Sunday, January 24, 2016
HYPOCRISY SWIMS WITH RED SNAPPER IN THE GULF OF MEXICO
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.