Federal managers shut down another Gulf fishery

Decision on Gulf amberjack shows federal management on brink of breakdown

Posted on October 21, 2009

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX - The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) continued its bizarre history of biased management regarding Gulf amberjack when it announced this week that the recreational season for the popular offshore species will close on October 24 due to the recreational sector overfishing its quota. This announcement comes barely two years after the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council arbitrarily shifted a significant portion of recreational allocation to the commercial sector.

“There is no way to defend what the Council has done with the management of amberjack. It borders on outright disregard for the recreational sector,” said Chester Brewer, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Associations National Government Relations Committee. “Combined with what is happening with Gulf red snapper and the commercial catch share plan for Gulf grouper, this latest announcement gives recreational anglers no reason to have any faith in the federal management of recreational fisheries.”
In 2007, the Council declared that Gulf greater amberjack were overfished, yet increased the commercial share of the fishery while reducing the recreational bag limit to one and increasing the size limit to 30 inches. The recreational restrictions were implemented despite the fact that unchecked commercial overfishing since 1990 was the primary cause of problems in the fishery - see Recreational Fishery Hijacked, CCA Press Release, September 10, 2007.
“The reduction in amberjack recreational allocation in 2007 from 84 percent to 71 percent has to be the most egregious allocation shift ever enacted by the Gulf Council,” said Ted Forsgren, executive director of CCA Florida. “Anglers were punished for supporting conservation measures and the commercial industry was rewarded for fishing over its quota. The change in catch level was a direct result of NMFS’ failure to enact adequate measures to control commercial take and failure to ever enforce the adopted allocation. We are feeling the full effects of those failures today with a closed recreational season.”
“If the Council had left the allocation where it was in 2007, and where it rightfully should have been, recreational anglers would not have been over their quota as of the end of August, and likely would not have gone over even by year’s end,” said Dr. Russell Nelson, CCA Gulf Fisheries consultant. “This is a case where an unwarranted allocation shift from recreational to commercial two years ago is shutting down our season, even though we are not the root cause of the problem.”
Adding to the frustration of anglers is the fact that last year’s recreational harvest was under the quota, but that underage is not being taken into account this year. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, catch overages and underages from previous years may be calculated in the following year’s harvest limits, but doing so is not mandatory. In the case of Gulf red snapper, however, two years of recreational overages will result in a dramatically shortened season in 2010.
“The one-sidedness of federal fisheries management is at a level that makes it almost impossible to believe recreational interests will ever be considered in any meaningful way,” said Brewer. “No fishery has ever been overfished by recreational angling alone, and any number of economic studies indicates that the recreational sector is by far the most valuable part of our marine fisheries. And yet, fishery after fishery is closing down for anglers while the Councils bend over backwards to keep the longlines and nets in the water. In the eyes of many recreational anglers, the federal management system is on the edge of a total breakdown.”
CCA is the largest marine resource conservation group of its kind in the nation. With almost 100,000 members in 17 state chapters, CCA has been active in state, national and international fisheries management issues since 1977. Visit www.JoinCCA.org for more information.
CONTACT: Ted Venker, 1-800-201-FISH
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We will be able to accept comments and questions on this issue until November 2, and selected comments may be posted below. Thank you.
Ted Venker
Newsroom Moderator
Thank you for this email. My question to these folks at NOAA is...have they ever fished...do they fish? Do they have families, what activities do their families do. We went offshore 10 times this year - not one Amberjack. I have never been stopped coming in to Galveston, asking what we caught and parks and wild life recording it. Do they understand how expensive a trip offshore is for us recreational fisherman?
- Shelby B.
Following are a couple of examples of the emails that are being sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service, with a copy sent to CCA as well.
- Newsroom Moderator
Dr. Roy Crabtree,
Please take the time to read my e-mail, then forward on to someone that might care. I have been hosting the Outdoors & Fishin' Television show now for 41 years. Its seen every week on Fox Sports Southwest. We do about 15 New Saltwater shows each year, the rest are fresh water shows. I have a great following of loyal viewers...I have been hammered with e-mails from viewers asking WHY???? Why is the Amberjack fishing for recreational anglers closing...
So now I'm asking for somebody to come up to the plate and give a GOOD, REASONABLE EXPLANATION...not the Outrageous & Stupid ones that were all reading about... I have a Question that really needs answering, and please don't take my question wrong, because it is an honest question...WHO, is the Idiot, or Idiots that are making these very Stupid Decisions without any concerns for the Millions of Recreational Anglers out there that are purchasing licenses, buying boats, gas, motel rooms, and spending thousands of dollars in fishing equipment each year...What about all those folks...
I am sad to say that this so called National Marine Fisheries Service is far from competent, what they are is a disaster & Hopefully by some means will either be shut down, or the ignorant decision makers replaced with someone with common sense. I am always here, should anyone like to join me for a discussion on what's going on..You can be sure that our Television show will be filled with guest who are just as disgusted with the National Marine Fisheries Service for the direction that their taking, as I Am...Its really hard to believe that this can actually happen, that there are actually folks that think what their doing is right. Where do they find these folks?????
Thank you for your time..
- "Cajun" Phil Broussard
Great Hunting Adventures Television
with Cajun Phil and Capt. Kevin Broussard
Dr. Crabtree, 
This is absolutely ridiculous! Again! (See the red snapper debacle that we are now living with the effects of! Wake up and see where the most tax dollars, conservation efforts and dollars, funding of scientific research, coastal economic impact, and jobs come from. It is not from commercial fishing. It is from recreational anglers and the recreational fishing industry. 
I am appalled, Again, at the ineptitude and protectionist attitude the NMFS has for an industry that should by all means be replaced by sustainable aquaculture or at the least enforced sustainable commercial limits. CCA and the NMFS should be working together to make this whole thing work for all Americans and you constantly award the commercial fisherman who are cheating themselves and recreational anglers into oblivion. They wipe out one species at a time and leave us to clean up their mess they leave behind with your blessing. I am sick of recreational anglers suffering for the results poor decisions like this one.
- Ben F.
Dr. Crabtree,
In the 1980s Texans brought out the fact that commercial interests over fish a species (Red Drum) and contribute considerably less to the economy that recreational fishermen. Period. And we made changes (no commercial fishing for redfish) that literally saved the species. 
What you have done is totally unacceptable regarding the Amberjack and Red Snapper fishery. It is not good for the fishery and not good for the economy and certainly not good for the millions of Americans that recharge their batteries by making a weekend fishing trip.
Please reverse this policy and make the wise decision to limit commercial harvests and leave the recreational season open. I am putting forth an effort to investigate your motivation for implementing the policy. When someone makes a decision that is blatantly against common sense, economics, and science, something is “fishy”.
Pun intended  and it STINKS!
- Tommy M.
I believe we share the same ultimate goal: to save and preserve our oceanic ecosystem. Recreational fisherman are perhaps the most vigilant and important stewards of our resources. Freshwater trout streams across the country have been cleaned, restored and managed for decades by concerned anglers that self-impose limits and conservation measures.  A prime example would be the fine work of Trout Unlimited. Commercial fishing, by definition, is a job, a job that measures success by maximizing harvest. By continually bolstering commercial fishing and reducing the opportunities of recreational fisherman, you are creating a situation that will permanently damage our fishery and our future.  As a father, with a two year old boy, I fear that my son will never have the opportunity to experience the joys and wonders that I have discovered in the outdoors. 
As any father will tell you, the retention of a few fish to "bring home to show mama", is critical in the process of building interest, understanding, and ultimately pride in our fisheries.  It will be mighty hard to explain to my son that he cannot keep any fish for dinner, but must throw them all back - and yes that big boat over there gets to keep literally tons of them because they fish for money. They fish for money, and rather than find a more lucrative job in what could have been a very dynamic economy funded by recreational fishing dollars, they continue to overharvest, and fish illegally because they too must "make a living."  "Son, if you would like fish for dinner, we can buy some at the store." "It will not be as fresh as the ones we released today, and you will not learn skills to clean and process your catch, but it must be"
One need only look at the Texas inshore situation over the last few decades to see the proper course of action.  I remember as a kid only occasionally catching a redfish back in the early 80's.  Banning commercial redfish harvest and the reduction in Texas bay shrimping through buy-outs has clearly worked.  Redfish populations are at unprecedented levels, despite an explosion in recreational fisherman.  We have a new generation of inshore fishing fanatics, that truly care about the resource and self-impose limits. Sure plenty of guides and fisherman keep some for the freezer, but the majority of trophy trout are released after a quick photo. A dead trophy trout at the dock theses days is far more likely to met with scorn than praise.
Please sir, do the right thing.  Phase out commercial fishing and institute common sense limits and seasons for recreational fisherman. Commercial fisherman fish for profit. The need to profit or "makes ends meet" will always motivate honest men to bend rules and break laws. Recreational fisherman fish for the love of the sport.  Rare is the man that would destroy what he truly loves.
- Nathan C.
Many people who sent comments to Dr. Roy Crabtree about the amberjack closure received a reply and forwarded it to CCA. We refute his implication that we are spreading misinformation and so we asked CCA Gulf Fisheries Consultant Dr. Russell Nelson to lay out the simple facts. Perhaps the most relevant  fact to keep in mind, which can in no way be construed as misinformation, is the fact that the commercial sector is still fishing for amberjack and we are not.
Dr. Crabtree's Comments:
"There is quite a bit of misinformation going around about this issue. Most of the allowable greater amberjack catch is allocated to the recreational fishery: 1.368 million pounds. The commercial quota is 503,000 pounds. Please understand that when the Gulf Council took action in 2008 to rebuild greater amberjack, the reductions in harvest on the commercial sector (43% reduction) were greater than on the recreational sector (26% reduction). The Council's action was intended to increase the recreational share of the catch. In addition, the Council did not reduce the recreational bag limit - it was already 1 - they did increase the size limit by 2 inches and eliminated the bag limit for captain and crew on for-hire trips.
The following extract is from Reef fish amendment 30A and explains the Council's rationale for the allocation decision and why they decided to cut the commercial harvest more than the recreational harvest.
"Historically, the Council had proportionally reduced harvest for the commercial and recreational sectors when approving past regulatory measures. However, in more recent years, landings have shifted considerably from the allocation specified in Amendment 1 to the Reef Fish FMP and the Council believed disproportional reductions in harvest may be more fair and equitable. The most recent greater amberjack stock assessment indicates the commercial fishery accounted for 32 percent of the total greater amberjack landings during 2000-2004 versus only 16 percent of the total greater amberjack landings during 1981-1987 (basis for Amendment 1 allocation). The Council was unwilling to shift the more recent allocation (68:32) entirely back to the approved allocation in Amendment 1 (84:16) because of uncertainties in historical data (i.e., volatile landings), questions over whether or not harvest reductions would be fairly and equitably distributed between sectors, and high fishing mortality  rates in some years for both sectors, which resulted in overfishing and the stock becoming overfished As a result, the Council moved allocation to Section 13 (Considered but Rejected) after much discussion and no consensus. However, the Council recognized that the most prudent course of action was to establish an interim allocation that shifted the allocation near the historical long-term average allocation (1981-2004: 71 percent recreational vs. 29 percent commercial). Based on the selection of preferred management measures in Actions 3 and 4, the majority of the Council felt that landings in the recreational fishery should be reduced less than landings in the commercial fishery because of perceived inequities in the effects of previous management decisions and greater amberjack's value as a recreational sportfish.
 The proposed interim allocation would be in effect through the remainder of the greater amberjack rebuilding plan until such time that the Council, through the recommendations of an Ad Hoc Allocation Committee, could implement a separate amendment that fairly and equitably allocated FMP resources between recreational and commercial fisheries. This will allow for a more thorough and comprehensive analysis for consistently allocating reef fish resources and maximizing net benefits to the Nation.
The alternatives in this action range from a 73:27 recreational/commercial allocation, which would require a 26 percent reduction in recreational landings and a 43 percent reduction in commercial landings to a 65:35 recreational/commercial allocation, which would require a 35 percent reduction in recreational landings and a 25 percent reduction in commercial landings. The Council's preferred interim allocation is 73 percent recreational and 27 percent commercial.
The Council determined the preferred interim allocation was consistent with National Standard 4. The preferred allocation would fairly and equitably assist the Council in furthering the following objectives of the FMP: 1) minimize conflicts between user groups of the resource, and 2) optimize net benefits to the fishery. Although the interim allocation would impose a hardship on the commercial sector, the interim allocation represents a compromise between the more recent allocation (68:32) and the Amendment 1 allocation (84:16), thereby reducing potential conflicts between sectors resulting from a more drastic shift in allocation. Additionally, decreasing landings of greater amberjack less for the recreational fishery than for the commercial fishery may improve the resulting economic value of the resource to the Gulf region because the added value of the recreational landings may outweigh the loss in value by the commercial fishery (See Sections 5.3.3 and 5.4.3). "
Dr. Nelson responds:
The simple facts about Gulf Amberjack and the recent closure - In 1990 the Gulf Council allocated 84 percent of the annual allowed catch of amberjack to the recreational sector. Over the next 15 years, a bag limit was in place for anglers, but neither the National Marine Fisheries Service nor the Gulf Council took any action to keep the commercial harvest within its 16 percent and this unrestricted catch rose to more than 35 percent of the total in some years. 
 In 2007, The Gulf Council had to reduce harvests and establish a rebuilding plan when informed that amberjack had been overfished. Essentially all those years of unrestricted commercial harvest had driven stock size down.  Despite strong protest from CCA, the Gulf Council, supported by the NMFS, changed the allocation and rewarded the commercial industry for constantly exceeding its 16 percent share by increasing their share to 29 percent of the total.  The recreational share was reduced to 71 percent of the total.
On October 24, the NMFS announced a sudden and unexpected closure of the recreational amberjack fishery in the Gulf. To date total landings have been about 1.413 million pounds.  If the allocation had not been changed, the recreational quota this year would have been 1.572 million pounds and the closure would not have been instituted.
Ironically, the commercial amberjack fishery continues to access the fishery while recreational anglers have to sit at the dock and watch them leave.