Ruling against recreational angling confirms federal fisheries management system broken

Posted on March 28, 2014

HOUSTON, TX (3-28-2014) In a case brought by commercial fishermen, seafood processors and trade groups closely associated with the Environmental Defense Fund, a federal district judge acknowledged this week that federal management of recreational anglers is deeply flawed and in need of overhaul. The lawsuit essentially challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service’s policy of setting hard quotas for the recreational sector without timely or reliable means to manage to such a standard.

“The judge ruled the only way she could given the realities of the federal fishery management system,” said Bill Bird, vice chairman of the National Government Relations Committee for the Coastal Conservation Association, which intervened on behalf of the interests of recreational anglers. “Under federal management, the rules of this fishery are designed exclusively to manage a few, privileged commercial businesses seeking to profit from the sale of a public resource that has been gifted to them. While the plaintiffs simply intended this case to result in severe curtailment of the recreational sector, this decision also makes it abundantly clear that recreational anglers are at a dead end under federal management unless the rules are changed to prioritize the interest of the public  in this public resource.”

After decades of mismanagement, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper population rebounded wildly after successful efforts by recreational anglers to reduce juvenile red snapper mortality in shrimp trawls in the mid-2000s. As the red snapper population increased, the recreational sector began to catch more and larger fish, and thus met their outdated quota faster. Even with recreational seasons that were as short as 27 days, the lawsuit alleged that “it became commonplace for the recreational sector to exceed its quota by a large margin even though individual anglers followed the rules.”

The court ruling does not prescribe remedies and it is unclear what the consequences will be for 2014, but it will almost certainly force the National Marine Fisheries Service to be ultra conservative with recreational red snapper seasons going forward, even though the red snapper population is booming. The situation is made worse by a commercial/recreational allocation of red snapper that has remained unchanged for two decades and was set at a time when the red snapper population was at its historic low.

“It is no longer theoretical – we are in a situation now in which the red snapper population is as healthy as it has ever been, and recreational anglers may be unable to access it for more than a few days due to an inadequate management system and a ridiculously outdated allocation,” said Chester Brewer, chairman of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee. “For recreational anglers, federal fisheries management of species such as red snapper has been a supremely frustrating experience compared to our involvement with many state-managed fisheries.”

“Recreational angling is simply not on equal footing in federal fisheries. The focus of management there has devolved into private ownership for profit, and counting every fish. It’s a no-win situation for us,” said Bird.  “As a country, we must consider if keeping the recreational fishing public off the water is the desired outcome for our federal fisheries policy because, honestly, that is exactly what this is leading to.”

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