Not another flawed federal experiment

Posted on April 28, 2015

The comment period has closed on the State of Mississippi’s application for an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) to allow its for-hire fleet to harvest 30,000 pounds of breeder-sized red drum over the next two years. Thousands of comments in opposition were sent by CCA members and yet it would be no surprise if NOAA Fisheries ends up approving the permit. NOAA has the sole authority to approve or deny permits like this, and NOAA rarely meets an Exempted Fishing Permit it doesn’t like. That is why CCA and other groups are promoting revisions to federal law that require more strict scientific oversight of these applications, which are often cloaked in the guise of “scientific research” but ultimately only serve to promote the welfare of one special interest group or another.

In this case, the State of Mississippi sought the application ostensibly for its for-hire fleet to harvest critically important spawning-sized red drum in federal waters for the first time since 1987 to collect “biological information” on offshore red drum and aid biologists in building a stock assessment. That is a misguided premise given the findings of the Council’s own Special Red Drum Workshop in July 2014. The fact that the fish would be collected by one small segment of the fishery virtually guarantees biased data.  In short, there is no useful scientific information that can come from this permit that isn’t already being collected by scientists.

However, anyone who regularly attends Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meetings knows the real reason for this permit application. Mississippi Council members have frequently lobbied their fellow members to help their for-hire fleet. A strong argument was never really made for “needing” the scientific data, but only providing relief to charter operators. Their argument is that the for-hire operators, restricted by a 3-mile limit with virtually no red snapper available, need to be able to target breeder redfish to help their businesses since federal regulations have put a stranglehold on so many other species.

In an ironic twist, the State of Mississippi feels a need to apply to the feds to target a protected species because the feds have done such a poor job managing other species that the state’s coastal businesses depend on. This is a circular argument that doesn’t bode particularly well for the future of red drum, and points to the disaster federal regulators have created for everyone involved in federal fisheries…except for those who seek or already own a private stake in the fishery.

The current system of management, in which breeder red drum offshore are protected to provide a robust inshore fishery for the public, is working extremely well. Sustained harvest of the breeders will inevitably impact the abundance and availability of the slot-sized smaller fish that are the backbone of inshore fishing along the Gulf Coast. Harvest enough breeders offshore and it is only a matter of time before the states will have to consider tightening regulations and lowering bag limits inshore to compensate.

There are less drastic alternatives to address Mississippi’s real intentions. Letting the states manage offshore fisheries so that they are not in a perpetual state of confusion and disaster as they are under federal management is a good start. If the public could target an appropriately managed red snapper stock during a reasonable season, for example, this EFP never crosses anyone’s mind.

Other options include extending all Gulf state waters out to nine miles to match Texas and Florida which would let each state tailor regulations to meet its individual goals. Perhaps most reasonable of all, the EFP could promote a tag-and-release system that might actually provide legitimate science without killing the fish. Since breeder red drum have lived for decades and accumulate significant levels of mercury and other toxins, a tagging system would let out-of-state anglers catch them, but would prevent them from ingesting a fish that is generally considered a human health risk. Most Gulf Coast residents would consider breeder-sized red drum virtually inedible in any case.

The Mississippi permit application is another unfortunate byproduct of failed federal management. The state feels that its for-hire industry has been painted into a corner by federal regulations and it has. But exposing the red drum brood stock to the same system that has failed so many other fisheries would be another flawed federal management experiment.