Thursday, April 28, 2016
RED SNAPPER, RED HERRINGS
Red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico is probably the most contentions fisheries issue being debated today. To say that the rhetoric gets heated is a gross understatement.
Like most fisheries debates, it includes a little truth, a lot of emotion and quite a bit of information that doesn’t quite line up with the known facts.
The debate also includes a lot of folks who tend to spin the “facts” (both those that are true and those that are created to fill a particular need) to serve their own purposes and shape public opinion to conform to their own.
So, before going any further, it probably makes sense to set forth a dozen truths that you can verify for yourself by clicking on each one and linking to reliable sources.
1. In 1990, Gulf red snapper were badly overfished; the stock’s spawning potential was only 2.6% of the spawning potential of an unfished stock.
2. The annual red snapper catch limit is split into sector-specific catch limits that give 51.5% of all landings to anglers and 48.5% to commercial fishermen.
4. Commercial overfishing ended in 2007, when commercial fishermen began fishing under a catch share system.
5. Unlike commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen continued to chronically overfish the red snapper stock, with the situation growing so severe that a federal district court finally had to order the National Marine Fisheries Service to hold anglers accountable.
6. High recreational harvest rates, that include larger fish, have forced fisheries managers to shorten the season in federal waters.
7. State waters remain open to recreational fishing for at least part of the time when federal waters are closed; in Texas, the season never closes at all.
8. Party and charter boats that have federal fisheries permits can’t fish in state waters when the federal season is closed, although anglers fishing from private boats can.
9. Party and charter boats with federal fisheries permits have successfully petitioned NMFS to create a special annual catch limit applicable only to them, so that they might have a longer season that isn’t affected by private boats’ high harvest rates.
10. The federal fisheries management plan is working, and has already increased red snapper abundance to about half of the target level.
11. Because all red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico are managed as a single stock, fish caught in state waters are included in the federal annual catch limit, and have an impact on the length of the season in federal waters.
12. Some recreational fishing organizations, unhappy with the regulations that NMFS has adopted to rebuild the stock, are seeking federal legislation that would strip NMFS of its authority to manage red snapper, and would hand that authority over to the states, which aren’t bound by federal laws prohibiting overfishing and requiring management to be based on the best available science.
In short, what we’re dealing with is a successful fishery management plan that is well on its way to rebuilding what had been a badly overfished red snapper stock. The adoption of a catch share system ended commercial overharvest, but until a court imposed accountability measures on the recreational sector, anglers continued to overfish on a regular basis. Instead of trying to get their overfishing under control, anglers escape federal regulations by fishing within state waters, where the federal rules do not apply. Recently, they have taken that effort one step further by asking Congress to turn red snapper management over to the states, where harvest does not have to be maintained at sustainable levels.
That means that the same folks who have been failing to live up to their obligations to conserve the stock are trying to paint themselves as victims, so that they can convince federal lawmakers to let them kill even more.
That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, so the angling groups needed to come up with a little creative misdirection.
It’s the same thing that’s done in a staged magic show; in order to create the desired illusion, a magician must divert the audience’s attention away from his right hand, that’s performing the trick, and convince them to watch his left hand, his hat or his bespangled assistant, so that they can’t perceive what’s really going on.
If, along the way, they can invoke a base emotion—jealousy, say, or maybe greed—to help sell the illusion, well, then they’ll try that, too.
Thus, we see Ted Venker, the “Conservation Director” of the Coastal Conservation Association attacking federal red snapper managers by arguing
“The end result of catch share programs is what we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico today, with a very few, select commercial shareholders wielding a disproportionate level of power and enjoying a year-round red snapper season while the public is left with just an 11-day season to pursue this abundant and popular fish.
“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. In the red snapper program, less than 400 commercial shareholders “own” more than 50 percent of all the red snapper harvested in the Gulf of Mexico, and yet they don’t pay enough in administrative fees to even cover the cost of managing their own program…
“What kind of a fishery are we creating with this system for our grandkids, 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.”
Reading that piece, it’s hard not to get angry at federal managers, who seem to be giving away the public’s ability to fish to red snapper, and hand permanent ownership of what had been a public resource to just a few hundred commercial fishermen. Once you’re angry enough, it’s easy for you to accept the conclusion of the piece, which is that
“the states have never felt it necessary to hand over ownership of redfish or speckled trout, for example, to achieve good management…
“There are many problems with federal fisheries management and the primary one is that the feds have almost no idea how to manage recreational fisheries. Embracing flawed programs to give those marine resources away for someone else to manage for their own benefit is not the answer.
“If you have a freight train running out of control sometimes the only solution is to cut the fuel line…”
And thus, the illusionist set the stage to end federal management of red snapper, and hand responsibility over to the states.
The only problem is that just about everything that Mr. Venker wrote, which led up to that conclusion, was at best misdirection, and at the worst, untrue. But his words might get you so angry at (and perhaps jealous of) the commercial fleet, that you didn’t stop and think about the facts.
Like the fact that the catch share program only affects the commercial red snapper quota, and has nothing to do with the recreational quota at all. Yes, you might be mad about the short federal red snapper season. But the length of the recreational season isn’t caused by the existence of commercial catch shares; it would be just as short if the commercial fleet fished under a “derby” system, when every boat rushes out to catch as much of the overall quota as they can land during a relatively short season. Either way, the commercial fleet would have the very same quota, regardless of how it was caught.
Mr. Venker contrasts a year-round commercial season with the 11-day recreational season, in an attempt to anger recreational fishermen; in fact, the comparison in meaningless. Whether the commercial fishery is managed as a derby or through catch shares, the recreational season—and the recreational quota—will remain exactly the same.
Moving from mere misdirection to falsehood, CCA’s statement that “anyone who wants to enjoy [the red snapper] resource will have to buy it from a shareholder” is just plain untrue. As mentioned earlier, the catch share system only impacts the commercial fishery. You have to buy shares from someone (if you don’t have them already) if you intend to sell your catch. If you fish recreationally, your fishery remains a “derby,” which is why the season must be so short (although at one time, CCA proposed that anglers buy tags at auction in order to fish for red snapper).
It’s possible that the party and charter boat fishery will one day be governed by a catch share system, too, but anglers are already paying to go out on such vessels, so it’s not like paying to fish on a for-hire isn’t already the status quo.
The notion that commercial fisherman “own” any red snapper is equally false. What they own is a share of whatever commercial harvest NMFS permits in any given year. In theory, that’s a good thing, because it incentivizes commercial fishermen to be good stewards of the resource; as the stock grows, their share of the harvest remains the same, but represents a greater quantity of fish (and, it should be noted again, the commercial sector hasn’t overfished since 2007, the year that the catch share program became effective).
The fact that commercial fishermen own a share of the harvest doesn’t even prevent NMFS from shifting allocation away from their sector and to recreational fishermen. Since Mr. Venker wrote the piece quoted here, the allocation changed from 49% recreational/51% commercial to 51.5% recreational/48.5% commercial, meaning that the catch shares will now all come out of a proportionally smaller pool.
Three percent of the price for each red snapper sold is deducted from the commercial fishermen’s earnings, and used to fund the cash share program. CCA complains that such revenues don’t cover the program’s costs, which may be true (I haven’t checked), but whatever the commercials are paying to manage the fishery, it is infinitely more than what red snapper anglers pay into the federal management system, which the last time I checked was something resembling $0.00 (federal excise taxes on fishing tackle are distributed to the states, not to NMFS), despite all of the expense angling organizations have cost the feds due to questionable lawsuits and such.
It’s actually hard not to wonder what the state of red snapper management might be if the many hundreds of thousands of dollars in member donations that the various anglers’ rights organizations poured into unsuccessful lawsuits, public relations and lobbying state and federal legislators had instead been invested in peer-reviewed science that could have cleared up some of the unknowns in snapper biology.
Of course, resolving some of those unknowns might not have helped the militant anglers’ cause…
For the problem with science is that it deals with fact, and leaves little room for misdirection. Anyone who says that the federal management system will be “forcing us to pay again and again to access those [red snapper] resources in the future” probably wants to leave fact strictly alone because—and I’ll say this again—the catch share program doesn’t apply to private recreational anglers.
The only people who have to pay for access to the red snapper resource are commercial fishermen seeking additional quota, those who buy their fish at a store and maybe, at some point in the future, those who fish from party and charter boats. The latter two groups would be paying for their access anyway, even in a derby fishery, so the only group with a right to complain are the commercial fishermen—and most of them seem to like things just as they are.
So it’s pretty clear that the people complaining the loudest about catch shares—the anglers’ rights community—in the end have the least to complain about. And that’s why their whining gets so annoying.
I hear it time and again, the same organizations grinding out the same lines in an effort to attract more supporters and, it seems clear, in an effort to keep everyone from noticing that it is their members, and not those holding catch shares, that keep overfishing the stock.
It’s really time for the noise to cease and for people to speak with some honesty. Allocations, and whether to change them, are legitimate policy issues. If that’s what they want to talk about—in fact, if they want to abandon allocation completely and claim all of the fish for themselves—let them be men about it, and say so right out loud, instead of hiding behind these deceptions.
Let them put out their own list of facts, confirmed by links to objective sources.
If they can. Which isn’t too likely.
The truth is a powerful spokesman.
And when someone avoids the plain truth, or tries to reshape it? Well, that speaks pretty powerfully, too.