Gulf Red Snapper Management
Finding a Solution to Gulf Red Snapper Management
Red snapper management has become an increasingly contentious issue. Despite a rebuilding stock plan, federal management of Gulf of Mexico red snapper has resulted in fewer recreational fishing opportunities, causing substantial harm to the businesses and communities that depend on access to the red snapper fishery
The recreational fishing community has taken up a multi-phase process to identify strategies for addressing current and future Gulf of Mexico red snapper management challenges. During the first meeting on April 18-19, representatives of the recreational fishing community discussed with NOAA Fisheries staff the scientific, policy and political factors that have contributed to the current status of red snapper management. Facilitated by Florida State University’s FCRC Consensus Center, the Gulf Angler Focus Group Initiative will continue throughout the course of 2016, ultimately producing a consensus package of alternative recreational fisheries management recommendations to be submitted to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and the five state fisheries managers from the Gulf region as appropriate.
Because of the numerous fundamental flaws within the existing federal management system, ASA strongly supports transferring red snapper management to the five Gulf states which are much better equipped to monitor and understand the stock while managing it at a sustainable level that allows for reasonable public access.
An example of the inability of the federal system to provide improvements to recreational fishing opportunities for red snapper, and in fact continue to diminish them, is a recently approved plan known as sector separation.
ASA is opposed to sector separation and is deeply troubled that this poorly conceived and detrimental plan, also called Amendment 40, was passed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. In our 2013 position paper, ASA urged federal fishery managers to remove saltwater recreational sector separation from all management plan discussions.
Sector separation has created serious conflicts between private anglers and charter/for-hire captains, and further diminished recreational fishing opportunities for red snapper. Sector separation, which was approved by the Gulf Council in October 2015, and later by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), sets out to divide the Gulf red snapper recreational quota between charter/for-hire boats and private anglers. This has resulted in drastically reduced recreational fishing days for private anglers in federal waters.
Even though the Gulf red snapper population is healthier than it has been in decades, federal fisheries managers continue to reduce recreational fishing seasons, resulting in an all-time low of just nine days in 2014. There are many contributing factors that have resulted in the current state of unrest regarding red snapper management, including overly rigid statutory requirements, inadequate stock assessments, inaccurate angler harvest estimates, a refusal by managers to reexamine allocations and the heavy influence of commercial fishing and environmental organizations.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met in October 2014, voting 10-7 to approve Amendment 40, or sector separation, which would divide the recreational red snapper quota between individual recreational fishermen and charter/for-hire captains. This management approach, for all practical purposes, will effectively eliminate the red snapper recreational season in federal waters for the individual angler.
Despite stated opposition to Amendment 40 from Congress, states, business owners and fishing organizations, the Council ultimately decided to implement the rule with a three-year sunset provision. NMFS published the final rule in the Federal Register on April 22, 2015.
A small glimmer of hope for the future of recreational management of Gulf red snapper was provided by a last minute attachment to Amendment 40 that requires a three year “sunset,” which means that unless the Council takes action to continue sector separation, it will automatically expire after three years. This provision was introduced into the discussion once it became evident that the permanent sector separation proposal had the votes within the Council for passage.
While sector separation is now scheduled to go into effect possibly through 2018, the sunset provision stops any forward movement on bringing catch shares into the temporarily separated recreational sectors and prevents a permanent implementation strategy.
A federal judge in January 2016 upheld the ruling on a highly controversial Gulf red snapper management plan called Amendment 40, or sector separation. The amendment divides the recreational red snapper quota, equal to 51.5 percent of the total allocation, between private recreational anglers (57.7 percent) and licensed charter captains (42.3 percent). Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) filed its lawsuit against implementation of Amendment 40 to the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico on April 22, 2015, following a 10-7 vote by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to pass the amendment in October 2014. In its lawsuit submitted to the Eastern District Court of Louisiana, CCA charged that Amendment 40 constitutes agency action that is arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law and in excess of statutory jurisdiction, authority or limitations.
In addition, the five Gulf states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida) are exploring a path forward for regional management (formally known as Amendment 39) that would give each state control over the recreational fishery off their coast, in both state and federal waters, in a way that better meets the needs of the recreational fishing community.
The states’ big stumbling block is how to divide the allowable catch among the states. ASA and its partners wrote a letter to the state governors stating their support for the plan.
During its August 2015 meeting, regarding reallocation, the Council reviewed and took final action on Reef Fish Amendment 28, which reallocates a portion of the commercial red snapper quota to the recreational sector. The previous red snapper allocation (49 percent recreational, 51 percent commercial) has been in place since the mid-1980s. The Council’s preferred alternative – Alternative 8 – will allocate the increase in allowable harvest due to the recalibration of a new survey catch estimates to the recreational sector. As a result, the allocation for 2016-2017 will be 48.5 percent commercial and 51.5 percent recreational recreational – a modest 2.5 percent increase of the total quota.
In December 2015, 26 fishermen, fish markets and industry groups filed a lawsuit against the Department of Commerce alleging that regulators are allowing recreational fisherman to deplete scarce Gulf of Mexico red snapper stocks. In reality, their lawsuit opposes the modest reallocation amendment the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council approved in August.
A Potential Solution
Given their proven track record, ASA believes that greater management control by the states will significantly improve the management of red snapper in a way that sustains healthy stocks while allowing for ample public access.
The first attempt to codify that conviction was introduced on September 12, 2013 by a bipartisan coalition led by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) that sought to chart a new course for management of Gulf red snapper. The legislation came after the governors of four Gulf states released a joint letter to the U.S. House and Senate leadership stating that federal management of Gulf red snapper is “irretrievably broken,” and called for a coordinated Gulf states partnership for red snapper management.
A concerted effort to pursue this same goal was taken back up by Congress more recently. On January 7, 2015, Sen. Vitter (R-La.) introduced S. 105, which would transfer management of Gulf of Mexico red snapper to the five Gulf states. Following that, a plan for state-based management of the federal Gulf red snapper fishery was released in March 2015 by the directors of all five Gulf states.
Since that time, it has received strong support from the recreational fishing industry, community, and Members of Congress. On July 16, 2015, bipartisan legislation (H.R. 3094) was introduced by Reps. Garret Graves (R-La.) and Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) that would extend formal federal recognition to the historic agreement between the chief fish and wildlife officials of all five Gulf States to accept joint responsibility for management of the red snapper fishery in federal waters. H.R. 3094 would lead to better conservation of red snapper and improve public access. The bill had more than 20 original co-sponsors.
On October 22, 2015, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans held a hearing on Graves’ H.R. 3094 and heard testimony from eight panelists. Rep. Graves received letters of support for the bill from all five Gulf states prior to the hearing, each expressing concern over the federal government’s dramatic departure from established wildlife resource management practices.
Rep. Graves’ bill will extend formal federal recognition to the historic agreement between the chief fish and wildlife officials of all five Gulf States to accept joint responsibility for management of the red snapper fishery in federal waters. Red snapper management is currently under the jurisdiction of the GMFMC, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s NMFS.
In June 15, 2016, by a vote of 24-14, the House Natural Resources Committee passed the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Management Authority Act (H.R. 3094). Introduced by Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), and with the support of 42 bipartisan co-sponsors, H.R. 3094 offers a proven, state-based solution to ensure America’s anglers have more than just nine days to access the healthiest population of Gulf red snapper in history. Rep. Graves’ bill will extend formal federal recognition to the historic agreement between the five Gulf states to accept joint responsibility for the management of the red snapper fishery in both state and federal waters. The bill also ensures the current individual quota shares of the commercial fishery are protected.
Federal Appropriations Efforts
A number of bills were introduced in 2015 to mitigate the troubles facing the Gulf red snapper fishery, including federal mismanagement and unfair allocations. Several of these efforts were accomplished in the end-of-year federal spending negotiations. Passed on December 18, the Congressional Omnibus Appropriations bill included many actions important to recreational fishing championed by Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). The bill included provisions that attempt to address the ongoing Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery mismanagement that has resulted in an abbreviated ten-day season for private sector recreational anglers.
Specifically, the appropriations bill included language that:
- Provides $5 million for independent stock assessments for Gulf of Mexico reef fish, including red snapper.
- Directs NOAA Fisheries to count fish on artificial reefs and offshore energy infrastructure, and incorporate those counts into future stock assessments and management decisions.
- Urges NOAA and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to provide an increased allocation of Gulf red snapper to private sector recreational anglers should the allowable catch of red snapper increase. This would help address the historically inequitable allocation of this fishery which has limited recreational fishing opportunities and associated economic impacts.
- Provides up to $5 million for the NOAA National Sea Grant Program to support a red snapper reward tagging study in the Gulf of Mexico.
- Increases the role of state fisheries managers in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana by expanding state waters from three to nine miles.
In 2016, the FY17 federal appropriations process got off to a good start for Gulf of Mexico red snapper recreational fishing. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS), announced full committee passage of the Fiscal Year 2017 CJS appropriations bill, which contains several provisions affecting fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. On red snapper specifically, the bill would lead to better stock assessments and baseline ecosystem monitoring and would extend state seaward fishery boundaries from three to nine miles out for red snapper management.