Sunday, June 11, 2017


Over the last ten days or so, I have written about the first rays of light to shine on recreational red snapper management in a very long time.  One was a Louisiana proposal that had the potential to provide anglers with a year-round federal waters fishery without overfishing the red snapper stock.  The other was a potential compromise that would extend the 2017 federal red snapper season by bringing state seasons into harmony with federal rules.

Unfortunately, we may see that ray stifled by another dark cloud.

That cloud has a name.  It’s the “Regionally Empowered Decision-making for Snapper, Noting the Angling Public and the Preservation of an Exceptional Resource Act,” which will more commonly be referred to by its non-coincidental acronym, the “RED SNAPPER Act.”

The Act is being brought to us by the same Congressman, Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) who, in the last session of Congress, introduced the world to H.R. 3094, the so-called “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act,” which would have stripped the federal government of its ability to manage red snapper, and handed all management jurisdiction over to a new authority composed of representatives from the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

With H.R. 3094’s chances for passage so very, very slim, Rep. Graves appears to have abandoned the idea of a multistate management authority, at least for now, in favor of the RED SNAPPER Act, which has a narrower focus, but perhaps just as large an impact.

The RED SNAPPER Act is new legislation, so new that it hasn’t yet been assigned a bill number.  The copy that fell into my hands is dated May 30, 2017, and may or may not be the final version of the bill.  

I have not been able to find any press releases on the bill, nor any references to it on Rep. Graves website, although a draft information sheet and other documents that I received along with the bill again suggest that a public announcement is imminent.

At any rate, the RED SNAPPER Act is intended to only address the recreational, private-boat red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.  Language in the bill provides that

“The allocation of red snapper, and the duration of the red snapper fishing season—
(A)    for the commercial sector in the Gulf of Mexico shall be the same as the allocation and duration, respectively, that applied for the most recent fishing year; and
(B)   for the charter fishing sector in the Gulf of Mexico may not be less than the allocation and duration that applied to such sector for the most recent fishing year.”
The bill also provides that

“Nothing in this section may be construed to alter—
(1)    any commercial catch share programs for Gulf of Mexico red snapper; [or]
(2)    any Federal programs related to charter fishing…”
By including such language, the RED SNAPPER Act eliminates some of the objections to H.R. 3094, which were that one or more states, pressured by a strong and well-financed recreational fishing lobby, would reduce the percentage of red snapper allotted to the commercial sector; eliminate so-called “sector separation,” which reserved a share of the recreational catch limit for federally-permitted charter and party boats; or eliminate the commercial catch-share system that allows each commercial vessel to harvest a set proportion of the commercial catch limit.  

All three of those issues were strongly opposed by the recreational industry and the anglers' rights crowd.  By eliminating such bones of contention, Congressman Graves apparently hoped that the RED SNAPPER Act would face less opposition and have a better chance of passage than did H.R. 3094.

However, while the RED SNAPPER Act would not directly impact the commercial or charter/party boat fisheries, its provisions, if enacted, would certainly make such fisheries, along with the red snapper itself, victims of severe collateral damage, as the real-world impacts of the bill could not be limited to the private-boat recreational sector.

While the RED SNAPPER Act wouldn’t turn all authority to manage red snapper over to the states, it would give the five Gulf states the authority to manage red snapper not only in their own waters, but also inside

“a continuous line [drawn by the Department of Commerce and maintained on its website] in waters of the exclusive economic zone the Gulf of Mexico along the coasts of the Gulf states, that is comprised of points that are, on average,  25 fathoms in depth…
“No point on such continuous line shall be less than 25 miles from shore.”
Boundaries used to demark each state’s area of authority in federal waters would be the same boundaries used in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

In 2018 and 2019, the private-boat recreational red snapper seasons set by the states could not be longer than 50 days; from 2020-2024, such season could be as long as 180 days.
Given that, in 2017, the season in such waters was a mere 3 days, that suggests that a lot more red snapper would be removed from the population should the RED SNAPPER Act be adopted.  Such higher level of removals would certainly reduce the number of red snapper available to both commercial fishermen and charter and party boats, while slowing, and very possibly reversing, the stock’s current recovery.

That problem leads to the biggest ambiguity in the bill.  The RED SNAPPER Act states that

“In determining the season for the red snapper fishery…a Gulf State shall…to the extent practicable, be consistent with the national standards for fishery conservation set out in section 301 [of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act].”
Since National Standard 1 states that

“Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing, while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry,”
it would seem that the RED SNAPPER Act would no nothing to extend the private-boat season inside the proposed 25-fathom line, and thus serve no real purpose.

That conundrum, however, is addressed by the fact that it will be the states, not federal fisheries managers, who will decide when overfishing is taking place, and what the state of the red snapper population might be.  In making such determination, the states will be allowed to consider

“Data related to red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico collected by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, non-governmental organizations, and non-governmental sources, including fishermen, universities and research institutions.”
Given such broad discretion over the information used in their management programs, states will be able to base decisions on data of dubious quality, studies based on questionable methodology or which never faced rigorous peer review, and probably even anecdotal information, which will allow them to expand seasons while still arguing that no overfishing is taking place.

The draft information sheet that I had a chance to read alleged that

“Longer recreational red snapper fishing seasons can be achieved while meeting conservation goals by setting a maximum distance from shore (25 miles) and a maximum depth at which the species can be recreationally harvested (25 fathoms).  The proposal empowers the states to set seasons within this new area by preserving the fishery by leaving the majority of the stock in areas outside the restrictions untouched.  For red snapper, this is particularly important as a significant portion of the brood stock lives on habitat in water deeper than 150 feet…”
A draft set of frequently asked questions that was also part of the document set that I received noted that

“Fishing red snapper in water less than 25 fathoms will continue the harvest of 2-7 year-old fish that has been seen in all sectors for the past 25 years.”
What it does not explain is why concentrating recreational landings on such small and minimally fecund red snapper is desirable.  Nor does it address a problem that anyone who fishes for structure-dependent species will quickly recognize—when a wreck or reef sees a lot of fishing pressure over an extended period of time, both the size and number of the fish available quickly dwindle.  Anyone who believes that the RED SNAPPER Act will maintain a healthy red snapper fishery is probably kidding themselves.

Instead, fishing will be good for the first few days of the season, but will begin to slide downhill a couple of weeks later. 

At that point, any kid who ever jumped over a fence to catch big largemouth out of a private pond can tell us what happens next—private boats will begin to slide over the 25-fathom line, to poach red snapper out of deeper waters, knowing that the few law enforcement resources available will render illegal harvest in the open Gulf a nearly undetectable crime.

The lack of law enforcement will also mean that the population of fish in waters deeper than 150 will be far from “untouched,” and that the protection that the RED SNAPPER Act will provide to the big, fecund fish found in such greater depths is somewhat illusory.

Thus, while the RED SNAPPER Act isn’t all bad—it leaves such successful management approaches as commercial catch shares and sector separation intact, and at least gives a nod to Magnuson-Stevens—it’s not likely to either end the red snapper debate or promote the red snapper’s recovery.

Such things can only happen when the recreational fishing industry and the anglers’ rights folks finally realize that, when it comes to conserving and rebuilding stocks—and assuring that we’ll have something to fish for well into the future--nothing works better than killing fewer fish today.

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