Washington — Louisiana and other states in the region could do a better job of managing the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico than the federal government, which, this year, imposed a “flat-out un-American” limit of just 10 days for recreational anglers to catch the fish in federal waters, U.S. House members were told Thursday in a hearing on a bill by Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, that would empower the states.
“The current management regime for the Gulf red snapper fishery is absolutely unacceptable,” Graves said in the hearing before the Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Graves is a member of the subcommittee, which is chaired by John Fleming, R-Minden, who called the red-snapper program in the Gulf “a mess.”
“It’s still clear that something has got to change to allow the recreational community better access to this important resource,” Fleming said.
But representatives of the commercial fishing, offshore charter boat and restaurant industries testified in defense of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the federal agency that determines fishing seasons and catch quotas for red snapper in the waters beyond 3 miles from the Louisiana shoreline.
“Under this program, restaurants like ours can now depend on a steady stream of snapper to fulfill our orders during times of peak demand,” said Haley Bitterman, corporate executive chef with the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group in New Orleans.
Graves’ bill would transfer authority over the fishery from the council to a consortium of the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Supporters of the bill say the states collect better data than the federal government and can adapt the restrictions to more accurately reflect local conditions.
But the top-ranking member of the subcommittee’s Democratic minority, Jared Huffman, of California, said, “It’s clear to me that this bill in its current form is not ready to proceed.”
Huffman said the bill lacked safeguards against overfishing and was developed without input from all industries involved. A good bill, he said, “should not be one that picks winners and losers.”
Although Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, their margin in the Senate is not enough to overcome solid Democratic opposition, under Senate rules. Graves’ proposal could draw fire from environmentalists, who exert considerable influence with Senate Democrats.
The federal council imposed limitations on commercial and recreational fishing in 1979 to rebuild the declining stock of red snapper in the Gulf. Failure to meet targets for increasing the stock led to more restrictions in 2005, and they reached their most severe in 2011, with a combined commercial and recreational quota of 5 million pounds of fish.
Since then, the quota has nearly tripled. But seasonal controls have remained tight: Besides the 10-day limit on recreational anglers, the council set the charter-for-hire season at 44 days in 2015
U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., called the 10-day season “flat-out un-American in the hearing.” He is a co-sponsor of the Graves bill, as are Louisiana congressmen Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.
The legislation would not affect controls by the state in waters within the 3-mile boundary. The red-snapper season for 2015 in Louisiana state waters was set at 204 days.
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