Things never what they seem at Gulf Council

Beware the Rec Angling Advisory Panel

Posted on January 22, 2016

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meets next week in Orange Beach, Alabama. One of the topics on the schedule for discussion is creation of the innocently labeled Recreational Angling Advisory Panel. At first blush, this AP seems like a good idea; in fact, in a venue where recreational angling has been cast aside as an after-thought, it sounds downright necessary. But there is an ominous backstory here.

To sense the peril in this AP, you would have to understand the alliance that has been built at the Gulf Council by those who favor privatization policies that place ownership of public marine resources in the hands of a select few businesses, and how that alliance works. The alliance includes commercial fishermen, seafood processors, a select handful of charter/for-hire operators, portions of the restaurant industry – basically anyone who makes a buck selling a publicly owned, wild fish in some way. That alliance has been carefully and painstakingly crafted by environmental groups with enormous resources, led by the Environmental Defense Fund among others, that believe funneling access to public marine resources through fewer and fewer entities is the best way to manage them.

No matter your opinion of it, the environmental groups that formulated this privatization policy, known as catch shares, came by it honestly – they simply don’t want people other than themselves involved in marine fisheries. But, they need allies to bring this vision to reality. They selected a few commercial operators and some charter/for-hire operators and pumped millions of dollars into the effort to divide up ownership of the fishery to a very small group of commercial harvesters.

Everyone in the alliance gets something – the environmental groups get closer to their vision of the oceans as ordered aquariums. The selected for-profit operators get a personal windfall they have no right to own. The federal management system, which has historically been commercially biased anyway, gets to claim it is doing its job.

There used to be clearly defined lines at the Gulf Council between “commercial” and “recreational” representatives. By erasing the line between what is “commercial” and what is “recreational,” the commercial/charter/for-hire/environmental alliance shattered any illusion of “balance.” Banding together to dole out public resources to themselves, the alliance now controls the Gulf Council. Counting votes is the name of the game, and on anything related to red snapper, it is easy to guess the final vote well ahead of time.

That brings us to the proposal to create the Rec Angling Advisory Panel. The privatization alliance sees recreational angling as the last obstacle in its takeover. How to minimize the presence of people who fish for themselves from their own boats is the challenge now. It is the opinion of the alliance, whose members are on a path to own more than 70 percent of the entire red snapper fishery, that there are simply too many of us. They need to find a way to funnel down our access, too.

The recreational angling community did not ask for the Rec Angling AP to be created – the motion to do so was made by a seafood processor who served as a relentless commercial advocate on the Council for 18 years. That’s a red flag no matter how you look at it, and those of us who attend Gulf Council meetings regularly immediately saw where this is going. Advisory Panel members are appointed by the Gulf Council and staffed by the same federal employees who have overseen and facilitated the privatization of more than 70 percent of the red snapper fishery.

It is easy to predict that the AP will be hand-picked to have a majority of people who favor limited entry for the private recreational sector. Limited entry can take many forms, but most likely it means something controversial and largely disliked, like fish tags. The details of such a program are hazy and overwhelming but in simplest terms, the federal government would print a limited number of tags, make them available for purchase somehow, and if you don’t have a tag, you can’t keep a fish. Given the federal government’s history of failure in recreational fisheries management, data collection and stock assessments, and its general antipathy to recreational angling, you can safely assume it will be a very limited number of red snapper tags, and that any such scheme will unfairly burden recreational anglers.

However the AP decides to minimize anglers, the privatization alliance will take that recommendation as gospel - after all, it says “Recreational Angling” right in the name of the AP! The Gulf Council voting bloc that favors privatization will cheer the solution to the rec angling “problem,” and fishery management will forever be transformed into a bastardized system that bestows ownership of public resources to a few for-profit entities, and makes the rest of us fight over scraps.

The game is fixed, and more is on the way. A measure known as Amendment 33 that explores commercial privatization for every species in the reef fish complex is up for discussion at the Gulf Council meeting next week, too.

“Corruption” is a strong word and it may or may not apply here, but the undeniable political and financial realities at the Gulf Council are why CCA opposes creation of the Rec Angling Advisory Panel and is meeting independently to find a way out of this mess with anglers, tackle manufacturers, charter/for-hire operators and other conscientious organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. It is a diverse group, but the one thing we all share is the belief that privatization is not the way to manage our fisheries or any wildlife resource.

It is difficult to explain why recreational anglers should be highly suspicious of a Recreational Angling Advisory Panel, but things are seldom what they seem at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

Issues: Gulf of Mexico