Red Snapper Sector Separation Conflict

red-snapperWell, the public hearings on Reef Fish Amendment 40 are over.

Now the issue of further dividing red snapper swimming in the Gulf of Mexico will be left to the 17 voters on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

From the Aug. 18 meeting held in Baton Rouge, La., the issue is clear for recreational fishermen, who could be left without a day to spend in Gulf federal waters trying to catch a species that has recovered from being “overfished” at least a decade before federal fisheries managers estimated that would happen.

But “zero” days is what Amendment 40 will do. The move carries the nickname “Sector Separation,” but, for the hundreds of thousands of “private” recreational fishermen in the five Gulf States, it could well be labeled “sector elimination.”

It’s amazing that Amendment 40 gained traction in such a short period. This time two years ago, the idea of dividing the annual allowable recreational take of Gulf red snapper between “private and “for-hire” sectors was little more than a talking point, and most of the talk was coming from the charter boat fleet.

It seemed like a good idea at the time when the GMFMC and National Marine Fisheries Service folks decided to OK a pilot plan that allowed 15-20 for-hire head boats working from Florida panhandle ports to have their own red snapper quota. It was carved from the recreational limit.

Earlier this year, the council approved a similar plan for 100 charter operators working from Alabama marinas and ports. Apparently with seeds planted among some of the GMFMC voters, these Alabama folks showed up in New Orleans, pleaded their case and, with all the speed of a magician with a wand, had their special quota, albeit on a “trial” basis.

That sort of “fast tracking” is breaking new ground for a governmental group like NMFS and its parent the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which have moved Gulf of Mexico fishery matters along at snail’s pace in their more than 20 years on this job.

And it came at the same time when the council set reallocation of red snapper on the back burner, a move that would have given recreational fishermen a 75-25 split (25 percent for the commercial side) of any total annual red snapper quota over 9.12 million pounds.

The sector separation issue got quick votes during the GMFMC’s June meeting, and the sticking point for the recreationals was carving out a 47-percent share for the “for-hire” sector.

That left recreationals without an increased allocation, but with 53 percent of the 49-percent share of the overall allowable catch (commercials get 51 percent of the annual quota). The 49-percent share left the recreationals with a nine-day red snapper season this year, and the fear was that cutting out 47 percent of that 49 percent will leave them without a season – period – no days, nada, zilch.

More than 170 folks showed up at the Baton Rouge public hearing: 39 spoke, 34 of them against Amendment 40, and that’s in a fishery in which stocks more than rival the recovery of striped bass on the Atlantic Seaboard a decade ago.

Eyeballs in the Gulf see more red snapper than any can remember – so many that anglers targeting other species cannot catch those other species.

From here, there’s no animosity towards charter operations. They provide tens of thousands of recreational anglers with their only opportunity to catch fish in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. And that’s a good thing.

The big question going forward with Amendment 40 is whether ALL charterboat operators will have a chance to enter the “sector” that will allow them to have a quota then be able to regulate their offshore trips to stay within that allowable catch.

There’s every reason to believe some among the 1,300 for-hire operations on the Gulf Coast will not be eligible to get into this separate sector, and that’s wrong. This is just not for the big boys, the major boat-for-hire operations. This should be open to everyone.

That view is based on the more than 1,000 individual fishing quotas NMFS granted years ago to the commercial side. Today those commercial quotas are in 387 hands.

And, if the council is hell-bent on establishing a new sector, and because there is a commercial-venture side to these for-hire businesses, a double-digit percentage of any new for-hire quota should come from the commercial fishing side, not just from private recreational fishermen – and the millions of dollars and the thousands of jobs the businesses that support private anglers mean to local communities across the five Gulf States.

 

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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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