July 2, 2013 – The House Natural Resources Committee met in Washington DC on Thursday, June 27th to address red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico with one word spoken more than just about any other except ‘snapper’ itself and that’s flexibility!

The first witness panel included members of state and federal agencies responsible for managing coastal fisheries, with a second panel consisting of coastal stakeholders which included both commercial and recreational fishing interests.  When questioned, the majority of witnesses from both panels agreed that they needed help from Congress in securing additional ‘flexibility’ in the federal fisheries law.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) said commercial witnesses actually were fairly hostile towards recreational anglers, casting blame for anglers consistently going over quota while also asking Congress to take a more hard-line approach towards angler access in the Gulf of Mexico to reduce fishing participation. One particular holder of an individual fishing quota of red snapper (or catch share) even promoted a pilot program within the charter and for-hire industry in which permits to fish for red snapper would be granted to a small percentage of charter boats in the Gulf region.

Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL), a member of the House Natural Resources Committee and an avid red snapper angler himself, raised the question that if 20 charter boats are granted their own individual fishing quota but another 60 are not, how that could possibly be a reasonable solution to the ongoing problem with red snapper management in the Gulf.

“It seems like this is a program that picks and chooses winners,” he said. “Clearly the 60 that aren’t in the program would agree that they’re not fortunate enough to go out and work.”

The so-called Exempted Fishing Permit program (EFP) is a catch share program for recreational fishermen which is widely supported, endorsed and even designed by groups like Environmental Defense Fund.  While environmentalists spend money trying to tie up the red snapper resource in owned leases and tags, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council received more than 4,000 public comments regarding a catch share and sector separation scheme, with 95% of respondents in opposition to the plan.

“That’s where the support for management flexibility ends, whenever a witness has been asked to testify before Congress who actually holds ownership in a fish stock through an assigned catch share,” said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio.  “The folks who own shares or are getting Environmental Defense Fund funding don’t want any management flexibility which would allow others to access the fish.  Mr. Southerland nailed it again, and RFA praises those Committee members who yielded time to the Congressman from Florida who has proven to be a champion of open access American fisheries and the fishermen themselves.”

On the other hand, House Natural Resources Committee member Gregorio Sablan, a democrat from the Northern Mariana Islands, disagreed with the majority view of Gulf of Mexico anglers, criticizing open access in the recreational fishing community while supporting further privatizing of red snapper through recreational catch shares and fish tags.  “The concept of inter-sector trading of red snapper quota between commercial and recreational fishermen has the potential to create opportunities,” Sablan said.

In his opening remarks however, Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) cast much of the blame for the red snapper problems squarely at the federal government’s feet, specifically NOAA Fisheries for using questionable data to set the recreational fishing seasons.  “The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires sound scientific information to be effective and it requires that stakeholders buy into that information. In the case of red snapper, that does not seem to be the case,” Hastings said.

“Red snapper is one of the most valuable fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, yet the management of the recreational sector of the fishery has not provided the flexibility for States and communities to maximize the economic value for the charter sector, the weekend angler, or the coastal communities,” Chairman Hastings added.

Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) was invited to sit in on the Committee hearing on behalf of his coastal constituents and noted that he, like Southerland, is an avid saltwater angler with an “extreme passion” for the sport.

“Now that it’s been cut to 28 days it’s one of those things I won’t get to do this year, not for snapper anyway,” Scott said, criticizing NOAA specifically for failing to meet its commitment to the fishing community and misrepresenting their intentions with the fisheries restrictions.  “One boat dealer in Georgia went from selling $15 million a year worth of offshore boats before you changed your rules to about $3 million,” Scott said, adding “he went from 15 employees to where nobody other than the family and one mechanic works there.”

“What you did hurt the economy in these states,” Scott added.

RFA’s Donofrio said NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Department of Commerce should take much of the blame for failing to meet congressional deadlines for data collection improvements in the recreational sector and for their inability to provide adequate stock assessments, but he explained that the rules which have been affecting coastal anglers since 2007 have come from Congress.

“Before the ink was dry on the 2007 reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens, RFA was lobbying hard for legislative amendments to the law to address the arbitrary rebuilding deadlines built into the law, in addition to the punitive double-jeopardy restrictions for the recreational community,” he said.  “Regrettably from 2007 to 2009 we couldn’t get Congress to foresee the train wreck coming from the environmental logic built into the law, and we all know the problems with Washington getting anything substantive accomplished since 2009.”

Following a pair of national rallies in DC in 2010 and 2012 in which key members of Congress made public pledges of support, RFA representatives have been attempting to circumvent some of the congressional gridlock by working the regional council process for seasonal improvements, but the wide scale economic loss that’s hit the recreational fishing industry in recent years is something that could’ve been avoided had Congress not been manipulated into supporting the environmentalist agenda in 2006.

“An ever shortening season [has] had a huge negative economic impact on our family owned, small businesses,” said Herb Malone, President of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, explaining to the Committee how Alabama’s $600 million recreational fishing industry collapsed after 2007 when the spring red snapper season was eliminated and the season shrunk from 194 days to just 28.

“2006 was our most productive year in coastal recreational fishing,” Malone said, adding “over the next three years, from 2006-2009, we saw a 30% decline in the number of anglers, a 35% decline in charter trips, and a loss of 1,600 jobs.”

Pam Anderson of Anderson’s Marina in Panama City Beach, FL also put much of the blame on the way the Magnuson-Stevens Act was rewritten leading up to its official reauthorization in early 2007.  “Despite the good intentions of Congress to grow and maintain a healthy fishery, there have been significant unintended consequences with the 2007 Magnuson Act,” Anderson said.

“Though fishery managers have been slow and even derelict in updating stock assessments and catch surveys, make no mistake, all of the new Annual Catch Limits (ACLs) and Accountability Measures (AMs) of the 2007 Magnuson were put in place as quickly as they could implement them,” Anderson said, explaining how ACLs and AMs have crushed the recreational fishing industry.

“Everyone is trying to survive in their businesses and private anglers are trying to justify the expense of owning their own boats,” Anderson added.

Donofrio said a recent trade industry survey showed that more than 61% of the nation’s boat owners use their boats for fishing, a key indicator of economic activity – or inactivity – in the coastal community.  “Fishing is the most popular thing to do onboard for six out every 10 boaters, so if the government takes away their ability to fish on the Gulf of Mexico, they essentially take away the reason to buy a boat or keep it at the marina, which is precisely what Congress learned first-hand last week,” Donofrio added.