States Make a Grab for Gulf Fisheries

Dennis McKay

In the Gulf of Mexico, a small cadre of recreational fishing interests spearheaded by the American Sportfishing Association, the Coastal Conservation Association and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation are continuing their misguided assault against our nation’s public waters and marine fish resources.

Suffer no illusions, the ASA, the CCA, and the CSF want to shift federal management of our waters to the states to circumvent the Magnuson-Stevens Act and its successful mission to end overfishing by using science-based rebuilding timelines and annual catch limits. Their actions are a calculated move to devolve management to the states for the wealthiest of folks that can afford boats that can reach a deep water reef fish, while denying access to anglers that hire charter for-hire fishermen to meet the fishery and a stable commercial fishery that provides food and commerce security to thousands of restaurants and fish houses across the nation.

The Gulf’s recreational fishing interests have lost a number of touchstone initiatives to realize their public water grab: there have been a handful of bills from Gulf Congressmen to shift management to the states, a number of amendments on various bills to accomplish the same, and Garrett Graves’s (R-LA) H.R. 3094 “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act” that essentially shifts all control of red snapper to the states with tepid, if little, oversight of one of the Gulf’s most iconic species, none of which have garnered enough support to make it to the house floor.

At the Gulf Council level, these same recreational entities fought hard for an amendment to the reef fish management plan that would have allowed the five Gulf States to set their own management tools in the name of flexibility. Regional management would have allowed each state to manage their private recreational anglers by means that complied with the state’s cultural fishing norms, their historic tourism seasons, and any other factors that the states would have deemed useful to their anglers. But, at the last minute, as the charter for-hire fleet asked to stay within the more stable federal management system, the recreational lobby balked and pressed the states to suspend the push for regional management because it did not provide the flexibility they desired. The groups that wanted regional management, and are pushing this agenda hard through weak legislation like Graves’s, denied the opportunity to get what they had asked for the most: state management.

The good news: all of these attempts at public water thefts have failed, and Graves’s H.R. 3094 has a mere 7% chance of enactment.

The bad news: Senator David Vitter has forced a hearing in the Senate’s Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee to discuss extending state-water jurisdiction for Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi from its historical 3-miles to nine and loosening the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s science-based rebuilding timelines and annual catch limits, in an end-around move to accomplish the recreational mission to grab our nation’s public water resources.

Ironically—comically, if it wasn’t so sad—Senator Vitter is basing his rationale for the increased state-water limits on a failed narrative that the current three-mile limit is negatively affecting small business owners across the Gulf, while at the same time the American Sportfishing Association’s Sportfishing in America contradicts this by stating that recreational fishing profits have grown consistently since 2006, with the Southeast leading the growth in sales, in recruiting new anglers to the sport, and in most sales of fishing licenses in the nation. From where I am sitting, this suggests the fishing tackle industry is healthy and on an upward trajectory.

When you deconstruct this issue, extending state-water jurisdictions will only increase the pressure on the Gulf’s small businesses, while imperiling the red snapper stock’s rebuilding plan and the short seasons we have now. With the sixty-percent increase in state waters for the three states mentioned above, we also have a substantial increase of effort and catch that will have to be accounted for somewhere. Where will that extra pressure on more state waters with long, liberal seasons come from? There is only one place: the federal-water season.

Vitter’s 6-mile extension will exacerbate the red snapper fishery’s chaos, and chaos is the antithesis of stable business models. Stability is what businesses desire, like the stable growth the fishing industry has experienced since 2006, the MSA reauthorization year that adopted science-based rebuilding timelines and annual catch limits.

If shorter federal-water seasons negatively impact the Gulf’s small businesses, as the recreational lobby’s narrative has stated but been refuted by its own economic reports, how will extending state waters now provide more business stability and better economics, when shorter federal-water seasons decrease boat and tackle sales, as their story goes?

Maybe, just maybe, the answer is obvious: it’s simply a continuation of the state land grab of federal public resources that have appeared to become the current norm, which most other sportsmen have rightly and thoughtfully railed against. Let’s politely ask the Gulf fringe to peacefully deescalate and play fair for all 300-million Americans, the Gulf commercial fleet, the charter for-hire fleet, and tourists, not just Gulf of Mexico private recreational fishermen.

About Dennis McKay

Dennis McKay is a recreational angler from East Central Alabama, with Alabama roots going back 300 years.

3 comments on “States Make a Grab for Gulf Fisheries

  1. By Ben Raines |
    Email the author | Follow on Twitter
    on April 07, 2016 at 6:12 AM, updated April 07, 2016 at 8:41 AM

    The future of recreational fishing in the Gulf of Mexico is for sale in Texas.

    While charter boats and private recreational anglers in the Gulf were only allowed to catch red snapper in federal waters on 10 days last year, two companies in Galveston, Texas have been taking recreational anglers red snapper fishing all year round.

    What’s more, the companies allow the fishermen to keep as many red snapper as they want each day, blowing past the two-fish-per-day federal limit.

    The only thing limiting how many snapper the customers are allowed to keep is how much they are willing to pay.

    The Texas companies have been getting around the federal limits and seasons by selling the “Catch Shares Fishing Experience.” The Texas companies involved own “catch shares” of the commercial red snapper fishery that allow them to harvest a set number of pounds per year for commercial sale.

    Instead of catching those fish with a professional crew and selling them to a fish house, the captains are taking recreational anglers fishing and letting them buy the fish afterward.

    For the customers, the catch share experience represents the ultimate fishing trip, where they can keep many more snapper than the two per person per day allowed under federal law. Meanwhile, the boat captains running the trips are able to market the fish as “fresh fish caught that day,” which command a much higher price at the dock than most commercially caught snapper.

    For example, the Galveston Sea Adventures charter company website advertises the catch share fishing experience complete with prices that range from $1,200 for a trip that promises 75 pounds of red snapper, to $2,880 for 180 pounds of red snapper. The price works out to $16 per pound, about double what red snapper fillets sells for in a seafood shop, and a lot more than the $5 a pound that whole fish bring at the commercial dock.

    Critics say the companies are skirting federal laws that were set up to divide charter boats — which charge customers to take them fishing and let them keep the fish they catch — from commercial fishing endeavors, where fish are sold at the dock and fishermen are paid for their labor. The laws were designed to make sure that half of the nation’s fish stocks are available for the seafood industry, and half for the recreational fishing industry.

    Ted Venker, with the Coastal Conservation Association — or CCA, the nation’s largest lobbying group for recreational anglers — said these trips were the first step toward private ownership of the Gulf’s snapper, which should be a publicly owned resource.

    “It’s the ultimate blurring of the line between recreational and commercial. Under this scenario, that distinction doesn’t exist as it all just deteriorates down to who owns the fish, and it isn’t the public anymore,” Venker said.

    With reports that captains in Louisiana, Florida and Alabama are working to set up similar trips, some charter boat fishermen have begun to worry that nearshore recreational spots will be worked over by these commercial/charter trips all year long.

    While typical commercial operations involve big boats that fish far out to sea for a week or more at a time, these new trips are fished from small charter boats that can’t venture too far from the dock because they must return the customers to shore at the end of the day.

    “People think there are a lot of fish on Alabama’s artificial reefs because the commercial guys don’t hit them, but they won’t be able to support the pressure if these ‘dude trips’ become a regular thing,” said an Alabama charter boat captain who asked to remain anonymous. “Basically, it’s the commercial guys getting to pick the artificial reefs clean before the recreational fleet is allowed to fish them. And the taxpayers paid for those reefs, not the commercial guys. I think it should be outlawed.”

    Scott Hickman, owner of Circle H Outfitters and Charters in Galveston, pioneered the catch share fishing experience and said he is operating within the law. Federal officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service concurred, saying the trips “were consistent with federal regulations.”

    “So this whole scheme is evolving into a cartel that can set consumer and/or recreational prices as they see fit to benefit themselves. It’s amazing.”

    “We follow the rules to the T as to what is mandated by federal law enforcement and Texas law enforcement. I got the legal answer to whether we could do this before we ever did the first trip,” Hickman said. “These are not charter trips. These are commercial fishing trips. The people coming on them are just coming along for the experience and they can reel in some fish if they want to.”

    The Galveston Sea Adventures website also strives to make a distinction between its charter fishing trips versus the catch share trips.

    Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 1.42.30 PM.jpg

    Ben Raines |

    “Thank you for your interest in the Red Snapper Catch Share fishing experience!” reads the company’s site. “To clarify, this is not a fishing trip, but rather an opportunity for groups to learn about harvesting Red Snapper under the Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program. We are excited to offer this experience to you as an opportunity to catch Red Snapper year around. We will be using the same equipment (rods, reels, tackle, and bait) that you would normally use; however, you are not paying us to take you fishing. Additionally, you are not allowed to tip the personnel. You can, however, purchase your fish from the unloading facility at the conclusion of the trip.”

    Dozens of photos and videos on the Circle H Outfitters Facebook page show recreational anglers sitting with huge piles of red snapper surrounding them. Happy families with children, Boy Scouts, or groups of sunburned men, can be seen reeling fish in on a big center console fishing boat, just like they would with any of the Gulf’s normal charter trips. Often, the images are accompanied with a phrase such as “Another great day catch share fishing in the Gulf! Come get some!”

    Hickman, who is a board member of the non-profit Charter Fishermen’s Association and has been running charter trips for 30 years, stressed these trips are different from charter trips. For example, the customers get no say in what they are fishing for, or where they go. And, he said, they experience all of the normal requirements of a commercial trip, such as radioing in to federal officials to announce the boat is leaving for the trip, radioing in, and unloading at the fish house after. Another distinction is that the people on the catch share trips are not obligated to buy a single fish, or pay him a nickel for the trip, whereas the charter customers must pay for the trip whether they catch anything or not.

    Hickman said most of the people he takes end up buying between 75 and 150 pounds of fillets after the trip, and have often “pre-bought” the fish from the fish house. The rest of the fish the group catches, typically another 300 to 400 pounds, is sold to the fish house and ends up at seafood markets and restaurants, just like any other commercial fishing endeavor.

    “After the trip, we go to the fish house to unload, just like any commercial trip,” Hickman said. “The customers relax and have a cold drink while their fish go from the ice into an air-conditioned facility where they are cleaned and vacuum-packed. They are getting a premium product that they helped catch.”

    The prices the customers are charged at the fish house reflect that “premium product,” and are often double the price of a regular filet sold at market.

    “You are getting a fresh, caught daily fish. There aren’t many places where you can buy a three or four-hour old fish. I’ve seen people in central Texas paying $24 a pound for red snapper, and that fish might be days or weeks old,” Hickman said. “For a lot of the people that go with us, buying the fish represents a really good deal for fresh fish. A lot of them would be buying the fish anyway. They can choose to come out with us and participate in the harvest, or just pick them up at the fish house without going fishing. The price is the same.”

    Red snapper season could be an all-time low

    Red snapper season could be an all-time low

    The popular Gulf Coast red snapper fishing season could be reduced to as low as six days this coming summer. U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne said the shortened days is a continued frustration.

    Despite the insistence that they are not being paid to take people fishing, others say that is exactly what is happening with these trips: people are paying to get to harvest fish under the commercial quota for fun. The distinction is important to many, because to some it represents the first step toward requiring recreational fishermen to pay for the right to catch snapper and other species.

    That’s where two hot topics in the Gulf fishery management world come into play: sector separation and inter-sector trading.

    Sector separation refers to splitting the charter fishing fleet away from private anglers with their own boats when it comes to managing the annual recreational red snapper quota the two groups share. Under current management, both groups are considered as one unit, and both have suffered under the increasingly short recreational seasons enacted by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the last five years. Those short seasons have driven many charter boats out of business because they simply can’t earn a living.

    Proponents of sector separation say the charter fleet could be managed more like the commercial fleet, as regulators could closely monitor exactly how many fish the charter boats were catching. Under such a system, each charter boat would be given a set number of fish it could catch each year, just like commercial fishermen are.

    The charter boats would then be allowed to fish any time of year, just like commercial boats, as long as the captain hadn’t used up his portion of the quota. The private recreational fishermen, meanwhile, would still only be allowed to fish during the official federal season.

    Critics say sector separation, which has already been set up as a pilot program for a portion for the headboat segment of the Gulf’s charter fleet, is really the first step toward “inter-sector trading,” where charter boats would be allowed to buy, sell, or trade quota with commercial fishermen.

    The charter fleet is divided when it comes to sector separation and inter-sector trading, in large measure because of the way the catch shares system has played out in the commercial fleet. Dozens of commercial fishermen have been able to quit fishing under the catch share system, instead simply leasing the right to catch snapper to other commercial fishermen who didn’t receive a portion of the snapper quota when the harvest was divided up.

    Handful own red snapper harvest without ever fishing

    Handful own red snapper harvest without ever fishing

    As it stands today, the right to catch 77 percent of the annual red snapper harvest is controlled by just 55 people, analysis shows.

    Described as “sea lords,” those leasing their share of the quota end up making more money per fish than the fishermen actually doing the hard work of catching the fish. For instance, last year, the right to catch a pound of snapper was leasing for $3, while the fish only sold for $4.85. The sea lords sitting at the dock and leasing the right to fish ultimately made nearly twice as much per fish as the people catching the fish.

    Sector separation and inter-sector trading would simply create a larger pool of fishermen that the sea lords could lease the right to fish to, say the critics, namely, the recreational anglers going on the “commercial catch shares experience” trips.

    “That’s what this is all about, inter-sector trading,” said Bob Zales, a charter captain based in Panama City Beach, Florida and a board member of the Florida Guides Association. “That’s why the commercial guys are pushing for this inter-sector trading, so they can sell shares to the charter guys. The Environmental Defense Fund is behind all of this. They want to get the charter fleet under catch shares. The first step to catch shares is getting sector separation accomplished. Why does an environmental group want catch shares? It’s all about limiting the size of the fishery and controlling how many fish are caught.”

    While Hickman dismissed Zales’ suggestion as “conspiracy theory garbage,” the Environmental Defense Fund has played an outsized role in the development of the catch shares system of management in the Gulf.

    For instance, two of the most vocal proponents of sector separation have been the non-profit Charter Fishermen’s Association, which includes Hickman as a board member, and the non-profit Gulf of Mexico Reef Fishermen’s Shareholders Alliance, whose board includes Buddy Guindon — star of the National Geographic television show Big Fish Texas and owner of Katie’s Seafood Shop where Hickman sells his catch.

    Both of the non-profit groups are heavily funded by the Environmental Defense Fund, which has given the two groups more than $1 million for lobbying and support since 2010. EDF lobbied for years for the switch to catch shares in the Gulf, and has been deeply involved in the sector separation and inter-sector trading debate. Critics of EDF’s involvement say the organization wants both commercial and recreational anglers managed through catch shares, including harvest tags for private anglers. EDF officials say they simply want sound management for the Gulf.

    “I think Scott is doing a real service in showing people how catch shares work and how the quota system has helped the fishery rebound,” said Rob Jones, the director of EDF’s Gulf office. “As I understand it, he is operating with a commercial permit, and he is operating within the rules and it has been vetted by law enforcement at the highest level. For me, any way we can highlight how the allocation system can help us stay without our quotas is great.”

    Though the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has not issued final rules on inter-sector trading, Guindon and Hickman appear to have found a way to work within the existing rules.

    Chris Blankenship, head of Alabama’s Marine Resources Division, said he believed there will be more and more charter captains offering catch share trips.

    “Since they’ve figured out how to do it within the law in Texas, we’re seeing more of it. A couple of folks in Alabama have already gotten the federal permit and are trying to make it happen,” Blankenship said. “I don’t think it is going to be a big enough issue that they will fish out the reefs before the recreational guys get to go fishing, because I think it will only be a handful of guys doing it, but it is definitely a growing thing.”

    Hickman defended his program, saying he was using his share of the commercial quota and not taking fish from anyone.

    “I will tell you that with the catch share fishing experience, all these fish are going to the consumer, and all these fish are being harvested in a sustainable manner, and we are promoting sustainable fishing,” Hickman said. “At the end of the day, we all want a healthy, vibrant fishery that is managed correctly, and to be better stewards for the next generation, for our children. I believe you can do that on the commercial side and the charter side. And that’s what this is.”

    For his part, Guindon — one of the largest commercial fish dealers in the Gulf of Mexico — said that what Hickman was doing was great for the recreational anglers.

    “They are who has lost out in all this. The commercial side is well managed, but the recreational guys, they are doing what they are supposed to, keeping their two fish and fishing in the season, and their season just keeps getting shorter and shorter,” Guindon said. “What Scott’s doing is great.”

    Venker, with CCA, disagreed.

    “This is really sort of the missing piece as to why the commercials have gone so far out of their way to support sector separation for the CFH (charter for hire) guys. I’ve heard commercial guys comment that they don’t need any more fish – more snapper at this point simply makes their price at the dock go down. So what they need are mechanisms to move ‘their’ fish to other markets that won’t drive their prices down,” Venker said. “They want to be able to lease excess quota to charter/for-hire boats, and be able to sell fish whenever and wherever they can get the highest price, whether that is to a charter boat taking out recreational guys who are stuck with 10-day seasons or to a restaurant in Chicago. So this whole scheme is evolving into a cartel that can set consumer and/or recreational prices as they see fit to benefit themselves. It’s amazing.”

    This is the second in an ongoing series. You can read the first article in the series, about the Gulf’s Snapper Kingpins here.

    Follow Ben Raines as he explores Alabama’s natural wonders. Shoot him an email with questions or story ideas at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *