June 26, 2013: One week after the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council) agreed to push back a decision on new quota recommendations in the red snapper fishery until July 17, the House Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a full oversight hearing Thursday on The Management of Red Snapper in the Gulf of Mexico under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act

According to Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) executive director Jim Donofrio, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery has quickly become the new poster child for federal mismanagement of our recreational fisheries, with ‘sea barons’ and ‘rackateers’ arriving in DC to make a play for our public resources.

“We’ve watched the recreational fishing industry virtually implode in recent years because of lost access to healthy, rebuilt fisheries like summer flounder and scup, it stands to reason a fishery like red snapper that’s still on the positive rebuilding trend would cause similar devastation,” Donofrio said.  “Congress was so bent on protecting fish with the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens in 2006 that they gave no thought to how recreational anglers would be forced to deal with growing fish populations.” 

As RFA pointed out in June of 2012 when NOAA Fisheries officially declared overfishing of red snapper had ended, as the population of red snapper grows and the fish get bigger, recreational fishermen are catching their quota faster which results in shorter seasons. 

“Responsible resource management has been replaced by a complex set of contradictory constraints and arbitrary rules, all thanks to an act of Congress,” Donofrio noted last year.

RFA is hopeful that Thursday’s hearing at 1324 Longworth House Office Building in Washington could help expose more of the hypocrisies of federal fisheries management.  Expected to testify in DC on Thursday at the 10 a.m. hearing is RFA member Pam Anderson of Anderson’s Marina in Panama City, FL, who says annual catch limits and accountability measures written into the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization “have crushed the industry, causing confrontations between the commercial industry, the for-hire industry and the private anglers.” 

Anderson is also expected to tell Members of Congress how various privatization schemes and days-at-sea concepts are fracturing the recreational community while also seeking support for a “constant catch” strategy to help deal with the ‘yo-yo’ effect of annual red snapper management.

RFA-FL representative Capt. Buddy Bradham attended last week’s Council meeting in Pensacola, FL and said keeping a three-year standard in place for seasonal red snapper would be helpful for the recreational industry.  “If this is not done then we will have less days over the 3 years with the ABC (annual biological catch) set now at 13.5 million pounds for 2013, 11.9 million pounds for 2014 and 10.5 million pounds for 2015,” Bradham said.  “With this change the ABC will be set around 11.7 million pounds for all 3 years so the same number of days will be set.”

Bradham said the Council has asked the Science and Statistical Committee (SSC) to work with the varying degrees of allowable harvest over each of the three years to see what an average ABC would look like.  The Gulf Council’s Reef Fish Committee asked for adoption of 11 million pounds as the new combined recreational and commercial quota for 2013 to allow for scientific and management buffers to prevent overfishing at the 13.5-million-pound level.

“A problem I see coming up now is anything below 13.5 million pounds will already have a buffer in it, but they are still looking at adding more buffer just not sure what percentage they’ll use,” Bradham said, explaining how the Council is expected to vote on future fishing days and available quota in July in New Orleans. 

The Gulf Council is also closer to approving a regional management plan for red snapper similar to the way that summer flounder is managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council whereby each state gets its own percentage allocation.  This is an issue expected to be addressed in the House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday with legislation pending which would mandate such a plan.

“The regional management plan is moving forward with letters coming from all five states that they would approve it or at least take a closer look at it when more is known,” Capt. Bradham added, while further explaining that the Council voted to place a recreational data plan on hold to “see what states do with regional management since they will be responsible for the data if it is put in place.”

RFA is hopeful that Congress will pick up on this particular inconsistency between recreational data collection requirements and the move to regional management.

“NOAA Fisheries told members of the Gulf Council that if regional or state-by-state allocation of red snapper is initiated then the states themselves will be responsible for their own recreational data collection which is untrue,” said RFA managing director Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  “When I heard NOAA Fisheries making this sensational claim before the Gulf Council at their April meeting, I nearly fell off my chair.”

At the April hearing in Gulfport, MS, Hutchinson urged Gulf Council members to react to the federal fisheries service with defiance based on the government’s inability to meet the 2006 requirements under federal law.  “The Magnuson Stevens Act required very specific changes in the way recreational data collection was handled by NOAA Fisheries, including use of license and registry data as a universe of anglers, coupled with federal charter boat trip reports and even a weather corrective mechanism to factor bad weather days out of their datasets, but none of this has been accomplished,” Hutchinson said.

“If the federal government can’t meet their own required deadlines as per Magnuson Stevens in 2007, then the just and fair thing to do is to return to our 2007 Gulf of Mexico fisheries regulations with a 194-day season and two-fish Gulf-wide limit,” Hutchinson said in April.  “If NOAA Fisheries wants to challenge that argument, let that debate occur in Washington DC before members of Congress.”

Members of the RFA are hoping that congressional debate will kick into gear on Thursday. 

“The time is now to revise Magnuson to repair the damage done to our Gulf coastal fisheries, fishermen, and economies due to the concerted push to privatize our Public Trust Resources by certain environmental corporations,” said RFA-TX’ Captain Tom Hilton, explaining how the red snapper ‘catch share’ program has been unscrupulously manipulated by permit holders to make money on closed recreational fishing opportunities.

Capt. Hilton said it’s time to “prohibit the use of catch shares/IFQs in recreational fisheries,” and said that forcing commercial fishermen to lease allowable quota directly from the government (as opposed to other fishermen) would “rectify the current situation where, for some odd reason, commercial red snapper fishermen are exempt from paying anything to the nation for the privilege of harvesting our Public Trust Resource as other industries such as timber, grazing, and oil companies are required to pay.  It’s a double slap to the face of every single American.”

The red snapper individual fishing quota (IFQ) program is currently up for its 5-year review by the Council, and many anglers are concerned about the push by permit holders interested only in subletting unused harvest at a profit to non-permit holders currently shut out of the fishery.  The concept of inter-sector trading between the commercial and recreational sector was tabled last week by Council members until a future meeting in Texas, but previous commercial testimony by many IFQ owners favors the plan.

“When you have some of the commercial fishermen in the Gulf claiming to not have enough quota to meet consumer demand for red snapper in the United States, yet they’re chomping at the bit to lease their shares to recreational fishermen at profit, all while shorting the market of red snapper and driving prices up, that’s what we call racketeering,” said Jim Donofrio.  “I would hope this isn’t lost on Members of Congress at the hearing on Thursday, these sea barons are only concerned with maximizing profit on what used to be a public resource.”