An Awakening in the Gulf
After simmering at high temperature for many years, red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico has finally boiled over. With the announcement of a 27-day season and the subsequent game of chicken between federal managers and non-compliant states, a series of actions may signify that at last things are beginning to move to a resolution of some kind.
It began with Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama and his Gulf Fisheries Fairness Act, which is an innovative plan to completely remove federal oversight of waters less than 20 fathoms and hand it over to the states to manage independently. Such legislation is bold and includes a number of important concepts for properly managing this fishery.
Just last week, the governors of four Gulf states (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida) sent a letter to Congressional leadership seeking state control over red snapper out to 200 miles through the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission. The legislation, which is still being drafted with input from those states, would loosely model the Atlantic Striped Bass Act and management by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The benefits of this legislation are that the states would manage every aspect of the red snapper fishery out to 200 miles, the current federal management plan would disappear, and it is based on a proven, successful model of fisheries management. The federal management system has deservedly had harsh critics, including us, so this plan’s inclusion of some enforcement oversight by the Secretary of Commerce is somewhat daunting. Alabama was noticeably absent from this letter for just that reason.
Finally, during the recently concluded Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in Gulfport, the Council itself approved a version of regional management that was hammered out primarily by the Gulf states fisheries directors. This version of regional management is still tightly yoked to the federal plan and the Magnuson Stevens Act, but it does provide some flexibility to the states to decide how and when they want to fish for red snapper within parameters still set by the Council. Beyond all the details, Council passage of regional management in any form is an encouraging sign that the states have decided to flex their muscles within the Council process and that is a very welcome development for all Gulf fisheries management, not just red snapper.
The wheels are finally turning and the best chance for greater state management of Gulf fisheries may be at hand. Shifting responsibility for management of Gulf red snapper from the federal government to the states is a significant undertaking, and while we all know that’s what we want to do, there is no clear path to get there at this point. It will be critical in the coming months for anglers to work together and with their state governments and legislators to find the best solution to fix red snapper management. Attempting to execute a seismic shift in fisheries management will most likely require concepts and ideas from all quarters to succeed.
The one thing that no one – anglers, the states, the feds – can afford is the status quo.