Recently, after a meeting in New Orleans that was held behind closed doors, the state fisheries managers of the Gulf states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) decided to dramatically increase the lengths of their state-water seasons for red snapper, effectively shortening the federal-water seasons for recreational anglers to 11 days. While increasing their seasons, the state managers devised a management system akin to the East Coast’s Atlantic striped bass management model, which shifts all management of the red snapper fishery from the federal management process to the states. The Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority, the system they devised, squelches any chance of the transparency inherent in the Magnuson-Steven Act’s stakeholder council process and threatens the continued recovery of the Gulf’s red snapper fishery.
Now, today, Representative Garret Graves (R-LA), carrying the weight of the states managers’ plan, presents H.R. 3094, the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act, to the House Committee on Natural Resources’ subcommittee on Water, Power, and Oceans. H.R. 3094 is bad legislation bordering on a congressionally endorsed state fish grab outside of the federal management process. Not only this, the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act is a bad idea based upon the Gulf states’ previous record of marine fish management and current political and economic standings.
The Gulf states are inconsistent in their policies and susceptible to political and budgetary ploys that may play into fishery management decisions under H.R. 3094. For example, my home state of Alabama has just shut down five state parks and partially closed many others. The wardens, who are harried and spend half their year off the water, almost had their budget gutted. This is why states cannot manage the red snapper in the Gulf; they simply do not have the resources nor the stability to manage a fishery as complex and as wide-ranging as the Gulf’s red snapper.
The arrangement that the Gulf states have come up with and that Mr. Graves is promoting flies in the face of the reality of the red snapper population in the Gulf. Red snapper—and I have caught many hundreds of them, keeping one or two for the table per trip—are easy to catch. They are voracious predators that will snatch anything they can find. Snapper are also non-migratory, meaning that they stay close to private and public artificial reefs.
The ease of catching red snapper belies the problem. The stock, because of federal regulation under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, has rebounded vigorously. Yet, these fish breed late (sometimes it can take ten or more years) and can live for more than 50 years. The crux of the management issue is that the breeding population has to recover fully for the fishery to be sustainable. The Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act essentially allows the states to ignore sound management protocols that maintain the red snapper’s recovery on an upward trajectory.
If there is no breeding population, we can also be guaranteed that seasons in federal waters will be shorter. The recreational fishing community, which is largely unregulated, has exceeded its annual catch limit by almost 100% for years. It took a federal court ruling in 2013 (Guindon, et al., v. Pritzker) to institute a buffer of 20% to protect the stock from overfishing. The buffer has kept recreational fishermen from exceeding their annual catch limit (ACL) in 2014 and 2015, but it has also shortened seasons because the states have opened their waters for increased access.
The paradox is that as the Gulf states extend their state-water seasons, which is admittedly their right in state waters, their seasons are also considered in the calculation of the federal annual catch limit. They claim to be on the side of the recreational fisherman, but it is their very policies that directly affect the ability of recreational fishermen such as I to harvest red snapper in federal waters. This policy adopted by the Gulf states is really cutting off the recreational nose to spite the face. These extended seasons are beyond the ken of reasonable and responsible management practices.
One must also consider this: why do the Gulf states trust our stewards on the federal level to manage and maintain seasons on almost every other fishery, yet seek their own oversight of the red snapper fishery? It makes no sense. The system under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) —not coincidentally a bipartisan agreement that has worked for almost four decades—should still be followed. The MSA is the most successful management program in the world. It is the very reason that the red snapper fishery has rebounded since historic lows in the early 80s and the 90s. The science is there for anyone to read; the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act threatens this stability.
States have made some positive steps. Alabama has instituted a system that requires mandatory reporting of red snapper caught in state waters. That is a good thing. Nevertheless, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater as we consider how to manage our resources in the Gulf, and we have to wait and see if the Alabama system is agile enough and robust enough to manage red snapper.
At fisheries meetings, I preach patience and civil discussion to my fellow recreational fishermen. Allow the system that is managed responsibly under the MSA to work. That way we have the chance to have our season extended by up to 50 more days. It’s all about accountability, the very accountability that the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act is attempting to circumvent.
Do any of us want to sit in an armchair one day and ask ourselves, “Whither the red snapper?” That’s a real possibility if patience and proper management under long-standing federal law don’t win out and we allow fish grabs like the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act to be the guiding principle of red snapper fishery management.