Divide-and-conquer in the Gulf of Mexico

red-snapperWhen it comes to fishing for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, it appears that the Gulf Fishery Management Council is taking a divide-and-conquer approach.

The way to do that is by sector separation, which would separate recreational fishermen into those who fish on their own, private boats and those who fish on charter boats and headboats. The recreational red snapper catch would then be divided between those two sectors.

By pitting recreational anglers and headboat owners against each other, some council members and well-funded environmental groups hope to severely limit, if not eliminate, recreational fishing for red snapper.

The council’s rationale behind sector separation is that the number of federally permitted headboats is limited and decreasing, while any number of recreational anglers on private boats can fish for red snapper. This means they catch more fish than the headboats, and that’s not fair.

When it comes to how many red snapper and how long a season each sector would get, the council says those numbers and season lengths would not be determined until, and if, sector separation is approved.

Going by the Gulf Council’s resource management history, there’s a good chance recreational anglers who fish on private boats would get shorted, while headboat owners would be in favor of more red snappers for them and less for everybody else.

What puzzles recreational anglers and recreational fishing groups is why the council keeps pushing for sector separation even though anglers have come out against it in overwhelming numbers of public comments in the past.

Even the council’s Red Snapper Advisory Panel, a mix of commercial and recreational fishermen and business interests, voted 6-5 against recreational red snapper sector separation, which is officially known as Reef Fish Amendment 40, at its meeting in Tampa, Fla., on July 30.

Yet on July 24, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded a $100,000 Fisheries Innovation Fund Award to the Environmental Defense Fund for “Evaluating a Catch Shares Pilot for Gulf of Mexico Headboats.”

In announcing the award, the NFWF stated, “The Environmental Defense Fund will evaluate the economic and conservation performance of a rights based management (catch shares) pilot program for Gulf of Mexico recreational fishing businesses known as headboats. … If the data and analysis show the headboat pilot to be successful, this project could lead to the implementation of [the] first large-scale recreational catch shares management in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Considering that the EDF has been an outspoken proponent of catch shares in the coastal waters of the United States, do you think its findings will support catch shares for headboats in the Gulf?

Ultimately, the goal would be to award permits or tags to catch red snappers to commercial fishermen, headboats and some recreational anglers. Those permits could then be sold, so headboat owners wouldn’t even have to go to the trouble of taking people fishing. They could make a nice living selling their permits at whatever price they can get to recreational anglers who want to catch a few red snappers with their families and friends as well as to commercial anglers who want to supply red snappers to restaurants and fish markets.

But don’t panic. Recreational anglers have an opportunity to kill the council’s support for sector separation at public hearings this month throughout the Gulf region.

Those hearings, which all begin at 6 p.m., are Aug. 4 in Galveston Island, Texas, and St. Petersburg Beach, Fla.; Aug. 5 in Port Aransas, Texas; Aug. 6 in Orange Beach, Ala.; Aug. 7 in Mobile, Ala.; Aug. 12 in Panama City, Fla.; Aug. 18 in Baton Rouge, La.; and Aug. 19 in Gulfport, Miss.

If enough anglers attend a hearing and speak face to face to the council bureaucrats against sector separation, that could be enough to make Reef Fish Amendment 40 go away for a while, if not for good.

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Steve Waters has been the outdoors writer for the Sun Sentinel since August of 1990. He got his start in journalism in Charleston, S.C., where he was a sportswriter and covered sailing. In his spare time, he fished for striped bass on the famed Santee-Cooper lakes with one of the high school football coaches he knew and later bought a bass boat so he could fish there on his own. When his sports editor at his next paper, The Tuscaloosa News, found out he had a boat, he asked him if he wanted to cover the outdoors in addition to covering the Crimson Tide. It wasn't long before Waters realized that writing about fishing was way more fun than covering Alabama football. He went on to cover the outdoors for two more newspapers and a TV station, as well as sports ranging from golf and baseball to NASCAR and the NHL, before writing full-time about fishing, boating, sailing, diving, hunting, powerboat racing and environmental issues for the Sun Sentinel.

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