How to start to think about maybe triggering an allocation process, someday…

Posted on June 26, 2015

Allocation of fishery resources is one of the prime responsibilities of the federal regional fishery management councils, and yet there exists no standardized procedure or even a timetable for reviewing allocations as changing circumstances dictate.

Allocation is a dirty word in federal fisheries management because no one likes to pick “winners and losers,” regardless of how glaring the need for reallocation might be. In the absence of any standardized process for this basic responsibility, each council goes about it differently (although they all try to avoid it entirely). It is not unusual for even the same council to treat allocations of different fisheries in wildly disparate ways.

In the Gulf, for example, the current red snapper allocation was set in 1991 using catch history from the early 1980s derived from a system that has since been discredited and replaced. However, a two-year process to reallocate the fishery using modern demographic and economic criteria has been slow-walked and obstructed since inception. A substantial allocation shift to the recreational sector is warranted according to many factors, but with half the fishery privatized in the commercial sector and another 20 percent on the fast track to be privately owned by charter/for-hire operators, pressure against reallocation is fierce. So nothing happens.

Conversely, in the Gulf king mackerel fishery, the recreational sector has not caught its quota the last few seasons while the commercial sector has consistently fished at or over its quota. The answer? The Gulf Council is rapidly moving ahead with plans to reallocate fish from the rec sector to the commercial sector on a “temporary” basis. As simple as that and based on nothing. There is no process to consider that in this fishery the recs catch and release those fish intentionally to have shots at more and bigger fish, which generates value. Likely far more value than the bargain-basement prices big kings bring in the market. And anyone who believes that an allocation shift to the commercial sector is “temporary” just hasn’t been paying attention to federal fisheries management. The rec sector will likely never see those fish again.

That kind of haphazard approach to this critical, basic element of management is why the recreational sector has pushed for some kind of standardized federal process for reallocation. NOAA Fisheries’ utter failure/refusal to do so is why you see powerful Senators like Richard Shelby of Alabama dictating a shift of red snapper to the recreational sector in an appropriations bill. When a Senator feels the need to tell an agency how to do a basic component of its job in a bill that funds that agency, something has definitely broken down.

The good news is that NOAA has spent the last year or so actually working on an allocation process. When this effort was first announced it was greeted with some enthusiasm from the rec sector that, at last, the feds were on the path to developing a sound allocation policy.

The bad news is that the results of NOAA Fisheries’ efforts were rolled out at the Council Coordination Committee (CCC) Meeting this week in Key West. The CCC is made up of the chairs, vice chairs and executive directors of all eight fishery management councils and it meets twice each year to discuss issues relevant to all councils, including issues related to the implementation of the Magnuson Stevens Act, the overarching law that governs federal fisheries.

The CCC reviewed the work NOAA has done on allocation guidelines to date and passed the following motion: “Approve the ‘Criteria for Initiating Fisheries Reviews’ document, amended to include a recommended timeframe of 3 years or as soon as practicable to establish criteria for triggering allocation reviews.”

That’s it.

No standardized process.

No timelines.

Nothing useful.

If you think about it, the effort to get a reallocation policy in place whimpered to a conclusion with a recommendation that the councils develop within the next three years (or longer if they feel like it) … the criteria that might be used …to determine the triggers that might be used … to determine if a review of an allocation might be necessary...someday.

We don't need guidelines for that. The rec community has triggered three allocation reviews in recent history - red snapper, summer flounder and scup. We’ve shown the allocation needs to change in each case and in each case the councils do nothing. We need the sort of guidelines that say if you have X, Y and Z in the review process then the councils must reallocate.

The current NOAA Fisheries effort on allocation is about as futile as it gets, but to cap it off there was even a line of questioning during the CCC meeting as to whether that motion meant the councils had to take any action at all. The answer was that nothing on the table had any legal requirements, so, no. There was further questioning as to whether the need to develop criteria that might be used to establish triggers that might be used to determine if allocations might need to be reviewed was NOAA policy. The answer seemed to be, eh, not really.

No one seemed to know exactly what this “allocation” language means or where it is going, but it was abundantly clear that it is non-binding in every conceivable sense of the word.

This process may not be over, but it is going nowhere fast. It has moved into bureaucratic fantasyland where the appearance of effort without result can be maintained for as long as desired.

There is no shortage of exasperation when it comes to being a recreational angler in the federal fisheries management system, but this latest charade on an allocation policy takes the cake. For now.