I recently attended a Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council public hearing about Amendment 40 discussing sector separation. To say I was amazed at what I heard from some recreational anglers at the meeting is an understatement. It was as if they were following a script written by a group that either does not understand the issue or is purposefully misleading anglers on what sector separation is and would do.
At its most basic, Amendment 40 seeks to level an imbalanced playing field that has developed due to the actions of discontented Gulf states pushing back over shorter federal red snapper seasons. The result is very liberal snapper seasons in state waters with a greater harvest of red snapper from those waters.
Equitably addressing how they’re going about that is the purpose of Amendment 40, and exactly what I found most anglers misinformed about. First, all red snapper caught in state waters are counted toward one gulfwide annual catch limit as required by federal law. The more fish caught in state waters directly reduces the amount of fish that can be caught in federal waters; this is largely why federal seasons are shortening.
Second, most anglers are unaware that as a federally permitted for-hire operator, I can take my customers fishing for red snapper only during the federal season. This is a regulation attached to our permits.
These two issues are the crux of Amendment 40 because they have tilted the playing field between for-hire and private anglers and created an unfair access for private anglers. Since I’m not allowed to take my customers red snapper fishing in state waters when the federal waters are closed, and federal seasons are getting shorter due to liberal state seasons, an imbalance is being created in what used to be equal access between boat-owning and non-boat-owning anglers. In the process, small, for-hire fishing businesses that support coastal economies are being deliberately pushed out the red snapper fishery by the state water seasons.
Sector separation is about creating a framework for equal access to the red snapper fishery. By looking at the catch histories for the two distinct angler components of the recreational fishery and generating a fair catch limit for each, you balance the playing field and return equitable access. Equality is restored because catches in state water seasons, that only private boat owners can enjoy, would only count against their catch limit. The catch limit for anglers reliant on federally permitted for-hire vessels will have a federal season based solely on when they are predicted to reach their catch limit.
When you look at this objectively, it is a fair compromise. Sector separation is intended to allow private boat owners to enjoy the longer seasons afforded by state water access, and attempts to ensure that for-hire anglers no longer have their opportunities reduced by the longer state water seasons.
Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric I heard at the hearing, including cries of “privatization” and “taking of fish,” just didn’t stand up to the fairness test when you look at the whole issue. Sadly, it appeared a misinformation campaign, clearly intended to inflame emotions was in effect. The more I think about that, the angrier I get. We all recognize that we need to fix the equitable access issue in the red snapper fishery, and responsible anglers wanting to find sustainable, equitable solutions to fix the problem are being misinformed, misdirected and frankly, mistreated by the leaders that they have put their faith in.
Steve Tomeny, a charter fisherman from Baton Rouge, has operated charter boats in Port Fourchon for the past 30 years.