Time to Realign Federal Fisheries Management

King mackerel “sharing” plan latest example of need for overhaul

Posted on January 10, 2017

The waters of the Gulf of Mexico managed by the federal government are becoming an even more unfriendly place for recreational anglers.

The red snapper fishery – with about 50 percent of the fishery already given away and privatized in the commercial sector and another 20 percent on track to be privately owned – is a well-known travesty. However, at the next Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting (Jan. 30- Feb. 2 in New Orleans), federal managers will finalize an amendment to “share” uncaught recreational allocation of king mackerel with the commercial sector in a complete end-run around allocation guidelines that were meant to govern this exact situation.

Amendment 29 was designed to provide relief to the commercial sector because commercial boats are catching their entire quota of king mackerel early, resulting in their season being shut down early. The recreational sector is not catching every fish in its quota and so the Council has moved with surprising speed to provide relief yet again to the commercial sector, developing the new and novel concept of “temporarily sharing” uncaught recreational mackerel with industrial harvesters so they can keep fishing. The result is the first step to an even more hostile federal management regime in which the recreational sector is shut down and penalized the moment it goes over its quota in a fishery, but stands to lose fish to the commercial sector if it doesn’t catch every fish in its quota.

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

Proponents can argue all day long about how sensible they think this arrangement may be, but the fact remains that “sharing” allocation is a de facto reallocation, without going through any of the process and analysis that a reallocation demands. There should be no change in sector allocation unless and until there has been a comprehensive economic evaluation to determine the most efficient allocation change, if any.   Shifting uncaught fish simply because they are uncaught makes no sense in a recreational fishery, as abundance is a critical management element for recreational anglers. Fish left uncaught have greater value to the recreational fishery and simply shifting fish because they are uncaught is antithetical to managing for a recreational fishery.

The Council and NOAA Fisheries choose to ignore the reality that recreational anglers have value for catch-and-release fishing as it leads to thicker stocks and larger fish. Recreational anglers like to have abundant fish that lead to high catch rates of large fish, but our arguments to manage this fishery for high abundance and a high-quality experience fall on deaf ears.

Furthermore, recreational anglers have had a notoriously difficult time getting a fair shake at all at the Gulf Council. Our experience with red snapper – in which reallocation to the rec sector proved virtually impossible – and in amberjack – in which the Council allowed commercial overfishing to permanently change the allocation – are bitter reminders that this process will not end well. Anyone who believes anglers will get back a single fish after they have been “temporarily shared” with the commercial sector for a few years hasn’t been paying attention.

CCA was among many groups that were hopeful that when NOAA Fisheries released its Fisheries Allocation Policy about six months ago, it was the beginning of a serious commitment to examine the nation’s fisheries allocations in a standardized, systematic manner with an established set of criteria. Amendment 29 is just another reminder that policies from NOAA aren’t worth the paper they’re written on when it comes to actual management decisions at the Council level.

With a new Administration coming into power, critical appointments are now being made that are the best hope to overhaul the philosophy and direction of federal fisheries management. A new perspective is sorely needed or we will continue to see a steady erosion of opportunity for sportsmen in our nation’s marine waters.