H.R. 3094, the so-called “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act,” has been one of the most controversial fishery management bills introduced in the current session of Congress. Sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves (R-Louisiana), H.R. 3094 would strip the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of all authority to manage red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, and turn such authority over to the five Gulf States.
Proponents of the bill argue that states have the knowledge and ability to manage the red snapper resource, and can do so better than NMFS can. They would create a new management body, peopled only by representatives of the five Gulf States (State Authority), which would work together to manage the red snapper resource.
The problem with that course of action is that such management body, composed entirely of representatives named by the governors of the Gulf States, already exists.
It’s called the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council).
You might disagree with that statement, but just stop, and think for a second. Yes, the Gulf Council was created by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens). And yes, the Gulf Council drafts fisheries management plans that must ultimately be approved by NMFS.
But just who, exactly, sits on the Gulf Council and writes those fishery management plans?
Section 302 of Magnuson-Stevens requires that all regional fisheries management councils, including the Gulf Council, must be composed of “The principal State official with marine fishery management responsibility and in each constituent state, who is designated as such by Governor of the State, so long as the official continues to hold such position, or the designee of such official.” [emphasis added]
The same section provides that the Gulf Council “shall consist of the States of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and shall have authority over the fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico seaward of such states.” Based on such language, the Gulf Council includes all of the same people who would comprise the membership of the State Authority proposed in H.R. 3094.
Magnuson-Stevens then expands that membership, providing that “The Gulf Council shall have 17 voting members, including 11 appointed by the Secretary [of Commerce]. The appointed members must be selected “from a list of individuals submitted by the Governor of each applicable constituent State.” [emphasis added]
Such language guarantees that the governors of the five Gulf States can fill 16 of 17 voting positions on the Gulf Council (the 17th seat is held by the director of NMFS’ Southeast Regional Office) with people who have management philosophies compatible with those of the states. As a practical political matter, any Gulf Council member whose votes offend his or her governor is not likely to be nominated for another three-year term.
Thus, the original Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico, which governs red snapper harvest, and all of the amendments to such plan which have been adopted since, were actually drafted by representatives of the Gulf States’ governors, and not by faceless federal bureaucrats, as H.R. 3094’s supporters sometimes seem to imply.
That fact was pointed out by Charles Melancon, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who is as familiar with the management structure as anyone. After asking, “Are we being regulated by the feds?” he went on to answer “No. We are the Gulf Council. The five States run the Gulf Council.”
The Gulf Council already has the ability to adopt new ways to manage red snapper if it chooses to do so. Recreational fishing interests have argued that H.R. 3094 would give states the flexibility to craft management measures appropriate for their regional fisheries. However, the Gulf Council has already examined regional red snapper management in detail, but such plan was not approved, largely because of opposition from fisheries managers employed by the Gulf States.
Thus, it is difficult to see why the proposed State Authority would be able to sustainably manage red snapper any better than the Gulf Council already does. As Mr. Melancon pointed out, “The Gulf Council saved the red snapper. Does that sound like an organization that can’t do something that it wants to do?”
Of course, the phrase “sustainably manage” is at the root of it all.
While the Gulf Council is composed almost entirely of state fisheries managers and individuals nominated by the state governors, its management plans are subject to Magnuson-Stevens.
National Standard One, arguably the provision of Magnuson-Stevens most often cited by the courts, requires that all fisheries management plans, whether for Gulf red snapper or other stocks, “shall prevent overfishing.”
That language is echoed and amplified later in the law, when it states that “Any fishery management plan which is prepared by any Council, or by the Secretary, with respect to any fishery, shall contain the conservation and management measures…which are necessary and appropriate for the conservation and management of the fishery to prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, and to protect, restore, and promote the long-term health and stability of the fishery.” [emphasis added]
Furthermore, Magnuson-Stevens requires that in the case of an overfished fishery, the management plan shall “specify a time period for rebuilding a fishery that shall be as short as possible…and not exceed 10 years, except in cases where the biology of the stock of fish, other environmental conditions, or management measures under an international agreement in which the United States participates dictates otherwise.”
H.R. 3094 includes no such provisions. The State Authority it seeks to create would be free to tolerate overfishing indefinitely, and would be bound by no deadline for rebuilding the red snapper stock, factors that make such authority extremely attractive to those who value short-term harvest over long-term sustainability.
That is enough to explain why some members of the recreational fishing community would prefer a State Authority over the Gulf Council. However, such State Authority would also give them another advantage.
Magnuson-Stevens required that “The Governor of a State submitting a list of names of individuals for appointment by the Secretary of Commerce to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council …shall include at least 1 nominee each from the commercial, recreational, and charter fishing sectors; and at least 1 other individual who is knowledgeable regarding the conservation and management of fisheries resources in the jurisdiction of the Council.”
Although that provision expired in 2012, it left behind a Gulf Council that represents diverse interests, and is not skewed toward any particular sector. As a result, the fisheries management plans that it produces, including those affecting red snapper, are balanced, and do not favor any one sector over another.
The primary support for H.R. 3094 is not so broad-based. It is almost entirely driven by the Center for Coastal Conservation (Center), an organization composed of boat-building, fishing tackle and anglers’ rights organizations, with the stated mission of “Promoting sound use and conservation of ocean resources through political action.”
“Sound use” of the red snapper resource is, of course, whatever benefits the Center’s members…
NMFS’ approach to red snapper management, which is successfully rebuilding the once-overfished stock, has gained the support of commercial fishermen, charter and party boat operators and the conservation community. Almost all of the opposition comes from members of the recreational community, who want a longer fishing season and correspondingly increased harvest, neither of which are possible under Magnuson-Stevens’ injunction to prevent overfishing.
The Center’s efforts to derail the federal management program have failed at the Gulf Council and at NMFS, and have been criticized in federal court. Its efforts to shift allocation away from the commercial sector have yielded a very modest return; at the same time, a separate and sustainable charter fishing quota was carved out of the general recreational allocation.
The Center’s only hope of escaping the conservation strictures of Magnuson-Stevens, and of unbalancing the red snapper management plan to favor its own membership, lies in taking red snapper away from the Gulf Council, with its diverse representation and legal constraints, and turning it over to a State Authority that has no sector diversity and no real legal constraints at all.
Such lack of legal requirements to conserve and rebuild fish stocks, coupled with a lack of broad constituent representation would make the State Authority far more vulnerable to political influence. That would allow groups such as the Center, which made about $400,000 in donations to various political campaigns (including that of Garret Graves) over the last five elections cycles, to have far too much influence over the management process.
Thus it becomes clear that H.R. 3094 isn’t being supported because it will allow red snapper to be managed by the Gulf States’ representatives. That already happens at the Gulf Council.
Instead, its sole purpose is to create a system that can be manipulated by a handful of politically-connected organizations, which would have the red snapper resource managed for themselves, and not for the general public, to which it belongs.