The Usual Suspects Strike Again

Posted on February 14, 2013

The surreal end of the February meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council felt a lot like the ending to The Usual Suspects.

In that movie, a crippled, career criminal weaves a fantastic story to the police of the events leading up to a spectacular crime. In his tale, a shadowy, mythical crime figure ensnares an array of innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders through deceit, intimidation and confusion into doing his bidding. Driven by suspicion and misinformation, members of the gang end up turning on each other and taking the fall for the deed. The cops, convinced the storyteller is nothing more than an insignificant pawn swept up in events too complicated for him to even comprehend, let him go, only to realize too late that he was the mastermind after all. He escapes.

The theme going into the February meeting of the Gulf Council was what to do about the ridiculous 27-day red snapper season. It ended with the Gulf states and all the groups concerned about the red snapper season fighting over scraps and pointing fingers. The feds escaped again, for the time being.

The Council system is a clunky contraption that gives the illusion of state and citizen input into federal fisheries management. For the most part, it is failing in the Gulf. Council members are appointed to three-year terms and ostensibly are the decision-makers, but it doesn’t work exactly like that. The mastermind story-tellers at the Council are the federal staffers and bureaucrats.

On the brink of a 27-day snapper recreational red snapper season, there have been a host of things on the table to possibly provide tangible relief – reallocation, inter-sector trading, regional management. Each of those are complicated, big-picture ideas that are beyond the ability of ordinary citizen-Council members to fully develop during six one-week meetings a year. Council members rely almost completely on federal bureaucrats to take their input and, in good faith, develop plans based on that direction in between meetings. And that is where the system breaks down and fails.    

A 27-day snapper season has been years in the making, and the foundations of faith in the system are clearly fractured. Texas long ago abandoned federal regulations and manages the nine miles of its state waters independent of whatever silliness spills out of federal management. At various times over the years Florida has also gone inconsistent with federal regulations and announced plans this week to be out of compliance with federal red snapper regulations in 2013. And Louisiana announced 18 months ago that it would take similar steps if the Gulf Council didn’t begin to find solutions to the ever-shrinking recreational season.

A widespread revolt by the Gulf states would signal unprecedented dissatisfaction in federal fisheries management. Such a rejection would be highly embarrassing and it may even be enough to get the attention of Congress, finally, and begin a process to reevaluate it from top to bottom. It would surely elevate the debate beyond the ability of staff to control.

So against that backdrop, what were the ideas that federal staff promoted and lobbied most intensely last week? A one-fish bag limit that would extend the season from 27 days to 44 days and bestowing the top fisheries bureaucrat with more power to keep states in compliance with federal regulations.

Perfectly understandable, if you look at it from a bureaucrat’s point of view.

A 44-day season with a one-fish bag limit on an offshore fish means nothing to anglers, but it sounds a lot better than a 27-day season. It gives the illusion of improvement to any Congressman who might otherwise have reason to get involved. And painting states that are fed up with nonsensical federal regulations as the bad guys pits state against state, region against region, group against group. Discussion at the meeting last week devolved into how the “cheaters” were shortening the season for everyone else. Suddenly the debate wasn’t about the failures of federal management that have led to a 27-days season, but rather about how states were threatening that 27-day season…as if that were something worth cherishing in the first place.

So the feds escaped to fight another day. The states were carping at each other. Any move to even begin reallocation is delayed for six months. The season for 2013 will be 27 days or less.

Staff has been directed to work on inter-sector trading and regional management, and if the past is any indication, they will come back with a long list of reasons for why those things will never work. They’ll shake their heads and cluck at the Council members, and say it just can’t be done. When an irate Congressman demands answers, the bureaucrats will throw up their hands and say the Council just doesn’t have the will to make any hard decisions.

One of the most memorable lines from The Usual Suspects was, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” The greatest trick federal fisheries bureaucrats have ever pulled is convincing anyone that they aren’t fully responsible for this mess.