Sunday, July 9, 2017


How can rationality sneak into an irrational debate?

In the midst of proclamations and posturing, of political showmanship and back-room deals that keep everyone’s eyes trained on the show in the front of the room, can a small door opens toward the rear of the hall, and a wisp of clear thinking slip through?  Moving softly though the darkness, remaining wrapped in shadows of others’ making, can it finds a place of its own, settle in, and perhaps find a way to prevail?.

If we take a look at what’s going on in Louisiana right now, with respect to red snapper, we might just see that sort of thing going on.

Down in the Gulf of Mexico, the angling press has been breathlessly reporting about the United States Commerce Department’s decision to extend the federal red snapper season for private-boat anglers.  Local politicians haven’t been any more restrained, heralding the extra 39 weekend fishing days and extolling their purported benefits.

“This major expansion of the federal red snapper season is great news for every community along Florida’s Gulf Coast.  The red snapper season helps drive our economy and this extension will allow families and visitors to take advantage of red snapper fishing opportunities during Father’s Day and Fourth of July weekends.  This will result in a greater economic impact for our Gulf Coast communities and I appreciate President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross for their partnership with Gulf Coast states.  I encourage every Floridian and visitor to get out on the water to enjoy Florida’s world-class fishing.”

“The red snapper fishery provides a major impact to Alabama’s economy.  Every day the federal season is open helps businesses in coastal Alabama.”
But some of the news coming out of Louisiana was just a little bit different. 

Louisiana’s Wildlife and Fisheries Commission voted in favor of an extension of the federal private-boat red snapper season.  However, unlike the other states, Louisiana wasn’t ready to leap head-first into a season-extension free-for-all.  

Instead, recognizing that the Gulf of Mexico wasn’t a sort of piscine cornucopia, capable of producing as many red snapper as needed to meet angler demand, Louisiana was intent on maintaining its self-imposed annual recreational catch limit of roughly 1.04 million pounds of red snapper.

The Times-Picayune noted that, if anglers’ red snapper catch rates were the same this year as they were in 2016, the season would end around July 16.  However, because landings got off to a slower start this year, largely due to bad weather, the season will last somewhat longer.  Exactly how long that would be is impossible to predict at this time.

The important thing is that Louisiana, unlike the other Gulf states, is has chosen to walk a more responsible path, limiting harvest to a level that it deems appropriate, and not allowing anglers to keep harvesting fish until the season ends.

Given that some non-governmental organizations have predicted that recreational harvest could exceed the 2017 recreational catch limit by as much as seven million pounds, which would cause the combined recreational and commercial landings to exceed the 2017 overfishing limit by about 50%, Louisiana’s restraint is both noteworthy and commendable.

Couple that restraint with Louisiana’s recently-proposed pilot program to give anglers a set number of red snapper that they could catch at any time during the year—potentially eliminating the problem of short seasons for all time—and it becomes clear that there is a lot of real thinking going on down in the Sportsman’s Paradise these days.

Of course, such thinking isn’t prized in an environment where emotion, loud voices and alternative facts dominate the landscape, so the champions of irrationality quickly attacked that pilot program.  A representative of the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, said that the trade group was

“deeply concerned with the long term ramifications of the pilot program,”
which it saw as

“the first step toward creating a harvest tag program for red snapper.”
The ASA representative, however, never explained why, in a fishery long plagued by insufficiently constrained recreational landings and chronic recreational overharvest, such a tag program would not be a positive development.

The Louisiana chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association also opposed the plan, seeming most upset by the fact that Louisiana fishery managers were thinking for themselves and coming up with innovative ideas, rather than letting CCA lead them about by the nose.  

“While the proposed pilot program itself is full of problems, and should be immediately withdrawn, it was the way it was developed in secret and announced by surprise that is more disappointing.  CCA, the Louisiana charter industry and anglers from around Louisiana have worked in good faith to rebuild and repair our relationship with the department.  The inexplicable breach of trust, unfortunately, is an enormous step backwards.”
Despite such complaints, there is little doubt that Louisiana is the most forward-thinking Gulf state with respect to red snapper management. 

The National Academy of Sciences recognized, in its recent review of the Marine Recreational Information Program, used to estimate anglers’ landings, the need for

“survey methodologies and approaches for estimating catch and effort for Gulf red snapper, a fishery characterized by short federal fishing seasons…that is unlikely to be properly sampled by the standard MRIP protocols.”
Aware of the shortcomings of both MRIP and its predecessor, the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistics Survey, in such circumstances, Louisiana developed its own sampling methodology, LA Creel, which it has used since 2013 to estimate landings of red snapper and other species.  

The National Academy’s report noted that Louisiana has applied to have LA Creel certified as part of MRIP, and that

“The objective is to make sure that LA Creel data are compatible with MRIP and other regional data for stock assessment and management purposes.”
That puts Louisiana a big step ahead of other Gulf states, most particularly Texas, which does not take part in MRIP but instead relies on an archaic survey that the National Academy report viewed with a jaundiced eye, saying that,

“based on a presentation to the committee about the survey as well as discussions with regional partners and stakeholders it is questionable whether the estimates produced by Texas are comparable to MRIP.  At the very least, it is highly advisable that the Texas survey be reviewed by an independent review panel so its applicability to regional fisheries assessment and management can be objectively assessed.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Texas is also the state most out of compliance with federal red snapper management, maintaining no season at all, a bag limit of 4 fish compared to the federal 2-fish bag, and a size limit of just 15 inches, one inch less than the federal limit.

So with all things considered, it seems that Louisiana may well be responsible for opening the door and letting rationality sneak into the Gulf red snapper debate.

Even so, that rationality hasn’t played too much of a role so far.  The season extension has probably made recreational overharvest a more intractable problem than it ever has been before, and one that could bring the whole management system down on the heads of the rational and irrational alike.

But don’t count rationality out just yet.  Now that Louisiana has quietly opened the door, it still has a chance to prevail.

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