The recreational red snapper season in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico has effectively been closed, with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council Reef Fish Committee voting this week to restrict saltwater anglers to just TWO fish per day for 11 days.
The decision to essentially end public access of a rebuilding red snapper stock was the result of a lawsuit by 21 commercial fishermen funded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) brought against the federal government. A judge on March 26th found that NOAA Fisheries violated federal law by allowing anglers to fish 40 days for red snapper in 2013, leading EDF attorneys to a victory dance around what’s left of the recreational red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We won,” cheered EDF attorney Monica Goldberg in a widely circulated email following the judge’s decision, while Adam Babich, a Tulane University professor who specializes in environmental law cases trumpeted the verdict as “good news.”
However, for Gulf tackle shops and for-hire captains on the Gulf Coast with federal permits who will be unable to take their customers out for red snapper once the whopping 11 days are used up, the judge’s decision and the response by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is not exactly something worth celebrating.
Since 2007, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) has been lobbying Congress to address restrictive measures written into the last reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSA). Inflexible rebuilding deadlines coupled with punitive accountability measures on the recreational fishing community have led to ever-shortening seasons on red snapper in both the Gulf and South Atlantic Region.
In addition to a federal fisheries law that ignores the unique needs of the recreational fishing sector, a federal requirement to overhaul and replace the recreational data collection methodologies by NOAA Fisheries is now 5 years past the due date, which RFA says is destroying the coastal angling community.
RFA executive director Jim Donofrio said he has continually explained to members of Congress how problems with the 2006 reauthorization of MSA would further erode the recreational fishing industry in terms of both rebuilding stocks like red snapper, as well as those considered rebuilt like summer flounder and black sea bass, but explains that these have been about the worst of times on Capitol Hill the past 6 years.
“Red snapper populations are exploding, and the 2014 quota in the Gulf is at the highest level ever, yet at the same time the recreational season in federal waters is the lowest ever and getting worse,” Donofrio said. “Environmentalists are dancing on our graves while telling legislators that the law is working just fine, and folks wonder why RFA members are getting angrier by the day.”
According to NOAA Fisheries, the recreational red snapper fishery has exceeded its sector quota in five of the last six years, with the exception being the 2010 season after the BP oil spill. Donofrio however said the science used by NOAA Fisheries to support that claim has already been proven inaccurate by the National Academy of Science.
“This panel of independent scientists in 2006 working with the National Research Council found the recreational data collection methodologies used by NOAA Fisheries to be worthless for real-time monitoring, explaining specifically how the random nature of the angler surveys had serious design flaws which used inadequate analysis methods,” Donofrio said. “NOAA was sued by the environmentalists because they’re 5 years late on providing congressionally mandated improvements in the recreational sector, but it’s the American angler who is getting punished yet again.”
While diligently working in Washington DC to overhaul the federal fisheries law in an effort to preserve the coastal angling heritage, RFA has also called for a joint congressional oversight hearing on Capitol Hill to address NOAA Fisheries’ failure to meet the 2009 deadline for recreational data collection improvements.
“Time and time again we’ve seen members of the Commerce Department brought before the House Natural Resources Committee to testify specifically how they they’ve had a 2009 deadline that they did not meet, simply brushing off their failures as being less than optimal,” Donofrio said. “Destroying the socioeconomic structure of our coastal fishing communities is certainly not optimal, I think it’s criminal.”
On the Atlantic Coast, NOAA Fisheries in 2013 unveiled an exciting new red snapper season for federal waters consisting of three consecutive days from August 23rd through the 25th.
“This is all politics, there’s no science to this. Government accountability should be a non-partisan issue, and it’s time for everyone in our community to demand answers of those responsible,” Donofrio added.
“Short of that, let Commerce declare a recreational industry fishing disaster in the Gulf, so Congress can pay our marinas, tackle shops and full-time captains some money for the mess they let happen with their partners in crime at NOAA,” he added.
To participate in the final discussion of red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico for the 2014 season, join NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Administrator, Dr. Roy Crabtree for a live update by calling 800-593-8999 (use the password FISH SNAPPER). This conference call will take place on Friday, April 11th from noon until 1 p.m. EST and will allow call-in participants to ask questions about red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico.