Resilience Through Representation

Red Snapper

Commercial fishing and charter/for-hire fishing communities exist throughout our nation’s coastlines from the Aleutian Islands (AK) to San Diego (CA) and from Brownsville (TX) to Key West (FL) to Eastport (ME). Commercial and charter/for-hire fishermen like us live in and sail from these ports as we spend our lives on the water delivering sustainable, wild, American protein to millions of seafood consumers and providing unforgettable charter/for-hire fishing memories for millions of families. We are the heart of our communities and the blue-collar backbone of our blue economy.

Yet the stakeholder-driven fisheries management body in our region – the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council – does not reflect the make-up of our local fisheries or our coastal communities. The intentional shift away from that balanced representation coincides with poor management performance of several economically important species (both commercially and recreationally) and a rise in frustration and disillusion from our fishery sectors.

To us, fishing is more than a job… it’s more than a hobby… it’s our life, our community, and (often) our very identity. We live for the sunrises over the horizon, a hold full of fish, and a boat full of happy people and families that are making lifelong memories. Our oceans are beautiful creations; and we see it as our responsibility to be stewards and leave our waters (and the ecosystems they support) healthier and more resilient than we found them.

Our world is dynamic – weather and climate patterns are changing, oceanographic conditions are transforming, human populations are moving, and coastal demographics are shifting. Our small fishing businesses must adapt so that we – and our coastal communities – can survive. Commercial and charter/for-hire fishermen are known for our determination, our perseverance, our ingenuity, and our resolve to take to the sea each morning and return home safely with a boatload of fish or a boatload of happy customers.

But we can’t do it alone.

We rely on our partners, our families, our communities, and our representatives on land to help manage many of the important aspects of our businesses – from bookkeeping to seafood processing/distribution to fishery management/regulations. We need to know that our diverse array of fishing businesses are represented and supported, and that our voices are heard even when we’re offshore.

The federal fishery regulations that we must abide by are developed by this representative stakeholder body called the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. These seventeen people craft the rules that govern our businesses, including what we can catch, where and when we can fish, and how many fish can be sustainably removed from the Gulf of Mexico each year without jeopardizing the future of fish populations or the fishery.

We support the Gulf Council because this management system gives us the opportunity to have a “seat at the table.” We can be part of the process and help craft solutions to fishery problems. We have access to these managers and can relay first-hand information about how these rules help or hurt our businesses, our livelihoods, and the fisheries we survive on. Our participation strengthens our resilience.

But over time, we’ve seen this Gulf Council shift. What was once a diverse group that represents all fishermen (commercial, charter/for-hire and private recreational anglers) has now become dominated by one politically active user group (private recreational). Commercial fishermen have one single dedicated representative on this seventeen-member stakeholder body with any experience in the commercial fisheries it manages (another is limited only to state waters species, which the Gulf Council does not manage); and in 2024, the federal charter/for-hire community is poised to lose its only dedicated representative. With the Gulf states failing to nominate a single female applicant this year, the Gulf Council is now about to lose one of its only two female members. Seventeen members… yet only one dedicated federal commercial representative, one female member, and potentially zero dedicated charter/for-hire representatives.

Simultaneously with this shift in balance, we’ve seen a massive decline in resilience of critical Gulf fish stocks that our businesses and communities depend on, our customers like to catch, and the American seafood consumer likes to eat. These fish populations are now at or near historic lows, and Gulf of Mexico lane snapper was just added to the overfishing list in 2023. Even the iconic American red snapper – a national fishery management success story – is starting to show us signs of decline like a decrease in average size and expanding areas of localized depletion. Confounding this conservation emergency has been a rise in recreational dead discards (fish caught and thrown back that do not survive). The Gulf Council has reallocated a greater amount of red grouper, gag grouper, and greater amberjack from the commercial sector to the recreational sector, and this population of private recreational anglers continues to grow (it is not limited like the commercial and charter/for-hire sectors).

And while the recreational fishery is responsible for more than 90% of all dead discards of popular snapper and grouper species in the Gulf of Mexico – including 95% of all greater amberjack discards, 97% of all scamp discards, and 98% of all gag grouper discards – managers continue to struggle with how to accurately and rapidly account for what it catches. And while we acknowledge this is a management problem – not a private recreational angler problem – this “hidden” source of mortality is undermining the work we are doing to protect and conserve fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico. Our fishery and ecosystem resilience is in jeopardy.

Commercial and charter/for-hire fishermen need to know that the Administration has our backs by restoring balance to the Gulf Council. We need to know that our businesses are fairly represented, our identities are validated, our experiences are real, and our perspectives are taken seriously. We need to know that our fishery managers have a conservation ethos that they will put first, and that they truly understand that resilient fisheries support resilient businesses that bolster resilient coastal communities. We need to know that the diversity of our fisheries and communities have fair representation, and that the entities charged with developing the regulations that we must live under are balanced and diverse in a way that reflects the people and communities they impact.

The U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo was recently quoted as saying:

Regional fishery management councils are some of NOAA’s most critical partners that help develop conservation and management measures for our nation’s marine fisheries. This $20 million investment, made possible thanks to President Biden’s historic Inflation Reduction Act, will support councils in their important work to incorporate the fishery management measures and processes necessary to improve climate resiliency and responsiveness as we tackle the impacts of climate change.

Commercial and charter/for-hire fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico are on the front lines of climate change. We applaud the Secretary’s efforts to support the regional fishery management council process, and we stand ready to help tackle these resiliency challenges. All we’re asking for is Gulf Council representation that is reflective of the Gulf’s coastal communities, the diversity of its populations, and the variety of fisheries it governs.

About the Authors

Captain Jason DeLaCruz is a commercial fisherman with the fishing vessel Brickyard and owner of Wild Seafood Company in Madeira Beach, Florida. Captain Gary Bryant is a charter/for-hire fisherman and founder of Red Eye Charters in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Eric Brazer is the deputy director of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance based in Galveston, Texas.

About Jason DeLaCruz

Captain Jason DeLaCruz is a commercial fisherman with the fishing vessel Brickyard in Madeira Beach, Florida.

2 comments on “Resilience Through Representation

  1. The truth has been spoken now what will NOAA and the Administration do about this ? The answer is reinstate the Lott Amendment from the 2006 RMSA that required all stakeholders to have designated representation o

  2. We need sector balance on the Councils, all sectors need representation and that’s why appointing Trop Frady to the Gulf Council is best for the fishery and restoring equity to the Council process.

Leave a Reply

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