Thursday, May 18, 2017


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”
last year.

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. 


  1. Mr. Witek - it seems you got it backwards; Needlessly draconian FEDERAL regulations encourage illegal harvest. Do you remember from your history books what happened when an ideological minority inflicted their agenda into law via the 18th Amendment (Prohibition)? Did it stop people from drinking? No. Was it successful in turning average Americans into outlaws? Yes. Did it spawn the largest organized crime syndicate in our nation's history? Yes. That is what we are facing today since our federal fisheries managers have allowed a small ideological minority (The Environmentla Defense Fund, Ocean Conservancy, PEW and others) to inflict their agenda into law via the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson. Our federal fisheries managers have resurrected failed, illegal management policies from the past; Segregation, Discrimination, and yes Prohibition. Let's call it like it is instead of your usual paid-for enviro propaganda Mr. Witek You are a freelance journalist, correct? who pays for these propaganda pieces that spout the enviro line Mr. Witek?

    1. Let's address your last point first. Yes, I am a freelance writer. However, except in those cases where I note that a blog post is a reprint from another outlet (which paid for my work), NO ONE pays me for what appears on this site. I write One Angler's Voyage simply because I have been an active angler for all of my life, gained great enjoyment from the process, and want future generations to have a chance to experience the same joys that I have. For that reason, I've been involved in fisheries conservation efforts for a very long time. I was a member of the Coastal Conservation Association's national executive board for 17 years, and a member of its Government Relations Committee (and vice chairman thereof) for as long as such position existed, until I resigned in 2013 after CCA abandoned its conservation heritage in favor of an "anglers' rights" agenda. Bottom line is that about 2 posts each month are reprints of pieces that I was paid for elsewhere, and at the end of those you can find a link to the original site. The rest, including this post, are done for no compensation at all.

      So unless you see that link, see something I'm written in a publication or on another's website, or can produce a nonexistent check, perhaps you shouldn't be talking about my getting paid by anyone. If you do, you're a damned liar.

      Your comparison to Prohibition is not apt. Consumption of alcohol does not involve a public resource, but is merely a series of private transactions. If you're looking for comparisons, you would be closer if you looked at the adoption of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which wasn't too popular with a certain segment of the hunting community when it was passed. So some hunters decided to shoot ducks and geese out of season, shot over limit, etc.

      Such illegal waterfowlers are the philosophical counterparts of today's red snapper poachers; they belong in the same basket as the folks who jacklight deer, shoot game from the window of their pickup, etc. They're people who want to do something illegal, and do it regardless of laws put in place to protect the health of the resource involved and protect it for the benefit of hunters and anglers yet unborn.

      We should call them what they are. Not anglers, recreational fishermen or any kind of sportsmen, but poachers, game thieves, lawbreakers, violators, scumbags--well, you get the idea.

      As Americans, we all have a right to try to change a law, but until it is changed, anyone who breaks it should end up in a courtroom, in front of a judge. Getting them there would be a lot easier if state seasons didn't provide cover to federal lawbreakers, and to the extent that states are knowingly giving such poachers cover, they should feel some level of shame.

  2. Mr. Witek, well, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, flies like a mater how much that duck wants to deny it, it is a duck.

    Your many, many articles spouting the virtues of the privatization of our fisheries and reposted by the EDF shills are constant reminders of what is wrong with our fisheries management today. In fact, these EDF front groups; The Charter Fishermans Association, The Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, Gulf Seafood Institute, all formed/funded by EDF or other enviro, anti-fishing organizations are designed to deceive people into thinking that this is a grassroots initiative. It's quite the opposite - it's called "astroturfing".

    My personal belief is that your "free" blog rants are also a form of astroturfing, but I may be mistaken. You may just be an anti-fishing zealot bent upon destroying our fishing heritage and future.

    No Sir, PROHIBITION is quite apt here. It's when the federal government PROHIBITS an activity that it deems improper or immoral. Currently, American recreational anglers are PROHIBITED from accessing what we ALL own 99.5% of the year simply because we are not paying a service to access it. Much like our federal highway system, built with our taxpayer dollars, belong to ALL Americans, as do the fish that swim in our federal waters. Our current federal fisheries management is akin to the federal government mandating that if you drive your own car, you are prohibited from using our federal highway system all year, excepting June 1-3. They want us to use our state roads the other 362 days. However, if we opt to pay a taxi service, we can use our highways for 49 days and if we own our own commercial truck we can use our federal highways 365 DAYS PER YEAR! I know, hard to fathom the stupidity of the situation, but that is EXACTLY where we are at today.

    I am not advocating that ANYONE break the law, but I am responding to your enviro-scripted propaganda laying the blame at the feet of the states when in reality the blame rests solely with our federal fisheries management which has been corrupted and broken beyond repair.

    It's beyond to time to delegate the management of our fisheries (both recreational and commercial) to the states where they actually know what they are doing. The states' mission statement is to provide access to our resources for our citizens - NOT reserve our resources for the exclusive use of corporations. I am proud of our Gulf states for standing up to this mafia-style hostile takeover of OUR fisheries.