Sunday, April 10, 2016
STRANGE DAYS IN THE GULF OF MEXICO
Anyone who has spend any time following fisheries issues down in the Gulf of Mexico has to admit that things are a little different down there, particularly when it comes to red snapper.
A fishery management process that is successfully rebuilding the stock, and which has increased the overall catch limit from 5 million pounds in 2009 to nearly 14 million pounds in 2016 is said to be “broken.”
A recreational fishing organization that once held itself out—and to some extent still holds itself out—as a conservation advocate is actively supporting H.R. 1335, a bill that would tear the heart out of the conservation and stock rebuilding provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
And for the first and only time that I am aware of, a group of commercial fishermen successfully sued the National Marine Fisheries Service in federal court, asking them to protect a fish stock from abuse by the angling sector.
To that list of wonders, we can now add one more: Some Texas fishing operations are now offering what are being called “catch share fishing experience” trips for red snapper and other bottom species.
Technically, the trips are not recreational charter boat excursions; instead, they are being sold as an opportunity for people to go out and experience hook-and-line commercial fishing for red snapper and other reef fish, conducted under the current commercial catch share system.
People who venture out on such trips serve as uncompensated (at least in cash, they are theoretically enriched by the experience) crewmembers on a commercial trip, with all fish caught being delivered to a commercial fish packing house. The passengers/unpaid crew can’t just take home what they catch, as that would run afoul of recreational regulations. They are permitted to purchase some of the fish, at what seems like a premium price, although the fish they take home is arguably much fresher than what they’d typically buy in the market. However, they can reportedly also let the boat sell all of the fish, purchase nothing for themselves, and not pay a cent for their day on the water.
The folks who offer such trips claim that they’ve done all of the required legal due diligence, and that both state and federal regulators have signed off on the “experience” being a legal commercial fishing enterprise.
Others aren’t so sure, and attack the trips as disguised recreational fishing trips that use commercial catch shares to get around restrictive federal red snapper regulations.
I have to admit that when I first heard of the “catch share fishing experience” trips, the whole thing didn’t sound right to me. I couldn’t say exactly why, but something about it made me feel uneasy.
But then I looked a little closer, and couldn’t find anything wrong.
To really understand what’s going on, you have to start with the fact that the red snapper that are being caught on “catch share fishing experience” trips do not come out of recreational fishermen’s annual catch limit; they are counted against the commercial quota.
That being the case, the red snapper involved are fish that anglers would normally never bring home, or even see. They are set aside strictly for commercial harvest.
That they’re caught pursuant to a catch share program, or caught on a “catch share fishing experience” trip, does not change that fact. Nor does it change the fact that such fish were always going to be sold to someone. Whether that “someone” is a restaurant in Manhattan or a participant in the “catch share fishing experience” is irrelevant to the health of the stock.
Ted Venker, who represents the Coastal Conservation Association, the largest anglers’ rights group in the Gulf, criticizes the “expeience,” saying
“It’s the ultimate blurring of the line between recreational and commercial. Under this scenario, that distinction doesn’t exist as it all just deteriorates down to who owns the fish, and it isn’t the public anymore.”
That sounds good at first glance, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny very well.
First, the public still own the fish.
Pursuant to the current catch share program, the only thing that a commercial red snapper fisherman owns is the right to catch a certain percentage of the annual commercial catch limit, which is very different from owning the fish themselves.
No commercial fisherman has the right to land a guaranteed poundage of snapper each year, and the commercial sector as a whole does not have a right to any particular allocation of the red snapper landings.
The fact that, just a few months ago, NMFS changed the allocation from 51% commercial/49% recreational to 48.5% commercial, 51.5% recreational, demonstrates that in the real world, as opposed to the fever dreams of anglers' rights advocates, the existence of the red snapper catch share program does not prevent managers from allocating a greater share of the catch to the recreational sector.
Second, to the extent that the distinction between recreational and commercial fishing is blurred by the “experience” trips, it’s not clear why CCA should be troubled. It made a much more far-reaching proposal to “blur” the distinction between the sectors back in 2009, in a paper entitled “Is there a better way to manage U.S. shared commercial and recreational fisheries,” which it presented to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
Anyone reading the CCA paper would have to call its proposal, and not the “catch share fishing experience,” the “ultimate blurring of the line between recreational and commercial,” for in 2009, CCA proposed a
“free market approach to managing red snapper and other marine fishes”
that would have completely eliminated the distinction between recreational and commercial fishermen.
Instead of setting aside allocations for each sector, it would have thrown all of the red snapper into a single pot, and then auctioned off tags every year to determine who would be able to catch them. The way CCA pictured such a fishery,
“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…”
Thus, it rings a little hollow to hear CCA complaining that the “catch share fishing experience” is wrong for its “blurring of the line between recreational and commercial” fishing today.
It’s also hard to take CCA seriously when it laments that “the public” no longer owns the fish due to catch shares, when it was willing to auction those fish off to the highest bidder just a few years ago.
Finally, the distinction between commercial and recreational fishing has always been blurred.
Anyone who charters a boat to pursue giant bluefin tuna quickly learns that any giants caught, at least if the season is open, will be taken to market by captain and crew, with the anglers playing a role very similar to the one they would play on a “catch share fishing experience” trip—with the exception being that they have to pay the price of the trip, even though they took none of the big tuna home.
The sale of angler-caught fish by charter boat crews, whether bluefin in New England, bigeye tuna in the mid-Atlantic or various species in the southeast has long been a tradition along the coast, so it’s hard to argue that the “experience” trips are really breaking any new ground in that regard.
What the trips really represent, more than anything else, is creative marketing, and that’s not a bad thing.
Here on Long Island, there are plenty of farms that allow the public to pick their own berries, pumpkins, apples, etc. People have a good time with their families out in the orchards and fields, and the farmer is paid for what they take home.
Neither traditional farmers nor home gardeners are threatened by such operations. Both the public and the pick-your-own farmer win in the end.
The “catch share fishing experience” trips strike me as the same sort of thing.
Instead of just catching their annual quota of fish and dropping it off at the packing house, a few enterprising fishermen have created what are essentially “pick-your-own” red snapper operations.
They benefit, because their customers are willing to pay a better price than the buyers at the packing house would. The customers have a good time catching their dinner, and get very fresh fish, so they benefit, too.
And because the fish are counted against commercial catch shares, and not the angling catch limit, neither the angling public nor other commercial catch share holders are harmed.
Yes, a lot of strange things are happening down in the Gulf of Mexico these days.
But after taking a long, hard look at the “catch share fishing experience,” it seems that the strangest thing of all about it is that some folks believe that it’s wrong.