A Brave New World

Posted on July 14, 2014

Imagine a Gulf coast where recreational anglers suddenly saw a catch share initiative created for a few coastal fishing guides. Certain (not all) guides would be able to have a determined portion of a fishery and could sell opportunities to go fish for red drum…even if the fishery had been closed to the general private recreational angler. It is hard to think that recreational anglers who fought so hard to restore redfish stocks from the perils of gillnets, purse seines and the blackened redfish craze would now have a significant portion of the fishery given away to a handful of guides. Sound far-fetched?

The Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery is already in this brave new world of fisheries management. It is a fishery that could be almost completely privatized as soon as the end of this year and be held from that point forward by commercial fishing and private charter businesses using this public resource for profit. It is very likely, as soon as next season, private boat owners will not be allowed to venture into federal waters to catch a red snapper and bring it home. 

You will be allowed to hire a for-hire operator that owns red snapper quota, pay them to take you fishing and buy one of their fish. You will be allowed to buy a filet in the grocery store for $20-plus a pound. But you won’t be allowed to enjoy a strongly rebuilt stock.

How close are we? More than half the fishery is already owned by less than 390 commercial extraction businesses. Plans are aggressively moving forward at the Gulf Council to privatize at least another 25 percent of the red snapper fishery for the for-hire industry. Given what anglers catch in state waters, the ultimate conclusion is that private boat anglers will likely be prohibited from fishing for red snapper offshore in federal waters at all next year, or in the foreseeable future…

Many marine scientists believe red snapper in the Gulf is healthier than it has ever been. The recovery of Gulf red snapper is a cause for celebration among recreational anglers who have endured decreasing bag limits and seasons for years and led the fight for greater bycatch reduction of juvenile red snapper from Gulf shrimp trawls…but, sadly, it is not. The booming snapper population is only helping those who continue to privatize this public resource. The commercial extractors enjoy the benefit, and a few select charter and headboats enjoy the benefit…and recreational anglers are excluded.

The Gulf Council is already set to give away almost 12 percent of the entire recreational red snapper quota to less than 110 for-hire boats. According to an Exempted Fishing Permit under consideration, as few as 90 for-hire boats in Alabama could be given 366,520 pounds of red snapper free of charge to use as their own whenever they want. That’s more than 4,000 pounds of red snapper per boat. The Gulf Headboat Cooperative Permit that was approved last year gave 17 headboats 286,457 pounds of red snapper. That equates to almost 17,000 pounds of red snapper per boat. Together, these 107 boats will have exclusive access to more than 650,000 pounds of red snapper. Now, how long was the recreational season this year?

Federal managers are giving away this fishery and creating an exclusive club that recreational anglers won’t be invited to join. 57 percent of the entire fishery will likely soon be privately held. If the Gulf Council’s pending Amendment 40 is approved, 75 percent or more of the fishery will be privately held.

The most unsettling thing in this is not even the loss of access to a beloved healthy recreational fishery like Gulf red snapper. It is the fact that grouper, amberjack and kingfish could easily be next. Everything in federal waters is primed to be manipulated so that it is owned by a business seeking to make a profit on it. And, don’t think the iconic red drum is off the menu of federal managers. Over the last year or so, the Gulf Council and the federal system that has produced this private ownership scheme for red snapper, has been searching for ways to open commercial and/or recreational red drum harvest in federal waters.

The fishery that marks one of the greatest recreational-angler-driven conservation success stories in the country could eventually end up just like red snapper – privately held and off limits to recreational anglers.

There is still time to derail privatization schemes like the Alabama Charterboat EFP and Amendment 40, but it will take all of us to stop this brave new world of fisheries management. It doesn’t matter if you fish offshore or not – the idea that it is acceptable to privatize these public resources is one that must be rejected at every level.  Your Congressmen need to know that this course of management is unacceptable. Your state representatives on the Gulf Council need to hear the message loud and clear that this course of management is unacceptable. This brave new world will likely create the orderly, aquarium-like oceans that all of these conspiring parties envision. They can count every fish as it is harvested for profit, and they won’t be bothered by the annoyance of recreational anglers crowding their waters.

Please use the internet to obtain the number for your Congressman and Senator and call their office. Politely ask to speak to someone about your concern regarding this issue. They will listen to you. You elected them. Make your voice hear before they give away the last fish.