Curious developments at Gulf Council deserve investigation

Posted on June 19, 2014

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meets next week in Key West and expectations could hardly be lower for the recreational sector. For a management arena that is as big a mess as this one, that is really saying something. But one need look no further than a little-noticed event  that occurred at the April 2014 Council meeting for evidence that this is a system in need of some serious housecleaning.

At that meeting, economist Brad Gentner was summarily removed from the Council’s Socio-Economic Science and Statistical Committee (SESSC). This is the influential committee that has been reviewing red snapper allocations for more than a year and ultimately recommended, by a single vote, that significant allocation shifts to the recreational sector are warranted. This finding was the basis for the Council’s decision to move forward with Amendment 28 – Red Snapper Reallocation, and it was a break from the SESSC’s previous positions that any shifts from the 1991 allocation be very small, on the order of less than 1 percent. Gentner was a proponent of significant shifts to the recreational sector.

The SESSC’s new findings were a hard-fought debate among 14 SESSC members, many of whom have considerable experience in fisheries economics. The deliberations through 2013 were a proper exercise among well-qualified individuals, but Gentner objected to the overt interference of commercial red snapper shareholders who were not on the SESSC, and their flagrant attempts to control the proceedings. SESSC meetings are open to the public, but Gentner reported that he was stunned to see shareholders actually participating in the proceedings, sitting at the table with Committee members, and literally trying to dictate motions for the Committee to consider.

Similar efforts to control proceedings were made by the commercial menhaden industry during debates at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission a couple of years ago over reducing commercial menhaden harvest. When CCA and other groups objected there, the ASMFC rewrote their guidelines and established strict rules to prevent that kind of outright manipulation.

The Gulf Council decided to take a different kind of action.

Faced with a member who refused to back down to intimidation by commercial red snapper shareholders, the Gulf Council called a closed door meeting at the April 2014 meeting in Baton Rouge to discuss “personnel matters.”  What was said in those proceedings is not public, but the end result was dismissal for Gentner from the SESSC.

The commercial industry immediately crowed that Gentner was dismissed due to a conflict of interest over his relationship to CCA, but Council staff has stated that that was not the case. No real reason at all has been given. Officially, Gentner received a letter that said simply that he had been dismissed and that Committee members serve at the pleasure of the Council.

What exactly happened behind those closed doors no one but Council members knows. Gentner certainly was not dismissed due to lack of qualifications. He ran the recreational economics data collection program for the National Marine Fisheries Service for eight years (that’s right, he was a key employee in NMFS’ own economic department prior to starting his own consulting practice), where he specialized in survey design, recreational fisheries demand and welfare analysis, non-market valuation, and economic impact modeling for recreational fisheries. He was not dismissed due to a conflict of interest – all of his clients were disclosed and cleared by NOAA staff during his nomination process.

A logical conclusion is that he was targeted by commercially biased Council members due to his stance on reallocation and his objections to the outright manipulation of Committee proceedings by commercial red snapper shareholders. Rather than addressing Gentner’s concerns, some members of the Gulf Council and NOAA staff chose to hide behind closed doors and terminate a whistleblower.

In many places his dismissal would be worthy of an investigation, as would the continued tampering with remaining SESSC members, but what Committee member is going to object to tampering or undue influence now? With the targeting of Gentner unchallenged and clearly tolerated, does anyone really think an SESSC member will ever voice concerns over undue pressure from commercial shareholders and representatives of the Environmental Defense Fund to derail Amendment 28 – Red Snapper Reallocation?

The SESSC hashed over reallocation for more than a year and determined that significant allocation shifts to the recreational sector were warranted. Since then, a highly qualified member of the SESSC in favor of that shift has been sacked and the Council has sent the Committee’s analysis back, apparently expecting a different answer.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see what is going to happen next.

Anyone who wants to remain a member of the SESSC will read the writing on the wall. Whether at this meeting or the next one in Biloxi, Mississippi, the Council is likely to gut Amendment 28. An allocation that has stood since 1991 will be allowed to stand indefinitely, and anglers are going to be left shaking their heads that such a system is allowed to exist.

Institutional bias in federal fisheries has always provided an uneven playing field for anglers and the businesses that depend on them, but Gentner’s dismissal is evidence that simple bias has morphed into something more disturbing. Without engaging in too much hyperbole, the system seems to be operating under external influences. Red snapper in particular is being driven by an unrelenting campaign to privatize the fishery for the financial benefit of a very few. There is big money at stake, and sometimes following the money may be the only way to explain some of the things happening in federal fisheries management that just don’t make sense.

Rather than ask you again to use your time sending emails (thousands already have) to a Council system that seems impervious to public input, we would encourage you instead to contact your Congressmen and express your opinion of federal management of red snapper to your elected representatives. Find out if they even know about plans to privatize the fishery and if they are comfortable with that concept. Tell them you are concerned about the direction of federal fisheries management in general. Ask them to investigate the Council’s effort to silence whistleblowers who have objected to tampering and pressure tactics to influence crucial management decisions.

Federal management of Gulf red snapper has been manipulated into a dead end for recreational anglers and will remain there unless Congress decides to engage.  When the hard drive of a computer is virus-plagued and corrupted, it won’t run ANY program properly and the only option is an outside repair person to fix it…please contact your Congressmen today.