Thursday, September 15, 2016


That’s because it’s a dangerous and ill-conceived bill that would strip the National Marine Fisheries Service of its current authority to manage red snapper in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and transfer such authority to a panel of state officials, which would  not be bound by federal conservation and stock rebuilding mandates.

The bill is dangerous not only because it threatens to halt NMFS’ successful rebuilding of the red snapper stock, but also because it would set a precedent that could be used elsewhere on the coast, to strip federal managers of their authority to manage depleted stocks and turn such authority over to state managers more interested in short-term exploitation than in long-term sustainability, who would be likely to increase harvest beyond prudent levels.

H.R. 3094 is being pushed by a coalition which calls itself the Center for Coastal Conservation which is made up of various fishing tackle industry, boating industry and anglers’ rights organizations and, despite its strikingly inappropriate name, seems more concerned with wringing as much short-term profit and as many dead fish out of the Gulf red snapper population it can, rather than with conserving anything at all.

To that end, the Center and its component organizations have spent a lot of time and effort in attempting to weave the enticing illusion that federal fisheries management (despite its clear and documented successes) is incapable of properly managing fish stocks.  That illusion can be summed up by a statement issued by the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the Center’s component groups, which wrote

“Through their highly successful management of species such as red drum, speckled trout, snook and numerous others, the states have demonstrated that they can effectively manage fisheries for both sustainability and access.”
The trick to selling that illusion to the public is keeping them from looking at the facts, because when you start to do that, the pretty picture that the Center is trying to paint doesn’t just get a little hazy.  It falls completely apart.

One fact that the Center doesn’t want anyone thinking about is what state management of red snapper might cost.  Fisheries managers may disagree on many things, but they all know about budgets, and the fact that good science doesn’t come cheap.

Thus, it should surprise no one that Louisiana’s Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries, Charles Melancon, recently announced that his department would not be supporting H.R. 3094, because it wasn’t prepared to spend something close to $10,000,000 in a single year to manage a single species.

That didn’t go over well with Rep. Graves, who stated that there would be plenty of money around to manage the species (even though federal spending for red snapper management was specifically removed by his bill), but the fact that Mr. Melancon called Rep. Graves “Pinocchio” immediately afterwards made it clear what he thought of that statement.

Mr. Melancon’s concerns about cost were echoed in a rough calculation made by the Environmental Defense Fund, which found that state management of Gulf red snapper would cost the five states involved more than $100,000,000, spread out over a period of five years.  I only saw the report that EDF published, and not data behind the calculations themselves, so I can’t vouch for their accuracy.  However, if they’re even close to right, that’s a big price for the states to pay for a few more dead fish.

Maybe enough to get some states to change their minds.
Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to support H.R. 3094 at some point last year.  At a meeting held earlier this month, they took another look at that action.

I can’t find any news item that describes the proceedings, but people who attended the meeting report that the Commission expressed new concerns, not about the costs of management, but about the impacts that H.R. 3094 might have on Florida’s commercial and for-hire fisheries.  That’s not the sort of big U-turn that Louisiana, another former supporter, has made, but it does suggest that Florida is again re-evaluating the purported merits of the bill.

But the hammer that really shattered the illusion that the folks at the Center are trying to spin came, ironically, from one of the Center’s most influential members, the Coastal Conservation Association itself.

Remember that CCA boldly proclaimed that the Gulf states’ management of speckled trout was evidence that the states could also properly manage red snapper?

As it turns out, some of the Gulf states haven’t been managing their speckled trout stocks very well at all.  Mississippi has recently declared that its speckled trout are overfished, with a spawning potential ratio of just 10.2%, and has said that recreational landings would have to be cut in half in order to restore those stocks to health.

Louisiana’s speckled trout stocks are marginally worse off, with a spawning potential ratio of a mere 10%, although Louisiana seems to believe that’s good enough, and intends to take no action.

CCA’s Mississippi chapter is not happy about having overfished trout stocks.

“CCA Mississippi calls for action on speckled trout.  Anglers urge state managers to undo damaging regulations.  [emphasis added]”
It appears that state management of speckled trout might not be as good as CCA’s national propagandists would have us believe…

CCA Mississippi goes on to say

“A controversial decision to lower the minimum size limit for speckled trout to 13 inches eight years ago has resulted in exactly the kind of stock decline that recreational anglers feared at the time…the Mississippi chapter of Coastal Conservation Association is calling on the Commission on Marine Resources to reverse course and take the necessary steps to put the fishery back on solid footing.
“’Eight years ago, we were very much opposed when [state] mangers took an awfully risky position with its trout regulations and now that unfortunate decision has come home to roost,’ said F. J. Eicke, Chairman of CCA Mississippi’s Government Relations Committee.  ‘We’ve taken a giant step backwards with a resource that’s treasured by anglers, but now we have an opportunity to work with the states to set things right and we shouldn’t waste any more time.’
“…’At 13 inches it is clear that too many fish are being caught and kept before they have a chance to spawn even once.  If you remove fish before they can spawn, catastrophic declines are inevitable, ‘ said Eicke.  ‘Fortunately, trout can rebuild relatively quickly if state managers will put the proper conservation measures back in place.   They dug quite a hole for trout that we have to dig out of now…  [emphasis added]’”
So, while the leadership in CCA’s head office—and in the offices of the Center for Coastal Conservation and its other constituent organizations—are trying to sell legislators and anglers the illusion that state fishery managers are doing a good job managing fish populations, and should thus be trusted with the red snapper stock even in  federal waters, the folks out in the trenches—the CCA Mississippi angler/volunteers—are out on the front lines trying to protect their speckled trout from the state managers’ mistakes.

The words of CCA Mississippi ring clear and true: 

“Anglers urge state managers to undo damaging regulations.”
“The Mississippi Chapter of Coastal Conservation Association are calling on the Commission on Marine Resources to reverse course.”
“[State] managers took an awfully risky position with its trout regulations.”
“They dug quite a hole for trout that we have to dig out of now.”
Thus, it’s time for CCA’s national leadership to get their backsides out of those soft office chairs, and into the marshes of Mississippi (and Louisiana), so they can get a good, first-hand look at how an “awfully risky” state management approach has trashed a “treasured” inshore fish stock.

It’s time for them to stop trying to polish a tarnished and fatally shattered illusion. 

It’s time for them to admit that there is no reason to believe that Mississippi won’t manage red snapper just as badly as they have managed speckled trout, taking an “awfully risky position” that would have been illegal had they, like their federal counterparts, been bound to the conservation and rebuilding mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

It is time for CCA, the Center for Coastal Conservation and all of its constituent groups, such as the American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, to admit that when they tried to sell legislators and anglers the illusion that states managed fish better than federal managers, they were trying to sell a bright and shining lie that, if believed, might have increased the red snapper kill—and the profits of folks belonging to ASA and NMMA—in the short term, but put the snapper’s future in real and immediate peril.

For if we want to know how the states would really manage red snapper, we just have to look at Mississippi’s speckled trout.

That pretty much says it all.

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