In late January, I had the pleasure of attending my first meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. The meeting, held Jan. 25-28 in Orange Beach, Alabama, drew hundreds of anglers and other concerned citizens and stakeholders from across the Gulf.
On the agenda were important fishery issues, such as electronic reporting for for-hire vessels, the shrimp permit moratorium, and regional management for recreational red snapper. The latter is getting a lot of attention thanks to an impassioned plea for the council to convene an advisory panel (AP) made up of a wide, diverse range of private recreational anglers, but more on that later. First, I want to give you a taste of what it was like to attend the council meeting.
As a journalist, I’ve done my time, so to speak, covering public meetings. Whether it’s the school board, town council, county commissioners, or some other group, tedium is to be expected. These bodies deal with important issues, but the process of arriving at decisions can be excruciating. When I walked into the meeting of the Fishery Management Council, a distinct feeling of déjà vu washed over me. There sat the council members, at long tables draped in white tablecloths festooned with laptops and pitchers of water. The room itself was about half full. I’d arrived toward the tail end of the lunch break, before the public comment time was set to begin. As a meeting organizer announced the end of lunch and moved to close the doors, the room quickly filled up. In fact, it was standing room only. It became clear to me that this public meeting was going to be different.
I had traveled to Orange Beach to add my two cents’ worth, via a three-minute public comment, to the discussion about convening a private recreational AP. Turns out, I was one of dozens and dozens of people who wanted to address the council regarding Reef Fish Amendment 39 — Regional Management of Recreational Red Snapper — as well as other issues affecting both recreational and commercial fishermen.
After registering on the list of attendees who wanted to make a public comment, I settled into my chair to wait my turn. A colleague with whom I’d traveled with predicted the public comment period would be brief — maybe “four or five other speakers,” he reckoned. Boy, was he wrong. And you know what? I’m glad he was. Even though I had to sit there for hours, waiting to oh-so-briefly address the council after traveling nearly 500 miles, I learned a lot. As I listened to angler after angler hurl their ideas, support, opposition, hopes, dreams, grievances, and disappointments at the council, I got to do what most people do when discussing politics and public policy — put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Listening to all of these speakers, who’d taken valuable time away from their personal lives and businesses, I could understand the issues from all sides. I could hear how important fisheries management is to the people of the Gulf States. I could see, albeit for a very short time, what life is like for the people who earn their livelihood at sea.
Their voices were not the voices of politicians, lobbyists, or disgruntled businessmen with an axe to grind. Their voices spoke to real issues affecting their quality of life, as well as the quality and sustainability of the Gulf’s fisheries. Although I don’t have the space here to even get to the tip of the iceberg of the myriad issues before the council, there is one I’d like to help shine a light on.
The fact that anyone, absolutely any organization, would block the possibility of convening a private recreational advisory panel just because they are afraid dissenting voices would be added to the mix is ludicrous, exactly as representatives from the recreational trade industry did. The fact that representatives from the recreational trade industry asked not convene the private rec AP is extremely problematic for the management system, but even more problematic due to the amount of chaos this injects into the council process. When trade industries engage, stating they represent the private recreational angler, does this mean that they are extending their mission by advocating for anglers rather than the industry they represent? From where I sit, the fact that they are advocating not to convene a private recreational AP creates chaos in the management system, in seasons, and ultimately for the businesses they state they represent. I do not know how this is good for the tackle and the boat industries, and I can assure this is not good for sustaining and promoting my access to the fishery.
I know I’m not alone when I say it’s important for all voices to be heard — and that’s why I’m advocating for the establishment of a private recreational AP to address the shortening red-snapper seasons in the Gulf. If you want to add your voice to the 150-plus who’ve already spoken up, click here.