States Vs. Feds – Not a Moment Too Soon

Posted on April 04, 2013

You could say that the wheels have fallen off federal fisheries management of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s been a downward spiral for many years, and it culminated this year with the announcement of a 27-day recreational season, followed by a revolt by the Gulf states over territorial waters and the implementation of inconsistent regulations. The feds say 27 days is the best they can do. The states, which know a thing or two about how to manage wildlife resources, disagree.


Federal legislation has already been filed by Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama, and more is undoubtedly on the way, to cut through the chaos and have the states take back control of fisheries management. CCA fully supports these efforts for greater state management and nothing makes it clearer that it’s the right way to go than the latest news from NOAA Fisheries.


On March 28, the Federal Register posted the opening of a comment period for an exempted fishing permit (EFP) for the Gulf Headboat Cooperative to run a two-year pilot program to allow a select group of headboats to use catch shares to run their business. We warned on March 7 that something like this was likely to be attempted as the fisheries situation in the Gulf deteriorates. While the states, other headboat businesses, and the recreational sector as a whole deal with a 27-day season, this pilot program proposes to take a portion of the meager recreational quota and give it to a select group of people to use as their own, whenever they want, however they want. 


In its application for the EFP, the Gulf Headboat Cooperative graciously nominated 11 boats owned by seven of its own members to participate in the pilot program, which is supposed to give NOAA Fisheries an idea of how catch shares will work in the recreational sector. The pilot program was recommended last year by the Gulf Council’s Ad Hoc Headboat Advisory Panel, which happened to include four of the Cooperative’s members who selflessly volunteered to receive their own private catch share.


It is a mystery what remains to be learned about catch shares. The commercial sector, which has 51 percent of the total allowable catch of snapper in the Gulf, already operates under a catch share system. Those businesses were literally given a percentage of fish based on their past catch history to use as they see fit, too. The commercial program was initially presented as a way to address a number of problems in that sector for the greater good of the resource and the public, but it was manipulated beyond recognition. In a classic bait-and-switch scenario, it devolved into an almost untouchable resource giveaway that has created a snapper-baron class of about 350 commercial businesses that now control 51 percent of all the red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. If the program had been allowed to operate as initially conceived, it may have produced a far different and better result, but that is not what happened. There is no reason to think a catch share system for headboats will produce anything different.


NOAA Fisheries has plenty of experience with catch shares – how they’re used and manipulated in the commercial sector, all those strangely low transaction costs to avoid paying administrative fees, all those sweet inside deals to family members, etc. They know from more than six years of experience that the program has never generated enough revenue to even pay for its own management. They know they are making a few people rich by giving away a valuable public resource for absolutely free to private businesses that succeed by figuring out how to get the most out of the ocean while giving the least back. They know they are ignoring even their own economic evidence of how to best use the resources in their charge, and they know it will be virtually impossible to undo those programs once they get started.


NOAA Fisheries knows all that, but is willing to look past those details because catch share systems make the lives of federal fisheries bureaucrats easier. It reduces the number of boats and people fishing, and that means it is easier to count every fish those few people catch. More fish concentrated on fewer boats is all good to NOAA Fisheries because the agency simply does not have the tools or the will to actively manage resources like the states. The recreational sector is too big and unwieldy for NOAA to manage – it would rather just count fish.


Do the states waste time and resources trying to count every duck or dove that recreational hunters shoot every year? No. Does anyone know exactly how many trout or reds recreational anglers caught in Texas or Louisiana, for example, last year? No. If managers do their jobs right, it doesn’t really matter. The states know that successful management – the kind that produces healthy, vibrant populations that can be enjoyed widely by their citizens and become economic engines – takes a commitment that goes far beyond counting carcasses.


By allowing this pilot program to see the light of day, NOAA Fisheries seems stuck promoting the one thing it can manage to do – implement catch share programs, give away marine resources to select businesses, and count fish. If the public gets shut out in the process, that’s an acceptable byproduct. This is the path that has led the states to square off against the federal government over fisheries, and it’s a fight that hasn’t come a moment too soon.


To comment on the Charterboat Catch Share Exempted Fishing Permit, click here: and type ‘‘Headboat IFQ’’ in the subject line.