifically-justifiable catch limits.

Those are just the kind of anglers that groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association surely don’t want on a recreational anglers’ advisory board.  That sort of responsible angler is too likely to approve of the way NMFS is rebuilding red snapper, and too unlikely to put that rebuilding at risk just to increase the recreational kill.

And that is where the hypocrisy comes in.

Because CCA and ASA don’t really seem to oppose recreational advisory panels, so long as they can control them.  And CCA, at least, isn’t really against folks paying to harvest red snapper, either, so long as the "right" folks control the market.

In place of the recreational advisory panel proposed at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, both CCA and ASA support a so-called “Gulf Angler Focus Group” organized under their aegis, composed of anglers and for-hire operators that they allow to sit at the table.  A spokesman for ASA claims that such focus group

“presents a more unified recreational fishing community that will result in clear management recommendations to ensure healthy red snapper and reef fish stocks while providing equitable and reasonable public access.”
Or, to remove the double-talk, such “Gulf Angler Focus Group,” assures that only the CCA/ASA positions are formally presented to the Council; contrary positions that might have come out of an independent recreational advisory panel can be effectively squelched.

That kind of recreational advisory panel would suit CCA and ASA very well…

The same can be said when it comes to paying for “shares” to fish for red snapper.

“Proponents of catch shares argue that the system presents the best way to manage marine resources.  Left unsaid is that anyone who wants to enjoy that resource will have to buy it from a shareholder who paid nothing to own it in the first place…
“Plans under consideration by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council would expand catch shares to charter/for-hire operators, meaning they, too, would be given shares of the red snapper resource for free.  Assuredly, those operators will then take that windfall and charge the angling public whatever they want to access ‘their’ fish.”
“What kind of fishery are we creating with this system for our grandkids, for our kids or even for us?  The federal government is creating a situation in which the public is paying to give away our marine resources, and then forcing us to pay again and again to access those resources in the future…”
But just half a dozen years ago, CCA was singing a very different tune, and would probably still be singing it today if it wasn’t for the sharp rebukes that it received in the angling press.  On April 10, 2009, CCA presented a paper to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (drafted, curiously enough, in collaboration with some of the same "environmental" folks, including the Environmental Defense Fund, who CCA now stridently condemns) entitled “Is there a better way to manage U.S. shared commercial and recreational fisheries?

In that paper, CCA suggests doing away with the traditional open-access recreational red snapper fishery, and limiting access solely to those people willing and able to place the high bid on lots of red snapper tags.  Anglers of lesser means who were unable to afford the high bid on a lot of tags would be locked out of the fishery.

As the paper noted

“Let anyone who so desires to place their best bid and distribute to highest bidders—bidders could be individuals, states or organizations…”
“Those who buy tags can use them any way they desire—take the fish home and eat it, give them as Christmas presents, sell them, take their fish to a market and sell them…
So the “regular Joe” who might go snapper fishing a couple times every year would have to compete against well-heeled sportsmen, offshore fishing clubs, fish processing houses, commercial fishing fleets and even the same “charter/for-hire operators” that CCA complains about today in order to get his lot of 10—or perhaps as many as 100—tags, a situation which wouldn’t have given poor “Joe” a very good chance of success. 

In the end, it would likely be wealthier anglers, along with organizations that represent them, which would have ended up with the lion’s share of the snapper, a situation which obviously would not have upset CCA at all. 

The proposed auction process would have applied to all red snapper landings, and done away with the distinction between recreational and commercial harvest.  Thus, the commercial red snapper fishing industry, which has to consider the price it can pay and still operate profitably, would likely have been badly squeezed, if it could have survived at all.

That wouldn’t have caused the CCA folks many sleepless nights, either. 

Party and charter boat businesses who wanted to take clients out for red snapper would also have faced additional burdens.

But CCA defended the approach, saying that

“It is simple and arguably the most fair and equitable approach.  Every one—anglers, commercial harvesters, seafood processors, investors, and conservationists would have the same opportunity to access the resource,”
and predicted that

“Once the auction program has had a chance to establish a ‘free market’ price for tags, they could simply be sold at that price—state agencies, fishing clubs, tackle shops, fishing organizations and seafood dealers could sell them.”
That sounds a lot like what goes on today, with folks buying the right to harvest red snapper from someone.  However, CCA would have created a market structure that favored its view of the world, by allowing anglers or “organizations” [might that term ninclude CCA?] to purchase commercial shares.  Nevertheless, it still would “[force] us to pay again and again to access those resources in the future.”

Not too much different about the end result.

To be fair, CCA raised the possibility of using funds from the tag auctions to finance fisheries management programs, which the current catch share programs do not do.  However, that benefit is probably more theoretical than real, as even CCA noted that

“Currently, law probably would not allow direct application of collected fees to a red snapper conservation and management program.”
So why would CCA propose such a program back in ’09 and yet be such a staunch opponent of catch share programs today?

Again, the answer is clear. 

Whether we’re talking about the private recreational advisory panel, or a program that requires fishermen to pay to harvest red snapper, CCA has no objection to the basic concept. 

If CCA (or ASA) can use such a program for its own benefit, it will endorse the concept and call it a good one.  If someone else benefits, and CCA (or ASA) does not, then the same concept is bad and quickly condemned.

As the recent CCA press release admitted,

“It is difficult to explain why recreational anglers should be highly suspicious of a Recreational Angling Advisory Panel…”
because, in the end, such panel is clearly a good thing, so long as it is peopled by folks who keep the red snapper’s best interests in mind,

“but things are seldom what they seem at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.”
But when you see honest folks looking out for the red snapper resource, and hypocrites just looking out for themselves, you can still figure things out pretty well.


  1. Your insights are clouded by your distrust of the recreational angler, and what is obviously an unholy alliance with EDF and OC's funded puppets in the GULF.....50 years or not....your knowledge is not and your opinion is completely off base.....

  2. Actually, it's not me who distrusts the recreational angler, it's CCA, ASA and the rest that don't trust them. I say that the Council should establish a recreational advisory panel; then CCA and ASA can get their people on the panel, the enviros can put their people on the panel, and anglers who belong to neither group can talk to their state reps about being appointed to the panel. Everybody will have to play in the same sandbox and hammer out some sort of compromise that reflects all sides. But CCA and ASA don't trust them to do that; they only want their folks on the panel, so that they can be sure of the outcome, being afraid that any panel that they don't control will go the wrong way.

    As far as the 50 years go, you probably pay less attention to that and more to the 17 years when I sat on CCA's national Executive Committee/Executive Board (I'm a life member of CCA), and the years that I spent on its national Government Relations Committee (since the GR Committee was established) and as Vice Chairman of that Committee (since that position was created) until I finally resigned in the spring of 2013 because the organization--which was once a wonderful conservation group that I was extremely proud to be a part of--abandoned its original mission and its long-held "fish first" policies to pursue an "anglers' rights" agenda, largely due to its intractable position on red snapper. So when you tell me that my knowledge is off-base, you should realize that I saw all this from the inside, and thus--unless you are also an insider--almost certainly have a better understanding of what went on than you do. Leaving CCA was one of the hardest things that I ever did; I worded with Pat Murray and Ted Venker just about from the day they were both hired, and had a great relationship with them; I knew Jeff Angers since he was the Executive Director of CCA Louisiana, fighting the net ban battle. But for some reason--I'm still not completely sure why--they decided to go down the red snapper rabbit hole, and when it was clear that I couldn't convince folks to reconsider, I resigned, and am now an INDEPENDENT observer of and commentator on fisheries management, and an INDEPENDENT advocate for fisheries management.

    I stress the "independent" due to your insinuation re EDF and OC. I have never donated a cent to either organization, and never received a cent in consultancy or advocacy fees from either one (on the other hand, I have donated thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to my local CCA chapter, which I helped to found). I haven't spoken to anyone at EDF for around 2 years, and while I do occasionally collaborate with OC, it is with respect to Magnuson Act and similar national issues, not red snapper. And I do that as a volunteer, solely because our interests coincide.

    And no, they don't know what I'm going to write in this blog until I do so, nor do they suggest topics. That is solely my call.

  3. you and I may have meet years ago around Boca Grande. we will be communicating a lot in the future. we are both blessed and cursed with a conscience and can't follow the crowd as they selfishly grab at power and financial gains. we love fish and are grateful for the lives we have enjoyed on our waters fishing, etc... thank you for exposing the true facts and calling out powerful organizations that I also worked with at times. they are pursuing as you point out a short term gain at tomorrows loss. thank you and please let me know ASAP if I can quote parts of your blogs, with credit to you, in my writings? Captain Van Hubbard

    1. Not sure if we've met--I've fished back country out of Sanibel, but never Boca Grande Pass--but it sounds as if we'd have plenty to talk about if we did. Feel free to quote from the blog any time that you find something useful.

  4. Okay...seems you are the one who is off the rails....

    First of all....
    Red snapper stocks are not in trouble, they have been rebounding since 2004, and really began to expand in 2005 and continue expanding until today....(you can read up on Dr Bob Shipp's research into the matter if you doubt me).

    So what we have is a resource that through proper management (2004 to 2008), and a few quirks of nature (expanding habitat and Hurricane Katrina) has seen the rebound of red snapper to levels not witnessed by most in the GOM......and in areas not before seen.

    So knowing that the stock is not in trouble, why is it that the recreational angler is limited to 1 week a year to fish....The answer is....BAD DATA and OVER CAUTIOUS analysis of that BAD DATA....

    These two issue collude to create a fire storm of bad management decision and an all out assault on the rights of access to millions of private recreational anglers (a majority stakeholder).

    Now we mix in the concept of ownership rights to s a select few and what you have is not good management, but crony capitalism and pay for play.....

    You see the average recreational angler could not give a crap about sector separation, go for it let them establish a management plan that works for them; however, do not harm the private recreational angler in the process.

    You see the Charter For Hire (CFH) accounts for about 22% of the trips into the EEZ, 21% of trips into the EEZ targeting reef fish and 20% that target red snapper. Now the problem ensues when you forget that anglers are managed by trip limits (bag limits), not pounds, not historical landings. They have nothing to do with the equation. CFH operation take recreational anglers out to catch their trips limits. What a CFH operation caught last year, last decade, or since 1986 is of no consequence....what is of consequence is how much fish do they need for their customers....

    Based on the data about 21% of the total recreational why did they get 47%? More than double what they needed to provide for their customer base? Well the reason is simple. Anything less than 30% of the total recreational allocation would not have bought the CFH sector a single extra day to fish. At 40% they could get a 30 day or so as you see the target was set before the analysis was even done as to how it would effect the recreational sector. They needed 40% or more and come hell or high water they were going to get it....

    So it was not sector separation per se, but how the allocations were set and now; even though we were told by all on the council, and the proponent of Amendment 40, that IFQ/PFQ or catch shares were not a part of the equation; guess what.....This is exactly what they want now.....

    The recreational fear of sector separation was the introduction of limited access catch shares and IFQ into the recreational sector; a fear that now seems to not be as unreasonable as we were told it was by the council and the Charter Fishermen's Association.

    So since I never heard of you before and surely have not encountered you in any council meeting or workshop, I will not attempt to suggest what motivates you to disseminate such misinformation and try to impugn the recreational angling community as a whole...But Sir you are way off base.

    1. I'm fully cognizant of the state of red snapper, having read both the last stock assessment and the peer review report. I'm also familiar with Dr. Shipp's hypothesis that oil rigs and such have increased the carrying capacity of the Gulf, leading to a red snapper population that is larger today than it was prior to such structures’ creation. However, such hypothesis was considered and rejected in the SEDAR process that led to the last benchmark assessment, which easily passed peer review. Thus, Dr. Shipp’s view is not in accord with the best available science, even if it does fit well into the agenda of anglers' rights groups such as the Center for Coastal Conservation.
      I agree that proper management is rebuilding the stock, which is now at roughly 50% of target levels, and believe that if such management follows its current course, the stock can be fully rebuilt. I don’t buy the claims of bad data, which is what fishermen always claim when they want to increase their kill. Absent a peer-reviewed assessment that contradicts SEDAR's work, such claims are not credible. And caution is indicated when confronted with scientific or management uncertainty, both of which exist here.
      You also seem to define "private recreational angler" as those who own or fish from private boats, and not from for-hire vessels. As convenient as that definition may be, it is wrong. And all "private anglers" should be able to enjoy the privilege (it is NOT a right) of fishing for red snapper; excesses of the private-boat sector should not keep for-hire anglers, limited to the federal season, on shore while the private boat crowd continues to fish in state waters, while sneaking out and poach in the EEZ when they can.
      As for why the for-hires got the percentage that they did--you can read Amendment 40 as well as I can. The formula used combines both current and historical data, which makes sense, given that recent short seasons in the EEZ have limited landings of he for-hires much more than it has affected the private boats.
      Having said that, you never seem to address the primary subject of the essay, the hypocrisy of recreational organizations that had no problem proposing an auction system that would, in the real world, have resulted in well-heeled private boat owners purchasing the right to catch most of the annual red snapper harvest, while condemning catch share programs or sector separation, which give other sectors an opportunity to enjoy a piece of the pie.
      And don’t feel bad that you never heard of me, as I was equally unfamiliar with your name before you penned your comment. But since you raised the question, I was a member of the Executive Board of the Coastal Conservation Association for 17 years, and Vice Chairman of its national Government Relations Committee since such position was created, and a member of that Committee since its inception. I thus had an insider’s seat on the red snapper debate, although I resigned from both posts in 2013, after it became clear that CCA was hell-bent on weakening Magnuson-Stevens and abandoning its traditional "resource first" philosophy in favor of an irresponsible anglers' rights agenda.
      My motivation is just what it says on the masthead of the blog. I've been a salt water fisherman for a very long time, and understand the need for proper conservation measures. Although I am only an occasional red snapper angler, not living on the Gulf, I have a deep concern that any bad ideas that take root in the Gulf will make their way to my own home waters, and believe that the best way to prevent that is to prevent such ideas from being adopted.