Thursday, June 8, 2017
GULF RED SNAPPER: COULD THE END OF THE BEGINNING BE AT HAND?
By any measure, red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico has become one of the most contentious, most polarized and most bitterly debated fisheries issues on any coast of the United States.
Most fishery debates see regulators pitted against harvesters challenging the need for new rules, or perhaps commercial and recreational fishermen, or users of different types of fishing gear, fighting about allocation.
Red snapper has included all of that and more, with commercial and recreational fishermen fighting over allocation, private boat anglers battling for-hires, recreational fishermen criticizing federal regulators, federal regulators in conflict with state regulators, conservation and angling organizations suing federal regulators over red snapper bycatch in commercial shrimp trawls, commercial fishermen suing the same federal regulators over recreational overharvest, and anglers attacking the conservation community for doing their jobs and trying to rebuild and conserve the red snapper stock.
In short, Gulf red snapper management has been a convoluted and sometimes seemingly insolvable mess, with too many people willing to take the easy road, and throw stones at the other parties, rather than doing the hard work of sitting down and talking through the issues in order to ultimately craft a solution that works for everyone.
For the past few years, management has been mired in litigation, proposed legislation and hyperbole.
In the past week, something new and completely unexpected was added.
Not a solution, you understand. That still lies far away.
But hope that people may be able to sit down and reach some kind of compromise, which will put down a marker that finally establishes a place where the road to a solution begins.
It started as a rumor, maybe a week ago, that somebody in Congress was going to do something to address the short recreational red snapper season in federal waters, which lasted just three days this year.
Then, a couple of days ago, someone e-mailed me an article from Louisiana Sportsman. It announced that
“LouisianaSportsman.com has learned negotiations are currently ongoing between the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. House of Representatives and the five Gulf states to potentially expand the just-concluded three-day 2017 recreational red snapper season in federal waters…
“According to an unnamed source with knowledge of the negotiations, all five Gulf states’ wildlife and fisheries commissions must unanimously agree on how the season expansion would work.”
According to Louisiana Sportsman, the parties are considering either a 27-day season, with fishing permitted only on Saturdays and Sundays (plus on the 3rd and 4th of July, which fall on Monday and Tuesday this year), which began on June 17 and ended on September 4; the same 27-day season, with the additional possibility of a fall season in state waters; or a 39-day season, with fishing on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, plus the 3rd and 4th of July, which began on June 16 and ended on September 4th, with no fall season in state waters allowed.
Most notably, the preliminary information indicates that, except for a possible fall season, there would not be any red snapper fishing in state waters when the federal waters are closed.
Any extended season would apply only to anglers fishing from private vessels; the season for federally-permitted for-hire boats would remain unchanged.
When I first read the Louisiana Sportsman article, I thought that it was a worthy effort, but doubted that Texas would go along. I just didn’t believe that Texas would be willing to shrink its 365-day state water season to just 39 days (more or less, depending on how long any fall season ran) in order to gain 24 days of fishing in federal waters.
That concern was echoed in an article that appeared on the website of Corpus Christi-based TV station KRIS, which announced the ongoing talks, but noted
“If extended, the longer federal season would open up more weekends this summer for recreational fishermen in to pursue red snapper in the deeper, often more plentiful federal waters—which begin nine miles from the shoreline. On the other hand, it may also threaten year-round access to fishing for red snapper in state waters off Texas.”
However, the State of Texas is actively involved in the talks, and seems to be making a good-faith effort to reach a solution agreeable to everyone. On June 7, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department issued a press release announcing that
“The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) will be seeking input during upcoming public meetings regarding the possibility of extending the federal recreational red snapper season…
“The options being considered would allow recreational anglers to fish for red snapper in federal and state waters on weekends only beginning the third weekend in June through Labor Day. However, with increased fishing days this summer in federal waters each Gulf state would be required to have closures in state waters during the weekdays this summer and possibly into the fall. Currently, Texas allows recreational anglers to fish for red snapper year around in state waters.”
That certainly sounds as if Texas state managers are willing to be a part of the solution, should the states and the Commerce Department reach agreement.
Again, there is hope.
There are also a few potential perils along the way.
First, all of the states have to agree on a single state and federal season. Given the apparent willingness of Texas, which would give up the most state-waters days, to reach an agreement, there’s a pretty high likelihood that the states, and hopefully the Commerce Department, will work something out.
If and when they do, anglers in each state will be given the opportunity to comment on the proposal. It’s difficult to predict what their reactions will be. Will Texas anglers be willing to give up 326 days of fishing in state waters in exchange for just 24 days of fishing farther offshore? If Texas anglers do go along, will anglers in any other state try to torpedo the agreement?
Finally, even if everyone buys into the program, there is still the hurdle of federal law.
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires federal fishery managers to prohibit overfishing for all federally-managed species, including red snapper; the court decision in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, handed down seventeen years ago, requires all fishery management measures to have at least a 50% chance of achieving their goals.
Can the Commerce Department demonstrate, using the best scientific information available, that there is at least a 50-50 chance that overfishing will not occur if the federal fishing season is extended?
If not, any such reopening will probably be met with a lawsuit, brought by either conservation or commercial fishing interests who wish to shield the red snapper stock from recreational overharvest.
But if a reopening is supported by adequate data, it will represent a big step forward, and one that should be actively hoped for and supported by everyone concerned with the health of the red snapper population.
Agreeing to bring state and federal red snapper seasons back into harmony would only be a first step; there would still be a long way to go before state and federal managers could return to a consistent, comprehensive and effective plan to manage the recreational red snapper fishery throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet, assuming that an agreement on seasons is reached, we might want to remember the words of Winston Churchill who said
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
And that, in itself, is a good thing, for beginnings are perilous times.
By putting the chaotic beginning of the red snapper debate behind them and moving forward, state and federal managers would be taking a big step toward a real end that will benefit everyone—including the red snapper stock.