Comments on Alabama charter/for-hire exempted fishing permit application

Posted on July 17, 2014

July 15, 2014

 
Dr. Steve Branstetter
Southeast Regional Office
NMFS
263 13th Avenue South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

 

Ref: RIN 0648-XD186


Dear Dr. Branstetter,

The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the proposed Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) for the Alabama For-Hire red snapper fishery, which has been extensively debated by the Gulf Council. We feel compelled to note that the Council’s Reef Fish Committee originally voted 5-4 to recommend that NOAA Fisheries deny this permit. The vote of the full Council to overturn the Committee’s recommendation shows the level of disagreement and controversy related to managing this troubled fishery by exempted fishing permit.

The nine-day recreational season for red snapper in 2014 was a convoluted product of a flawed federal law, outdated allocations and inappropriate management tools for the recreational sector. It was, however, ideal for creating the conditions for some charter/for-hire operators to be receptive to the lure of individual fishing quota programs for that industry. We have noted the careful avoidance of promoting this and other similar schemes as catch share programs, but that is certainly what they are, and we question whether the larger for-hire industry has been made fully aware of the inevitable economic outcome. Since catch share programs are expressly designed to reduce capacity, we are opposed to such programs in the recreational sector since they reduce access to red snapper.  In addition, it is very possible that for-hire operators who feel compelled by current circumstances to favor this course of action today could find themselves out of the fishery entirely within just a few years. This aspect of IFQ programs should be emphasized by Council staff at least as energetically as the possible benefits for the select few winners.

We believe it is necessary to clarify that this is one state’s attempt at regional management, a concept the Gulf Council has not addressed in any meaningful manner and which has been allowed to languish. This EFP is simply another means to skirt proper procedure on an issue that the Council cannot or will not resolve. EFPs were never intended to be management tools to be applied whenever one group or one state finds it difficult to navigate traditional management venues. This request begs the inevitable question; will every Gulf state be eligible for an EFP? This is just another end-run around the Council’s mismanagement of this fishery.

Along the same lines, this EFP amounts to an allocation to a newly created sector using simple catch history. Both the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the NOAA Catch Share Policy demand that economics be examined when looking at allocation. The Council seems inexplicably willing to ignore substantiated advice to increase recreational allocations, but has no qualms about carving out a sector allocation without any analysis whatsoever.

We also question the timing of this EFP since there is currently an almost identical program operating for headboats in the Gulf.  It would seem logical to allow for results from that EFP to be evaluated before putting another one in place. With the Gulf Headboat Cooperative EFP already in place, if the Alabama for-hire EFP is approved it will result in almost 12 percent of the entire recreational red snapper quota being doled out to approximately 110 boats, completely outside the purview of the Gulf Council. This should be a red flag to stakeholders and managers alike as it indicates a fundamental breakdown in the federal management system.

Another serious concern about this specific proposal is the liberal allotments being given to participants in these EFPs and the methodology used to determine them. Roughly 6.8 percent of the entire recreational quota is proposed for the Alabama EFP.  Based on the information given to the Council in April 2014, roughly 90 boats will divide that allotment, which equates to more than 4,000 pounds of red snapper per boat. For the already approved Gulf Headboat Cooperative EFP, it was determined that 17 headboats would divide 286,457 pounds of red snapper, which equates to almost 17,000 pounds of red snapper per vessel. These 107 boats somehow account for almost 12 percent of the entire recreational quota. We suspect that these generous allotments will create unrealistic expectations of a windfall to the remaining 1,100 boats in the Gulf for-hire industry, thus making acceptance of a for-hire IFQ system more likely. We believe that NOAA should take appropriate steps now to guard against bait-and-switch accusations later when it becomes apparent not all for-hire operators will be treated as generously.

In the final analysis, this EFP, like the existing and similarly flawed headboat EFP, will not produce testable conservation gains, nor will it enhance efficiency. It will show that a small number of vessels when granted the right to fish while it is illegal for the larger angling public to fish, will be more profitable. That conclusion needs no test. Artificially controlling supply in the face of pent up demand will increase prices, pure and simple. This application fails to make any case for why the government should allow an EFP to be granted when it will provide no other benefit than to line the pockets of a very small number of for-hire captains.

CCA rejects the validity of this EFP.  In our view, NOAA Fisheries is dismissing every requirement contained in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act for the implementation of what is certain to become a catch share program. The “crisis management” mentality that permeates every facet of Gulf red snapper is being manipulated again to promote a highly controversial and unnecessary management concept for the benefit of the few, to the detriment of the angling public.

As a long-time participant in federal fisheries management in general and in this fishery in particular, Coastal Conservation Association asks NOAA to reject this proposal.

Sincerely,

Bill Bird, Chairman
CCA National Government Relations Committee