Red Snapper Reallocation – What’s at Stake?

Posted on October 22, 2013

Reef Fish Amendment 28, the red snapper reallocation amendment, was initiated in January 2013 and contains six options for reallocating Gulf red snapper. However, Amendment 28 is not on the agenda for the October Gulf Council meeting because the analysis on the six alternatives is still not complete, which in itself is a remarkable testament to how federal fisheries management functions.

The topic of red snapper reallocation is getting a lot of attention lately, primarily because of the Environmental Defense Fund’s “Share the Gulf” campaign, which is a PR push that brings together chefs, seafood restaurants and commercial fishing businesses to make the case that reallocation of red snapper threatens the nation’s food supply...really. If the tactic sounds familiar, it should. Chefs, restaurants and gillnetters in Louisiana came together in 1996 to protest Louisiana’s ban on gillnetting red drum after the fish were driven almost to extinction by the blackened redfish craze. That coalition, like the one today, predicted dire consequences…none of which came to pass.

Volumes have been written on how to allocate public resources in this country, but throughout its history NOAA Fisheries has relied on simple past catch history to set allocations between the commercial and recreational sectors. The process involves selecting a snapshot in history, usually a span of three years or so, and basing allocations on how much the commercial sector caught over that time frame versus how much the recreational sector caught. How those snapshots are selected is a highly charged political game to identify and promote the years that best serve your purpose. The snapshot used for red snapper is from the mid-1980s and produced an allocation of 51% commercial to 49% recreational that still stands today.

Allocation of our federal fisheries is a chaotic process, and one that most Council members would rather avoid. Incredible for an agency that is charged with managing the nation’s marine resources, NOAA Fisheries has no set process or requirement for reviewing allocations. The Councils are left to fend for themselves and the results are things like red snapper allocations that are 30 years old, out-of-date and cemented in place. Reallocation of federal fisheries is now so disjointed and unfamiliar that it leads to statements like this from a commercial fisherman alarmed over the prospect:

“The plans in front of the council will hurt fishing businesses and consumers and set a dangerous precedent,” William “Bubba” Cochrane, a commercial fisherman from Galveston and president of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance said in a recent Galveston County Daily News article.

The process of examing the allocation of a public marine resource sets a "dangerous precedent?"

In red snapper, the commercial shareholder’s program contributes tremendously to the inertia on reallocation. By literally giving red snapper to specific, individual businesses to use and profit from as their own, NOAA created another layer of cement. There are now roughly 400 businesses that believe they “own” 51 percent of all the red snapper in the Gulf. They see reallocation of public resources not as a necessary and beneficial process, but as a “dangerous precedent” that threatens their business.

CCA has argued for years that allocations should be reviewed on a regular basis using modern criteria including social, conservation and economic factors. We don’t know exactly what the results will be from such a process, but every economic study you can find on the subject says the greatest benefits to the nation from this particular resource are realized by allocating more of it to the recreational sector. Whatever the outcome of that process, it will surely reflect reality more accurately than an allocation that was set using past catch history from a time when The A Team was one of the top-rated programs on network television.

As it stands now, Amendment 28 has six alternatives in it:

  • Alternative 1: No Action
     
  • Alternative 2: Increase the recreational sector’s allocation by 3 percent; allocate 48% of the red snapper quota to the commercial sector and 52% of the quota to the recreational sector.
     
  • Alternative 3: Increase the recreational sector’s allocation by 5 percent; allocate 46% of the red snapper quota to the commercial sector and 54% of the quota to the recreational sector.
     
  • Alternative 4: Increase the recreational sector’s allocation by 10 percent; allocate 41% of the red snapper quota to the commercial sector and 59% of the quota to the recreational sector.
     
  • Alternative 5: If the red snapper quota is less than or equal to 9.12 million pounds (mp), maintain the commercial and recreational red snapper allocations at 51% and 49% of the red snapper quota, respectively. If the red snapper quota is greater than 9.12 mp, allocate 75% of quota increases to the recreational sector and 25% to the commercial sector. Based on a red snapper quota of 11 mp, resulting allocations to the commercial and recreational sectors are 5.121 mp and 5.879 mp, respectively.
     
  • Alternative 6: If the red snapper quota is less than or equal to 9.12 million pounds (mp), maintain the commercial and recreational red snapper allocations at 51% and 49% of the red snapper quota, respectively. If the red snapper quota is greater than 9.12 mp, allocate 100% of quota increases to the recreational sector. Based on a red snapper quota of 11 mp, resulting allocations to the commercial and recreational sectors are 4.651 mp and 6.349 mp, respectively.

There will be a lot of misinformation swirling around the next Gulf Council meeting, but the entire debate boils down to these six alternatives. Of these, Alternatives 5 and 6 seem like the most promising. The figure of 9.12 million pounds is cited in these two alternatives because that total harvest amount marks the highest commercial harvest of Gulf red snapper ever.  By allocating increases above that level to the recreational sector, no one loses.  

But not losing anything isn’t enough for Share the Gulf proponents. There are fewer commercial boats than ever in the red snapper fishery and they are harvesting as much as the sector has ever harvested. Since they were literally given 51 percent of the fish through the catch share program, business has never been better – after all, there aren’t many businesses in America that have been given this kind of advantage. But that isn’t good enough.

An honest look at red snapper allocations would reveal a much different reality than the one Share the Gulf is promoting. The question is whether there will ever be an honest look at reallocation of red snapper, or will we be forced to live with re-runs of The A Team forever?

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The next Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting is in New Orleans Oct. 28- Nov. 1.

Issues: