Protein for America?

Posted on October 10, 2013

Early in October, news came that more than 130 chefs, restaurant owners, fishermen and seafood industry leaders had partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to launch a new propaganda campaign called "Share the Gulf.” The goal of this benignly labeled effort is to maintain 51 percent of the red snapper harvest for commercial fishermen and 49 percent to recreational fishermen – an allocation that was set using harvest data from the mid-1980s.

Coalition members maintain that any change to allocation could be a blow to commercial fishermen that could take red snapper off restaurant menus and out of grocery stores. Keep in mind, this is an allocation literally set about 30 years ago in a very different time with a very different stock.

"We need to draw a line in the sand," said John Schmidt, a Florida-based commercial fisherman and co-chairman of the coalition, in a recent article. "Recreation groups need to stop taking away America's fish and start managing their fish better."

Just chew on that thought for a moment: Recreational angling groups are taking away America’s fish. Then consider that the commercial red snapper sector is currently comprised of less than 400 “shareholders” who personally own 51 percent of all the red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

A bit infuriating, isn’t it?

Those 400 shareholders didn’t pay a dime when they were gifted that public resource through the federal catch share program in 2007, a gift recently valued by one Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council member at more than $79 million. Those shareholders to this day don’t pay enough in administrative fees to cover the cost of monitoring their own program.  Many of them don’t even fish anymore and instead lease their shares to others to fish for them.

Yet those 400 shareholders are demanding America’s recreational anglers – me, you, my kids, your friends and family – to stop taking away “America’s fish.” Who exactly would we be taking those fish away from? Why, the people making money from the capture and sale of a public marine resource, of course – those few shareholders, some chefs, and a few seafood dealers.

The commercial sector does offer a different view of the situation. The snapper barons who own 51 percent of the red snapper resource are quick to tell anyone who listens that they are feeding America with those snapper. It is not uncommon at a Gulf Council meeting to hear several of them state the importance of their work providing protein for America. Providing fresh red snapper for the millions of people who don’t live near the coast and don’t go fishing.

That’s a noble sentiment until you start to do the math on exactly how many Americans are turning to red snapper filets that often run as high as $18 to $20 per pound for their daily protein. How many families of six on a budget pass by the hamburger and choose a $100 snapper dinner instead? How many Americans depend on that weekly visit to a five-star New Orleans restaurant with white tablecloths to feed their family vital protein?

Let’s be real here. These folks are not providing protein for America. They’re providing protein for a very few Americans. And they’ve gotten very wealthy doing it.

Given that, it is easy to understand the very real influence of greed on the part of the snapper barons in this coalition, but less clear is the motivation of the chefs and restaurant owners.  I would assume that they don’t have the full picture here. As business owners and professionals removed from the front lines of fisheries management, I would be willing to bet they aren’t completely tuned in to the politics of the Gulf red snapper fishery.

Those chefs and restaurant owners who depend on the good will of the public may not realize that there are far fewer commercial red snapper fishermen today than there have ever been, and yet they are currently harvesting more red snapper than the commercial sector ever has. No one is close to getting run out of business – far from it. Through consolidation and the gift of a public resource, the remaining snapper barons have a degree of job security that most in this country would envy.

And like good business owners, the shareholders are looking to diversify. One of the primary motivations behind their efforts in this coalition to prevent reallocation is not to provide more protein for America (at $20 per pound), but to have the ability to lease some of their red snapper shares to recreational charter/for-hire boats and headboats.

Ironically, the shareholders who are chastising recreational anglers to stop taking away America’s fish are banking on schemes under discussion at the Gulf Council to allow them to lease their red snapper shares to … recreational anglers. If the Gulf Council reallocates, it may dampen the market for leasing their red snapper shares to the recreational sector.

Perhaps the chefs and restaurant owners weren’t made fully aware of that little detail.

Lastly, there is the Environmental Defense Fund which is often found lurking somewhere in the background of any plan that may result in fewer people on the water catching red snapper. EDF has poured millions into threatening the sportsmen’s ethic of wildlife management in the marine environment in pursuit of its distorted view of conservation.

The latest result is a coalition of 400 wealthy shareholders who are in it for the money, a few chefs and restaurant owners who are risking the wrath of the sporting public because they may not be aware of the real game here, and an environmental group that made the bizarre decision to champion the industrial gear of the commercial fishing sector against America’s sportsmen.

No wonder Gulf red snapper is such a mess.

The next Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting is in New Orleans Oct. 28- Nov. 1. Many local supporters of the “Share the Gulf” campaign are expected to be on hand to make sure “America’s recreational anglers stop taking away America’s fish.” If you are an American angler, perhaps you should be there, too...so that the Council hears a slightly different point of view.