Learning Lessons from Red Snapper and HR 3094

Photo: Red Snapper in the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, by Greg McFall/NOAA

Photo: Red Snapper in Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, by Greg McFall/NOAA.

Out here on the West Coast, we’ve been watching the Gulf Coast red snapper management battle with a keen interest. It’s been an ugly one. Fishing sectors pitted against one another. Fundamental disagreements on whether management is necessary, let alone effective. And an overriding tension between pride of ownership and equitable division of resources.

Louisiana Representative Garret Graves’ H.R. 3094 is an expression of that conflict. The bill would relieve the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) of all of its authority and duty to manage the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery (under the MSA), and place that authority in the hands of a coordinated panel of Gulf states’ representatives. It recently passed the House Natural Resources Committee.

Supporters of the bill, generally the individual recreational fleet, believe they’ll have a more sympathetic audience before representatives of their states, which could result in increased access to those fish. Opponents, generally the commercial and commercial passenger fishing vessel (CPFV) fleets, argue that red snapper recovery from near-extinction is on course via the GMFMC’s administration of the fishery under the guidance of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).

Two themes run through the snapper battle that I’d like to pick apart in this post: the sector-on-sector conflict that is providing fuel for this fire, and the end-run around the MSA that by its very design destroys a critical aspect of why the MSA system was created.

These themes are universal, and it’s possible to see them playing out at just about every harbor and fishery management council in the U.S. But it’s important to recognize that the bigger threat than fighting over resource allocation, or the correct management venue, is the possibility that no fish exist at all.

One Fish, Two Fish, Our Fish, Your Fish

Probably every reader of this blog has experienced a battle for fish in a dimly lit conference room at some point in their recreational or professional fishing careers. What’s interesting is that this battle plays out under those fluorescent lights, at a hotel or conference center, a couple times a year — either at a regional fishery management council meeting, or at a state wildlife department proceeding.

Markedly, it’s not happening under a wide-open sky, with the wind blowing and the salt stinging. It used to be that way: you go out, you set gear, you harvest fish, and they’re yours.

The idea that it’s harvest and collection that converts fish from owner-less wildlife to personal property is an ancient concept. First-year law students read a case in property class about a hunter in pursuit of a fox. He chases the fox into a public space, where a passerby kills it and takes it home. The hunter sues the passerby, claiming that his pursuit of the fox rendered it his property. Basing its judgment on the Roman and middle age-era British common law, the Supreme Court of New York ruled in favor of the passerby, holding that only the possession of the wild fox bestowed a personal property right to it.

This is intuitive: pursuit doesn’t guarantee that the hunter ever would have actually succeeded in capturing the fox. The same is true of fish: ownership of a paper right to fish doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll ever catch those fish.

So in a property sense, it’s counter-intuitive that we’ve chosen to differentiate fishing sectors and make fishery allocations in office buildings, rather than letting effort and skill take their course at sea. But that change of course, from an unregulated fishery to providing rights of opportunity to differently situated fishing sectors, was undertaken for compelling reasons.

The first is equity. Fishermen don’t typically employ the same types of vessels, equipment, and technology across sectors. It makes sense that guys who go fishing every day to make their “bread and butter” would have more efficient operations than the casual fisherman or hobbyist. Providing the hobbyists a quantifiable piece of the pie levels that playing field.

The second is sustainability. To keep a sufficient biomass of fish available to all sectors, it goes without saying that stocks cannot be fished out of existence. So we differentiate sectors to achieve a balance in the type of effort exerted. Allocation between sectors is a function of total allowable catch that recognizes the need for equity in making available finite fishery resources. It’s a reflection of each sector’s relative impact on the species, and relative need for access within the constraints of capped resource extraction regime.

Unfortunately, the sector differentiation and allocation questions naturally leads to pitting those sectors against one another. This is a sad result given that the very purpose of differentiation and allocation is to ensure that everybody gets to fish into the future. In the face of changing ocean and climate, it’s stupefying that the sectors can’t come together within the established management framework to work on maximizing the total number of fish, rather than fighting over what few fish are available. What’s worse is that one sector wants to move out of the established framework — with its scientifically bounded, stakeholder-driven process — in an attempt to get more fish now.

Recreational, CPFV, and commercial sectors would all do well to recognize when they need to come together as fishermen to stave off a greater enemy. There are bigger fights to be had that demand our attention. We’d better be able to unite when the time comes.

MSAin’t Working for Them

The other phenomenon rearing its head in this battle for snapper is the practice of undermining the MSA. One group is discontent with the way the MSA process has been playing out in GMFMC’s management of red snapper. So rather than try to fix the problems, it wants essentially a do-over. And the group wants it on its terms.

This is why the MSA and the GMFMC exist: As a society, we saw a need to apply the brakes to the manner in which we were extracting our fishery resources. In developing a plan to do so, we agreed on several principles to guide execution of the plan. These include maximizing the public benefit of those resources, providing equitable access to those resources, making sure all stakeholders have a say in managing those resources, making sure our management choices are scientifically sound and will be effective in what they seek to accomplish, and making sure our fisheries are around to take advantage of in the future.

Those are some pretty basic, agreeable tenets that embody our American concepts of equity, democracy, and capitalism. The problem with getting rid of the MSA’s management process, as with H.R. 3094, is that we’re also abandoning those principles.

I get it. The MSA process is hard. It takes time. Participants have to listen to a lot of opinions they don’t like. Those fluorescent lights and hotel rooms get pretty annoying after a time. The results don’t always go the way you’d hoped.

But simply throwing in the towel on those principles isn’t the way to govern. It’s lazy, it’s anti-democratic, and it doesn’t necessarily strive to achieve a lasting, sustainable fishery.

We all agree we have to manage the red snapper fishery — if not, H.R. 3094 supporters would have pressed for a bill simply exempting red snapper from MSA’s purview. So why not try to improve the MSA process, rather than abandoning it and dumping it off on a set of entities lacking the experience, resources, or expertise to manage a natural system as complicated as a fishery?

Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

The Future

This penchant for managing American fisheries outside of MSA has the potential to gain dangerous momentum, and set a national precedent. I expect we’ll see it in several forms, including creating parallel management regimes or utilizing non-fishing statutes to curtail fishing. This latter tactic is particularly nefarious, as it simply pulls the rug out from under us, without any recourse to the established system.

Compound that with classic divide-and-conquer strategy of pitting one group of fishermen against another as old as conflict itself, and you’ve got a recipe for closures.

The fishing community better be on the lookout for those threats. And it had better be able to put the past in the past when they come up. I recognize how important allocation fights are in the here and now. But more importantly, you need something to allocate.

About Tim Sloane

Tim Sloane is executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources

4 comments on “Learning Lessons from Red Snapper and HR 3094

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