Scam the Gulf

Posted on October 25, 2013

Perhaps nothing in the propaganda being distributed by the Share the Gulf campaign is as misleading as claims that the commercial catch share program is somehow responsible for the current recovery of Gulf red snapper. Nothing about red snapper is simple, but a look at the history of this fishery reveals that catch shares had virtually no impact on the health of this stock.

The management of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico has long been one of the most contentious fisheries issues around, and the problems are not overnight developments. They have been brewing for more than 30 years. In 1979, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council determined that red snapper stocks were overfished. An estimated 87 percent drop in recreational harvest from 1980 to 1984 prompted the Gulf Council to create its Reef Fish Management Plan. The plan called for intense restrictions on commercial and recreational catches, coupled with a new-found realization that a significant portion of juvenile red snapper mortality was caused by shrimp trawls.

To recover red snapper, fisheries managers continued to clamp down on commercial and recreational anglers yet were unable to implement bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) to reduce commercial Gulf shrimpers’ impact on juvenile red snapper numbers. A 1990 congressional mandate supported by the commercial fishing industry prevented BRDs from being required in federal waters.

Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1996 presented new rules for preventing overfishing, addressing the issue of bycatch, and rebuilding overfished fisheries. A floor amendment allowed the Gulf Council to finally treat shrimp-fishery bycatch like any other in the country.

To reach its red snapper goals, NMFS had to address the problem of bycatch in the shrimping industry. In the spring of 1998, the Gulf Council passed an amendment to require BRDs for shrimp trawls in federal waters. The Texas Shrimp Association sued in opposition to the bycatch reduction requirements and CCA intervened to ensure that shrimp fleet would have to do its part.

With the BRD requirement finally in place, the recovery of red snapper was premised on closed seasons, commercial quotas, recreational bag limits, size limits and a 40 percent reduction in bycatch due to BRDs. Assessment work by the Gulf Council in 2004 revealed that these measures did not have the desired effect on red snapper stocks, despite adherence to those quotas by both commercial and recreational fishers. While the quota targets were largely met, studies in 2004 revealed that BRDs had achieved only a 12 percent reduction in red snapper bycatch in the shrimp trawl fishery. Non-compliance by shrimpers was cited as the primary reason for this failure. CCA insisted that it was impossible for the Gulf Council to set the total allowable catch for the directed fishery without taking into account measures to reduce shrimp trawl bycatch.

In March of 2005, CCA petitioned the Secretary of Commerce to put emergency measures into effect to end the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fleet's overfishing of red snapper. That petition was denied despite almost 8,000 supporting comments from CCA members and other conservationists around the Gulf Coast. A few months later, CCA filed a lawsuit over Amendment 22 to the Reef Fish Management Plan.

“Trying to manage red snapper without addressing shrimp trawl bycatch is like trying to lower your electric bill by buying a more efficient toaster oven. Your electric bill isn’t high because of your toaster oven; it’s the large and leaky air conditioning unit running around the clock,” Russell Nelson, CCA’s consultant to the Gulf Council said at the time.

A federal judge ruled in March 2007 that NMFS violated the Magnuson-Stevens Act by failing to implement measures to rebuild red snapper stocks in the Gulf of Mexico including addressing the harm to red snapper caused by shrimp fishing. The judge in the case ordered the shrimp industry to reduce trawl bycatch mortality by 74 percent.

It was a landmark ruling, earned by recreational anglers through two lawsuits and the investment of countless hours and resources.

However, anyone who has watched the federal management process would naturally doubt NMFS’ willingness or ability to implement that kind of bycatch reduction for a commercial fishery. There would have been justifiable concern over the ultimate effectiveness of the ruling except that Mother Nature took matters into her own hands during the terrible hurricane season of 2005. That was the year the Gulf of Mexico became a shooting gallery for intense storms, two of which – Katrina and Rita – wiped out a significant portion of the domestic shrimping industry. Some reports indicated overall shrimping effort was reduced by 80 percent. Cheap imported shrimp and high fuel prices combined to keep effort down.

Whether achieved by a court ruling or natural disaster the end result was the same – shrimping effort was reduced dramatically. And snapper stocks responded. The rejuvenation of Gulf red snapper coincides perfectly with the reduction in shrimp trawl bycatch.

Catch share proponents are quick to claim that it was the implementation of their program in 2006 that sparked the recovery. But according to the Framework Action to Set the 2013 Red Snapper Commercial and Recreational Quotas and Modify the Recreational Bag Limit prepared by NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf Council, the commercial sector was under its quota for the period from 1996 to 2005 already (see table 1.2).

That is a critical chink in the righteous armor of catch share proponents.

If the commercial sector was already staying within its quota for the 10 years prior to the implementation of the catch share program, then the catch share program made no meaningful difference in the overall health of the stock. Unless, of course, the commercial sector was engaged in egregious poaching that ended only when the catch share program convinced them to care about the fishery because they now thought they owned it.

Share the Gulf will try to convince the public and the Council that catch shares have saved the red snapper fishery, but they only served to make a greatly rationalized commercial sector more profitable. The only thing that has fundamentally changed in this fishery over the past 8 years is the reduction of shrimp trawl bycatch, which was won by recreational anglers through a lawsuit and coincided with the most terrible hurricane season in living memory.

Trying to cast catch shares as the hero in this story is nothing more than an attempt to Scam the Gulf.