The Gulf red snapper fishery is a mess. Bob Shipp, the respected marine scientist with the University of South Alabama, recently retired from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council after serving two nine-year terms. After 18 years of grappling with counterintuitive and misguided federal policies, Shipp said in an article last week that Gulf red snapper is the worst-managed fishery in the United States and should be handed over to the states to manage from a fresh start.
That is a significant statement, and it explains a great deal of the concern and frustration of the recreational angling community over continued efforts by a select few businesses in the Gulf to profit by this chaos. The federal system that is in place to manage recreational angling is completely inadequate. It produced a nine-day recreational red snapper season in 2014, set against perhaps the healthiest red snapper stock the Gulf has ever seen. At the same time, more than half the fishery is literally owned by less than 400 select commercial businesses. Amendment 40, a management measure known as sector separation that is under consideration by the council, is seeking to assign additional ownership privileges out of the recreational quota to select charter/for-hire operators. Ultimately, more than 75 percent of the entire red snapper fishery is likely to end up privately owned in some form or fashion.
The entire recreational angling community, private boat anglers and the charter/for-hire industry have suffered greatly from a management system that does not prioritize or even understand recreational angling. The system insists on using tools designed exclusively to manage commercial fisheries to mismanage recreational ones. It has not worked on Gulf red snapper, and it will not work. That is why all five Gulf states have found it necessary to take the unprecedented step of rejecting federal policies in state waters in the interests of their citizens.
Into this chaos has come proposals like Amendment 40, trying to find some way to satisfy a management system that doesn’t work. At their core, proposals like Amendment 40 seek to limit access to a public resource. By granting special ownership privileges to just a few, federal managers find it far easier to control the fishery. It runs completely contrary to how this country has traditionally managed its wildlife resources.
It is understandable that some charter/for-hire operators would seize any opportunity that offers survival. Something does need to be done to provide a more stable environment for the charter/for-hire industry, for private recreational anglers and for all the businesses along the Gulf Coast that depend on them. However, the answer should not be to accept a scheme that benefits a few to fit a broken management system. The answer should be to demand a management system that can benefit everyone.
In a recent Advocate column, local commercial and charter fisherman Steve Tomeny lamented the rhetoric surrounding Amendment 40. Unfortunately, red snapper has become a crucible of animosity that pits the few like Tomeny, who stand to benefit the most from privatization schemes, against everyone else. At a time when the entire recreational angling community should be standing together to demand a system that recognizes and prioritizes our potential, the community is being torn apart by confusion and greed.
For some, it’s too tempting to take advantage of this situation and ensure that they, at least, will secure their piece of the pie. Others have recognized that true leadership is needed to stand up against a broken system and the inequities that will result if we continue down this path.
David Cresson is executive director and CEO of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana.