What does the federal court decision on red snapper mean for rec anglers?

Photo courtesy NOAA.org

Photo courtesy NOAA.org

Now that some of the dust has settled over last week’s federal district court ruling in Washington, D.C., it’s time for recreational anglers to take a hard look at what a judge far away from the Gulf of Mexico believes has happened to red snapper management.

First, know the judge’s ruling came in a suit filed nine months ago by Texas commercial fishermen and pushed along by the Environmental Defense Fund.

Second, boiling down the 50-page ruling to a few words is easy: The judge believes the methods employed by our federal government managers to control the recreational take of red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico don’t work.

Third, notice that nowhere in the ruling did the judge indicate the Gulf’s red snapper is the main issue, or that the stock is in trouble, or that recovery of those stocks has been limited by the suit’s contention that recreational fishermen exceed the annual quota set by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Fourth, note the judge’s ruling neither provided a remedy nor offered a mandate to further control the recreational red snapper take.

So while the commercial sector and the EDF believe there needs to be a more detailed accounting procedures for recreational catch – something more than increasingly shorter seasons and daily limits – the judge was wise enough to know that she didn’t have enough information to proffer any system the commercials and EDF insist need to be instituted to correct what they see as overharvest by the recreational side.

Fifth, nothing in the judge’s ruling demonized recreational fishermen the way some commercial interests and the EDF have attempted to during the last six years.

When the ruling came down in March’s last days, there was an audible groan from the recreational community.

Does the ruling mean there will be no 40-day Gulf recreational red snapper season announced by Regional Administrator Roy Crabtree earlier this year?

Does this mean recreational fishermen will have to go to court to correct some of the inequities in the federal management scheme?

How can recreational fishermen insist the Gulf Council and NMFS staffers use more timely and, in some cases, more accurate data in determining the recreational red snapper catch?

Though the commercials and the EDF are beating their chests over this “victory,” recreational fishermen can know that they’ve won, too, even amidst that ruling and while considering answers to those questions.

Years ago, when the federal managers decided to issue individual fishing quotas (IFQs) to the commercial side, the commercials didn’t complain the system was “broken.” The objections came from the recreational side. Back then and when recreational seasons started on a downhill spiral of decreased seasons, it was the recreational side saying the system was “broken.” Therein lies the win here – and it came with help from the commercial side.

This win came after a time when, despite the commercial/EDF cries of “foul,” dedicated and law-abiding recreational fishermen adhered to an ever-decreasing number of season days, stayed within the 16-inch minimum-size limit and lived with a two-red snapper-per-day creel limit. And this veiled recreational win comes with all sides fully knowing that red snapper stocks have rebounded much faster than anyone could have imagined.

That, mes amis, is a victory that stands apart from any suit or any court ruling.

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Joe Macaluso has covered the outdoors in South Louisiana for more than 40 years and has served as the outdoors editor for The Advocate in Baton Rouge since the early 1990s. He is a long-time member of the Louisiana Outdoor Writer’s Association and is a past recipient of the association’s Arthur Van Pelt Award for lifetime achievement in conservation. He has also been honored for his coverage of college football and baseball before dedicating his career almost entirely to covering the outdoors.

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One comment on “What does the federal court decision on red snapper mean for rec anglers?
  1. I read the TRCP blogs here on Reel-Time pretty regularly, and once in a while I comment, usually with respect to striped bass, New England Groundfish or one of the other issues that I deal with on a regular basis.

    But I’ve been following the red snapper issue for a number of years, since the days when recreational interests first sued to require bycatch exclusion devices in shrimp trawls. It seems to be a fishery prone to litigation, and given that I’m an attorney as well as an angler, that causes me to follow that fishery pretty closely.

    So when I read a blog that talks about taking a hard look at what litigation means to fishermen, I can’t help but offer my views from the perspective that takes both those aspects of my identity into account.

    To address one of the first points raised, it doesn’t matter who files a suit; what matters is who wins it, because that’s the party who is legally and factually right. Commercial fishermen won Guindon v. Pritzker, and that’s pretty embarrassing. As a recreational fisherman, I like to think of “my side” as sportsmen who want to do what’s right, and not as the sort of self-indulgent fish hogs who get themselves shut down by the commercial sector.

    Over the years, if you watch the trends, it seems that the folks who go to court to conserve fish resources have a better track record than those who sue in order to kill more fish. So the commercials won Guindon v. Pritzker, and anglers won two previous suits that sought to protect juvenile red snapper that were getting killed as bycatch in shrimp trawls. But when anglers sued to kill more fish, as they have over the years with respect to South Atlantic red snapper, Mid-Atlantic summer flounder (twice) and yellowfin tuna and shark offshore, they ended up on the losing side. So yes, recreational fishermen can “go to court to correct some of the inequities in the federal management scheme,” but before they do, they probably should make sure that the law and the facts are on their side. Because if they sue out of outrage and hurt feelings, or just to increase their kill, they may spend a lot of money not just to lose, but to set a pretty bad precedent along the way.

    That seems to be what happened in Guindon v. Pritzker, which is already having implications elsewhere. Just this morning, I learned that commercial fishermen in North Carolina are trying to use the reasoning in that case to hold recreational fishermen “accountable” for their discard mortality in the red drum fishery. The laws are different and Guindon v. Pritzker doesn’t really apply to Carolina drum, but anglers everywhere along the coast may soon be able to thank Gulf red snapper anglers’ failure to keep their own house in order, and keep their catch within their quota, for increased attacks on the recreational sector by commercial fishermen who try to divert attention from their own excesses.

    Some folks say that “less is more,” but when one tries “boiling down the 50-page ruling to a few words,” it’s probably best to find the right words, and not to boil things down too much. The court noted that using season length alone to control recreational red snapper harvest in the Gulf was ineffective. But it also noted how badly NMFS failed to acknowledge last year’s recreational overharvest, and how it also failed to use other tools and information that it had available. It said that

    “…To summarize the sequence of events: (1) In July 2013, the Council proposed increasing the 2013 quota and suggested reopening the season in the fall, contingent on there being unused quota available; (2) in early August, NMFS published a proposal discussing the possibility of reopening the season, contingent on available quota; (3) in late August, NMFS received MRIP landings estimates indicating an overage that exceeded both the current and proposed quota; (4) NMFS reopened the fall season anyway…

    “The administrative record is replete with references to the high degree of management uncertainty in the recreational sector, as compared to the commercial sector, which had none…NMFS administrator Roy Crabtree described the recreational sector’s particular management uncertainties to the Council’s Reef Fish Management Committee in January 2013, and to the full Council in June 2013…All this evidence of high management uncertainty explains why the SSC recommended a 20 percent buffer for the recreational sector. The Council well understood this. In the July Framework Action, the Council discussed the SSC’s buffer recommendation as one possible alternative…Yet the Council rejected the buffer, while proposing no other accountability measures for the recreational sector, and NMFS approved the Council proposal…”

    And that’s important, because in reviewing NMFS’ actions with respect to red snapper, it’s not the court’s place to substitute its views for that of the agency, and to determine whether the stock is in trouble, whether the recovery has been impacted by anglers’ overharvest and what accountability measures should be imposed. That’s NMFS’ job, and if the court tried to do it, its decision would be overturned on appeal. The only thing that the court can do is to make sure that, in managing red snapper, NMFS follows the law, employs the best available science and comes to a conclusion that is supported by the facts at hand. As it turned out, it found that NMFS failed to meet even such basic standards. That’s why the commercial folks won.

    Yet I also believe that the author is right when it says that the recreational folks can also claim a victory in Guindon v. Pritzker. The suit has made it clear that overfishing by either sector will not be tolerated, and that the law requires the stock to be rebuilt. Rebuilt stocks are in anglers’ best long-term interests, even if the rebuilding process can get a bit painful. But having been through that process with respect to a number of species up here in the Mid-Atlantic, I can assure folks that the benefits of fishing on a fully-rebuilt stock is worth the attendant pain.

    However, I disagree that the suit proves that the system is “broken”; in fact, Guindon v. Pritzker demonstrates just the opposite, that the current management system includes a robust legal process that can and will rebuild fish stocks by requiring NMFS to adopt needed rules. It demonstrates that fishermen can’t justify overharvest simply because they adhered to rules that allowed such overharvest to continue; instead, all fishermen must fish under rules that keep harvest under control.

    And yes, rebounding red snapper stocks are a good thing. So is strictly controlling harvest—recreational as well as commercial—to assure that the rebound continues until the stock is fully restored.

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