Thursday, April 28, 2016


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.

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.

“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.


  1. Hey great article but correct me if I am wrong, partial demise of the snapper fishery in the gulf was partly blamed on shrimpers. Second me as a recreational angler will probably only get out fishing offshore dependent on the weather and finances 20 times a year,and will only fish red snapper certain times of the year. How am I responsible for the decimation of this stock? It is a public resource how many times does this have to be said? You say no snapper for you guess what then the trigger fish. sea bass and other bottom fish get hammered. All while the government blows up defunct oil rigs killing more fish ,make any sense?

    1. You're right; shrimpers did create part of the problem when they killed the juvenile fish in their trawls. But that's not what we're facing today. Today, we have a problem that's relatively easy to fix; the recreational sector is still taking a few too many fish. You ask how you're creating the problem--the fact is that, on your own, you're not. But add you in with me (yes, although I'm in the northeast, I'll snapper fish every now and again when I'm in the neighborhood) and everyone else who lives on the Gulf or travels there to catch a snapper or two, and the numbers quickly start to add up. And that's really all it is, a matter of numbers--even as good as the snapper fishery seems now, we can kill only so many before we start overharvesting the stock. And yes, it's a public resource, but so are things such as elk and antelope, and they don't let every hunter take as many as those as they'd like--there is a system that limits harvest to sustainable levels. In the end, it's no different here. It's not an easy problem, but if we want to solve it, we have to address the relevant facts, which are difficult enough to deal with, and not try to stir up problems by making one sector envious of another, etc. in an effort to destroy a system that is rebuilding the stock and replace it all with a system where everyone, including the fish, will ultimately lose. We're dealing with a difficult situation, and the only way to find a good answer is through reason, not emotion. This blog wasn't aimed at the anglers, but rather folks who should know better who are trying to get anglers to have knee-jerk reactions instead of thinking things through. And I can say that, because I worked with those folks for 17 years, and I know that they know better than to do what they're doing. I'm very disappointed in the way that they're behaving, because it's plain wrong.

  2. This is an argument that is pulling and pushing both sides of the issue and not too many are willing to budge. One of the issues is that there are not enough snapper to satisfy both sides of the issue. So why not attack that part of the problem by making sure that there are more fish by improving the environment the fish live and strive in? We all know that fishing reefs provide the structure they thrive in or no one would be putting them out there to fish on. I say there should be barges leaving every day from 10 or more ports in the northern gulf supplying ample debris for new and better places for the fish to live and multiply. There are hundreds of man made "spots" all over the gulf that provide habitat for the snapper now but just imagine a couple thousand more that are situated near shore and off shore to satisfy both small boats and larger craft. The fish will take care of their part if given the chance. Too pay for this is a problem but there seems to be a way to pay for so much crap that we don't need that this could be solved if the right solution is put forth.

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  4. Just like D.C.
    It's not about truth really. It's about what set of facts you like and then using those facts to make your contention in what "is" is.

    The problem with any scientific data is if you really have the wrong baseline then your whole experiment comes out with an untrue conclusion.

    When the bottom line is unknown. All you have is your perception of what that outcome gives.
    In the case of red snapper those on both sides of the aisle admit the total number of snapper are more than unknown.
    By that mere fact Gary's argument goes down the tubes.

    In other words what we have here folks is a "theory".
    A set of facts when thrown together provides a result.

    "The Big Bang" for instance.
    Even the author of this theory admitted it was not a truth but merely a possibility.
    However many many people have indeed propagated this theory as the Bible truth.


    Now the question is: is what this article that is filled with facts, true?

    I believe as sincerely as Gary believes it is true that the bottom line of this article is categorically untrue.

    I believe the "science". (Which in this case is a fancy word for math), even more resembling arithmetic, deems what and who overfished is based on a "number" that is possibly accurate on what NMFS was able to quantify but totally incomplete therefore making all outcomes untrue.
    Maybe unbiased and well intentioned but nonetheless untrue.

    You see NMFS openly admits their data is incomplete.
    No totals on certain reefs and/or structures.

    The article also touts that money recreational anglers spend fighting the elite control of the commercial industry is misspent.
    A commercial industry that consequently is also backed by big money, who are (get this) enviro groups.
    Enviro groups that loathe corporate America are supporting the commercial business.
    Not by giving them money but by lobbying WASHINGTON to keep commercials on the water while locking recreational anglers off the water.
    Some even doing so illegally.

    They are using "numbers" to support this method.
    They say numbers don't lie. However when you are applying the 2+2 rule equals 1 equation with no translation or cypher then in fact numbers do lie.

    So why?
    Follow the money folks.

    When green groups use green to influence data? It's no longer about truth. It's about agenda.
    Greed my friends is the agenda.
    Monopolizing the gulf.

    What Gary doesn't realize is when all the true conservationist that love our oceans leave the water and no longer pass on the love of fishing to our kids?

    The system will then turn on the very people that helped the system win.
    Then there will be no charter boat competition.
    It will likely be one of two
    All charter boats owned by a select few. Therefore squeezing out the many small business owners just like the 55 elite commercial shareholders have done by squeezing small business to sell their smaller quotas.

    The commercial sector will lobby to kill the recreational taxis claiming that the charter portion is being overfished,abused or that they simply can't be trusted due to sneaking in more trips per day than legal, and the only way forward is for the commercial sector to acquire more than 49,50,51 but they should be the stewards over 65,70% of all fish eventually yielding the charter fleet a mere 3-7 day season.

    Gary would do well to remember history.
    What happens to the turncoats?
    Oh yes that's right. The people they turned on are gone.
    The victor they help executes them first because in the end even the enemy knows it's enemy.

  5. I dare the complainers to read and fact check this article. Facts speak for themselves, educate yourself before you whine.

  6. This is a horrible article filled with misinformation and slight of hand trickery. There are faulty scientific studies underlying this article. The science is following the politics rather than the politics following the science.

    Normally biologists talk about maximum sustainable yield, but they switch in some of these articles to focus on spawning potential. This is a slight of hand distraction. Measuring that spawning potential focuses upon trawler bycatch, but the bycatch is not a proper sampling technique for Red Snapper because it is not sampling the proper habitat in a random way. Spawning potential also needs to consider natural survival rates for an R-selected species like Red Snapper that normally has high mortality rates of juveniles anyway. To date, the scientists have not properly measured adult population levels of Red Snapper because they are not sampling reefs, the natural habitat of Red Snapper. The scientists drag nets away from reefs. It is like trying to estimate the population of the United States by sampling all the National Parks but skipping sampling of cities. They rely upon the data anyway to make drastic management decisions on a fish species that is not and never has been overfished. The studies also fail in combining data from the Western and Eastern Gulf of Mexico, diluting the higher populations of Red Snapper in the West.

    If you look at the actual data, you will see that the catch of Red Snapper has not significantly changed, despite drastically reducing quotas. Making a 2 day fishing season in the Western Gulf of Mexico is ridiculous for this highly successful fish species. I cannot believe anyone would practice the sophistry presented here to try to defend it.

    1. On the other hand, those "faulty scientific studies" somehow managed to pass peer review...

      Your National Parks vs. cities analogy is apt, but needs to be carried one step farther. Sampling the reefs would be like sampling the cities, and then applying that population density to the National Parks, which would also be wrong. Certainly, there are more fish on the reefs, but there are also a lot of fish on small bits and pieces that would, when averaged out, result in a lot lower density than you have on the reefs.

      As far as using SPR goes, using SPR as a proxy for Bmsy is perfectly legitimate, and perhaps a better approach with a fish as long-lived as red snapper, where a high juvenile biomass might indicate that target biomass--Bmsy--has been reached, but because of the relatively lower fecundity of the smaller fish, gives a false picture of the state of the stock.

      As far as season goes, you've got a 365-day season in the western Gulf if you fish out of Texas; granted, you've got to be careful most of the year once you're more than 9 miles out, but law enforcement is spread thinly enough that you can probably get away with it if you keep your eyes open. Last time I fished out of Galveston--about a year ago--we had to run over 30 miles to get to good snapper bottom, as the pieces closer in had been pounded pretty hard--in the off-season.

      I'll agree that combining western and eastern Gulf data may not be the best idea, although given that larvae travel high in the water column, before separating the two regions, you'd have to be certain that larvae from one region didn't make a significant contribution to the population in the other. But such a separation would be worthwhile.

      This is a tough issue, but honesty would help a lot. I sat on the national board of CCA for 17 years, so I saw this situation evolve from the inside; when I criticize the arguments being made, it's because I saw some of them being formulated, and was appalled at how it was done.

    2. Charles Witek can you elaborate in detail as to how things were formulated that appalled you?