March 1, 2013 — Gulf of Mexico states and their anglers are increasingly frustrated with short seasons for prized red snapper in federal waters. They have every right to be angry. The management of the recreational share of the fishery is utterly failing.

Gulf of Mexico states and their anglers are increasingly frustrated with short seasons for prized red snapper in federal waters.  They have every right to be angry. The management of the recreational share of the fishery is utterly failing. This year’s projected federal season of a few weeks at best, together with large over-harvests each year, are obvious signs.  The system stinks and punishes everyone including those who enjoy fishing on their own and fishermen and families who use for-hire guides to access the Gulf.

There are a lot of passionate voices advocating change. Open discussion should be respected and welcome – in fact, exploration of new ideas is the only way to get closer to solutions.  Unfortunately, the gossip and finger-pointing simply diverts attention from important issues and does nothing to help.

I am proud of the partnerships between Environmental Defense Fund and fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico.  I am convinced that cooperation between conservationists, fishermen and government are critical to the long term health of the Gulf.  I am also convinced that the progress of commercial red snapper management towards rebuilding the fish population and sustained financial viability is vital to success.

It is important to understand the commercial fishery.  Both recreational and commercial fishermen are able to catch more fish today than a few years ago in large part because the catch share management program works so much better than the former derby system. The total catch for both sectors has increased 60% since 2008.  Commercial fishermen who already enjoy year-round fishing immediately see the benefits as their individual quota increases.  This is a fair result for making a huge and challenging transition to new management after years of advocacy to convince regulators to fix (not just band-aid) the system.

On the other hand, recreational fishermen don’t see benefits at all.  Their catch limit has risen, but the seasons get shorter and in most years the recreational share is busted.  This is not the result of recreational fishermen breaking rules. It happens because management has failed.

“Re-allocation” of red snapper from commercial to recreational fishermen is offered by some as a solution.  Such arguments have been around for years.  But re-allocation is just an allocation tool, not a solution to the failed recreational management system.  It will do nothing to ensure longer seasons over time or contribute to long-term health of the stock. As long as limited seasons and bag limits remain the only options for recreational fishermen, today’s problems will continue.

For over 20 years I’ve worked in the field of fisheries and ocean conservation, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico.  During that time I’ve been privileged to catch and enjoy the region’s red snapper, kingfish and flounder.  In my view, we can and should balance conservation of the region’s resources with people’s need for jobs, food, and enjoyment.  In fact, finding the balance is at the heart of the Gulf’s future. Recreational fisheries deserve real options that seek that balance.

In a recent letter to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, Daniel Willard and I outlined part of EDF’s views. Here is an excerpt:

“…we recommend the Council and stakeholders focus on developing new red snapper recreational management with the goals to contribute to rebuilding of the stock and meet other important objectives including longer fishing seasons.  The Council has already discussed new management models that are a good place to start.  Examples include proposals for head-boat IFQs, charter days-at-sea, harvest tags, and inter-sector quota transferability.  These options should be further developed to see how they can provide needed benefits for the stock and recreational fisheries: longer seasons, improved access and flexibility, better data and information, and contributions to rebuilding.

Recreational and commercial fisheries are important to the region’s economy and culture.  Both sectors seek long seasons and management that accomplishes this goal can also be good for the economy and rebuilding of the stock – the commercial red snapper fishery is one example.  Just as the Council made significant changes to commercial management seven years ago which are now paying off, now it needs to make significant improvements to improve recreational fisheries management.  This is not easy and there are no perfect off-the-shelf models for effective long-term management in joint commercial/recreational fisheries.  However, new management models offer promising features and potential to expand recreational fishing access without undermining rebuilding.  This can improve economic efficiency, preserve conservation incentives, and help relieve the allocation impasse that is stalling fishery management progress in the Gulf.”

EDF is more than happy to debate the important issues facing our fisheries, but that debate must be grounded in facts and not merely rhetoric that undermines the passion all of us share for the ocean.

Pamela Baker is the Director of EDF’s Oceans program in the Gulf of Mexico.


Read the entire letter from Daniel Willard and Pamela Baker to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council