A Devil’s Choice for the States

Posted on May 09, 2012

As the debate winds down on whether Gulf states will be consistent with federal regulations for the 2012 red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico – 40-days (tops) and a two-fish bag limit – it once again brings the conversation around to what seems to be the best solution of all: “Why don’t we just extend state waters out to 30 miles or 100 miles or 200 miles for fisheries management and be done with it?”

Implicit in that statement is acknowledgement of NOAA Fisheries deep-rooted problems in federal fisheries management and a belief in the states’ ability to do it better. It is a concept that is hard to argue with if you’re a recreational angler. Consider that after decades of effort by NOAA Fisheries, participants in the red snapper fishery are being rewarded with a 40-day season (tops) and two-fish bag limit. That is about as bad as it has ever been, and that is with a fishery that by all accounts is recovering wildly. The current situation merely confirms that NOAA Fisheries may not be any better at managing success than it was at managing failure. After all, it took a couple of lawsuits and an Act of God (Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005) to finally turn the red snapper fishery around, and yet  federal managers had to make the rounds in 2012 to beg the Gulf states to be content with a 40-day season and a two-fish bag limit.
In a blog earlier this year, we said that trust in federal fisheries management was at an all-time low, which was based in part on developments exactly like this. Thirty years of federal futility have brought us to this point with red snapper, where we have state agencies grappling with a devil’s choice of staying consistent with wholly unsatisfactory federal regulations or going inconsistent and bringing on a raft of different problems. After all the time, money, effort and stress over this fishery, there is still no good answer for the states. It’s like being asked if you want to have your leg amputated or your arm.
Inconsistency creates all kinds of negatives – from enforcement to conservation, and it definitely bites charter boats and other federally permitted boats. However, states staying consistent for recreational anglers means staying on board a ship that is slowly sinking with no lifeboats in sight. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
What an awful position for the state fish and wildlife agencies to be in, through no fault of their own. One would hope that the federal government will grasp the take-home message from the states that seriously considered non-compliance this year – fix this fishery, once and for all. Come up with something that makes sense for the resource and sense for recreational anglers. Do it now – not in five more years or ten more years or twenty more years. Now.
Failing that, here’s an idea – why don’t we extend state waters out for fishery management purposes and be done with it?