In 2017, at the behest of some federal legislators and angling-related organizations, the Department of Commerce (Commerce) reopened the private-boat recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico, even though agency officials knew that such action would lead to significant overfishing and delay the recovery of the red snapper stock.
Representatives of the recreational fishing community had been very critical of the original federal season, which was just three days long to offset the impacts of far longer seasons in state waters, where managers expected 81% of the snapper to be caught. Such recreational spokesmen hailed the reopening.
The comments of Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, were typical. He said, “The federal fishery management system is failing anglers on many levels, and the red snapper is the ‘poster fish’ of the quagmire. The temporary rule directly addresses this problem, giving millions of recreational anglers in the Gulf of Mexico an opportunity to enjoy America’s natural resources and giving the Gulf economy a much-needed shot in the arm.”
Yet among all the exultation, seemingly cautious voices looked beyond the immediate benefits of the reopening, and asked how it would impact the fishery’s future. The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), for example, tempered its initial, celebratory “We beat the feds!” tone with something far more pensive, saying,
“The announcement today of action to extend the Gulf of Mexico recreational red snapper season is a welcome boon to anglers who have been painted into a corner by a federal fisheries management system that does not understand us, and would often just rather ignore us…But with this action, we are also truly launching into the void in the future…There are concerns that by NOAA Fisheries’ own peculiar methods of accounting, recreational anglers may already be over their quota this year in just the three days we were allowed to fish before this extension. How far over our quota will NOAA say we went over after an additional 39 weekend days? What will happen when NOAA’s regulations shut down the red snapper fishery until anglers ‘pay back’ this overage? How many years might it be before we can fish for red snapper again?…”
But such expressions of worry merely set the stage for further efforts to undercut federal fishery management efforts; as CCA went on to declare that “there is much work to do here, well beyond the action announced today. We need the Secretary and our champions in Congress to stay engaged and help us build a functional, fair, state-based management system for red snapper, and for the countless species behind it like amberjack and gray triggerfish, that are on the same federal management track to a dead end.”
For there is ample evidence that the people and organizations who worked to reopen the red snapper season ultimately had a more far-reaching goal in mind: Compelling Congress to weaken critical provisions of federal fisheries law.
That evidence exists in an e-mail sent by Earl Comstock, Director of Commerce’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on June 7, 2017. There, Comstock noted that if Ross approved reopening the red snapper season,
“Approval would also put the ball squarely in the court of Congress. Congress would need to act to prevent reduced catch limits for all fishing sectors next year. This problem will not be able to be addressed through the fishery management system without a change in law. The Congressional representatives know this, and are looking to [the Department of Commerce] for leadership. By resetting the debate and building a strong relationship with the State fishery managers, which is what this action would do, we can provide the leadership Congress is asking of us.”
That puts CCA’s comment that “We need the Secretary and our champions in Congress to stay engaged and help us build a…state-based management system for red snapper, and the countless species behind it” in the proper context, making it appear likely that the recreational fishing industry, certain congressmen and Commerce intentionally created a future crisis through the reopening of the fishery.
The crisis is coming because accountability measures adopted for the Gulf red snapper fishery require that, if anglers overfish their quota in any season, such overage must be deducted from the following year’s quota.
Both Commerce and the recreational fishing organizations that wanted the season reopened were aware of that fact. Commerce also knew, and confirmed in an email, that reopening the season would “result in the recreational catch limit for  being exceeded by 30% to 50%.” Given the recent history of the fishery, it is extremely hard to believe that the various recreational organizations weren’t aware of that, too, despite disingenuous protests to the contrary .
Thus, those involved with the reopening were fully aware that it would lead to substantial overharvest in 2017, and that the full amount of such overharvest would be deducted from the 2018 recreational quota. Since Gulf of Mexico anglers were already catching most of their red snapper during the long state-waters seasons, any reduction in the 2018 recreational quota would almost certainly result in no federal-waters season at all.
Such a complete closure would play into the recreational industry’s narrative that “the federal fishery management system is failing” and that red snapper should be managed not by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), but by the states.
For years, recreational organizations had been energizing and enraging their members by pointing to short federal red snapper seasons, without acknowledging that NMFS was forced to set such seasons because of the large number of fish caught in state waters, when the federal season was closed. A complete shutdown of the federal red snapper fishery in 2018 could be used to generate even more outrage, perhaps enough to strip NMFS of its ability to regulate recreational red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Right now, there are two obvious ways that could happen.
H.R. 3588 (and its Senate counterpart, S. 1686), the so-called RED SNAPPER Act, would give the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico exclusive authority “to establish for each of fishing years 2018 through 2024 the timing and duration of the fishing season for private recreational fishing” for red snapper out to a line that is either defined by either the 25 fathom (150 foot) contour or is 25 miles from shore, whichever is farther from a state’s coast.
The RED SNAPPER Act, if passed, would extend the states’ longer seasons at least 25 miles into the Gulf, allowing anglers to fish in deeper waters where more and larger red snapper can be found. Such access to more and larger fish, over an extended season, would inevitably cause the recreational sector to overfish each year, thus perpetuating the overfishing caused when Commerce reopened the 2017 recreational season.
Such overfishing would lead to conflicts between the RED SNAPPER Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s (Magnuson-Stevens) requirement that overfishing be halted.
While the RED SNAPPER Act requires both that states “to the extent practicable, ensure sustainable and responsible fishery management consistent with” Magnuson-Stevens and that the allocation and season length for the commercial and for-hire fisheries remain the same as they were before the RED SNAPPER Act was passed “unless amended by the Secretary [of Commerce],” the very existence of the “to the extent practicable” and “unless amended” qualifiers presages an unavoidable problem.
Chronic recreational overharvest in federal waters, pursuant to state-established seasons, would lead to overall red snapper harvest regularly exceeding the overfishing limit set for the stock, unless NMFS offsets private-boat anglers’ overages by amending the regulations to further restrict the harvest of the commercial and for-hire recreational fleets.
Thus, if the RED SNAPPER Act became law, the recreational industry and anglers’ rights organizations would achieve one of their long-time goals, a de facto reallocation of the red snapper harvest at the expense of commercial fishermen and for-hire operators, without ever having to directly address that very controversial issue.
Even if the RED SNAPPER Act doesn’t make it through Congress, angling organizations may still be able to achieve their goal of state regulation of the federal-waters red snapper fishery through Exempted Fishing Permits (EFPs), which allow fishermen to engage in experimental fisheries in order to determine the merits of different management measures.
In September 2017, NMFS advised the Gulf states that it would consider EFPs that would set the state for state management of the recreational red snapper fishery in federal waters. Such EFPs would allow states to manage that fishery on an experimental basis, to determine such management would be viable in the long term.
Louisiana has drafted an EFP proposal that would allow anglers to fish for red snapper anywhere in state or federal waters off Louisiana, over the course of an extended season. Such season would be closed once the anglers landed approximately one million pounds of red snapper, which represents the state’s historical share of the fishery. Other states are expected to propose similar programs, although no other state has Louisiana’s ability to accurately track recreational landings on a timely basis.
While angling organizations have historically opposed EFPs that would grant commercial or for-hire fishermen an exemption from federal fishery regulations, they have not objected to the proposed EFPs that would allow states to manage recreational red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. That makes sense, for if the RED SNAPPER Act doesn’t pass, such EFPs represent anglers’ only realistic chance to legally harvest red snapper in the federal waters of the Gulf during 2018.
And if neither the RED SNAPPER Act nor the EFPs are adopted?
If that happens, the recreational fishing industry, and everyone else who wanted the 2017 season reopened, are going to have some explaining to do. They’re going to have to tell a lot of upset anglers just why they created a crisis that not only closed federal waters, but also resulted in a much smaller recreational quota.
If past behavior is any guide, they’ll try to blame the feds. But that excuse is starting to wear very thin.