Thursday, May 18, 2017
STATE RED SNAPPER RULES ENCOURAGE ILLEGAL HARVEST
About a year ago, my wife and I had a chance to do some red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. I had been invited to a conference of outdoor writers who specialize in fisheries conservation issues, and Theresa had flown down to Texas with me; after the conference ended, Capt. Scott Hickman invited us to join two other attendees for a fishing trip in the Gulf.
Throughout the weeks leading up to the conference, coastal Texas had been raked by a series of severe thunderstorms. Houston, just a few dozen miles from where we were staying, had experienced significant flooding. However, as our boat passed between the jetties at Galveston, the sun was bright in the sky, and only a long swell from the southeast marked the surface of the open Gulf.
And that was a good thing, because we were going to have to run more than thirty miles to find some reasonably productive bottom.
Texas state waters extend out nine nautical miles from shore. In those waters, anglers may harvest four red snapper per day (two more than federal rules allow), the minimum size is 15 inches (an inch less than the limit in federal waters) and there is no closed season at all (giving anglers 362 more days to fish for red snapper than they have in federal waters this year, and 356 more days than they had last year).
That gives Texas anglers a lot of access to a limited resource that, when all is said and done, is pretty easy to catch. Red snapper tend to aggregate over hard bottom, making them easy to find, and they’re not exactly finicky eaters; drop a reasonably appropriate bait—say, a whole, fresh menhaden—in front of their nose, and the odds are overwhelmingly good that they’re going to eat it.
Mix high levels of angling pressure with an easy-to-catch fish, and you end up with a lot of empty pieces of structure. That seems to be what happened off Galveston, although I’ve been told that the inshore fishing has held up a bit better farther south along the Texas coast.
Mix largely empty state waters with a year-long state season, add an abundance of snapper in federal waters where more stringent regulations prevail, and you end up with a lot of unprincipled anglers crossing the line, figuring that a fast boat and a dearth of enforcement personnel probably means that they can poach fish during the closed federal season and make it back into state waters undetected. At that point the fish will appear to be legal, state-waters catches, and the angler survives to poach another day.
You also end up with a lot of empty bottom even in federal waters that lie close to shore, where boats can easily slip across the state boundary, poach their state limit of snapper, then make it back to state waters within thirty minutes after hauling their anchor aboard.
Although I fished out of Texas, which has the most outrageously liberal red snapper regulations on the entire Gulf Coast, similar situations exist, on a lesser scale, throughout the region, as every state there has gone out of compliance with the federal regulations. I’m in regular touch with a charter boat captain from Alabama, who tells me that there is so much pressure on the inshore reefs and hard bottom that every year, he has to run a few miles farther to find reasonably quantities of decent-sized fish.
Now, a new announcement from the National Marine Fisheries Service shows that federal fisheries managers are very aware of the problem.
The announcement makes it clear that federal enforcement agents will be targeting poachers who enter closed federal waters to catch their “state” limits of red snapper, opening with the statement that
“In order to better protect the red snapper fish stocks in the Southeast, NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, alongside other state and federal natural resource enforcement agencies, will continue to conduct increased enforcement efforts focused on the commercial and recreational red snapper fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic.
“’We’ve been working closely with our state partners to patrol the Gulf waters and ensure compliance with the state and federal fishing regulations with the goal of better protecting red snapper stocks,’ said Manny Antonaras, deputy special agent in charge of NOAA Enforcement’s Southeast Division. ‘We make every effort to educate the public on the rules and regulations governing the various red snapper seasons; it’s a hot topic and a high priority for us.’”
Because the problem of red snapper poaching in federal waters has grown so large, NOAA Enforcement agents
“conducted hundreds of patrols and red snapper focused operations in the Gulf and South Atlantic”
Unfortunately, such patrols met with quite a bit of success.
“Last year’s red snapper-focused enforcement activities resulted in NOAA Enforcement taking an enforcement action on more than 120 separate violations, with most occurring when the federal season was closed. The significant level of willful non-compliance with federal regulations is not only unfair to the vast majority of fishers who abide by the rules, but indicates that those who choose to violate the law have been undeterred by the financial penalty currently being imposed for violations. In response, the NOAA Office of General Counsel has doubled the penalty for red snapper violations in the commercial and recreational fisheries this season.”
Fishermen who are caught taking red snapper from federal waters during the closed season will now be faced with a fine of $500, plus $50 per fish (up to 20 fish; after that, fines increase substantially).
It’s nice to know that poachers will pay more, if they get caught. However, the odds of getting caught remain depressingly low—so low that the fine, if spread out over all of the trips a poaching angler made without being detected, will probably be far less than the cost of bait, fuel and other expenses typically incurred, which hardly makes such fine a deterrent.
Moreover, when anglers who play by the rules, and catch relatively few red snapper as a result, see fishermen in other boats consistently coming back with good, if illegal, hauls of fish poached in federal waters, but paying no price for their transgressions, the so-far compliant anglers will also be tempted to cross the line in order to bring home more fish.
Thus, while bigger fines are better than nothing, the real answer to curtailing recreational red snapper poaching in federal waters is ending the states’ propensity to establish seasons that do not comply to those established by NMFS.
So long as the states leave the door open to poaching with seasons that legitimize poachers’ catches as soon as they’re back in state waters, some anglers will always be willing to cross the line, and too many others will be tempted to emulate the poachers who, trip after trip, keep getting away with breaking the law.
Until the states stop enabling poachers in that way, ending recreational overfishing and increasing the length of the federal red snapper season will always remain unattainable goals.