A break in the management storm for red snapper

Posted on June 14, 2017

The announcement today of action to extend the Gulf of Mexico recreational red snapper season is a welcome boon to anglers who have been painted into a corner by a federal fisheries management system that does not understand us, and would often just rather ignore us.

On the plus side, anglers are right to be encouraged by the willingness of this Administration and the Department of Commerce to improve recreational access to a historically robust Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery. This alone is a tremendous achievement.

The recreational angling community should feel vindicated, and we should take heart that after years of being systematically sidelined by NOAA Fisheries, our efforts to encourage our elected officials in Congress to engage in this man-made management disaster are yielding results. We are being heard at the highest levels of our government, and that is a very good thing. As a result of our passion and our refusal to be cast aside, anglers will be allowed to venture into the Gulf of Mexico with their family and friends on weekends throughout this summer in pursuit of the most popular offshore fish in our waters. We owe our champions in Congress and the Secretary of Commerce our deepest thanks.

But with this action, we are also truly launching into the void in the future.

This intervention by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce does not address the fundamentally flawed federal management system that got us here in the first place. There are concerns that by NOAA Fisheries’ own peculiar methods of accounting, recreational anglers may already be over their quota this year in just the three days we were allowed to fish before this extension. How far over our quota will NOAA say we went over after an additional 39 weekend days? What will happen when NOAA’s regulations shut down the red snapper fishery until anglers “pay back” this overage? How many years might it be before we can fish for red snapper again? One year? Two years? Five? Are environmental groups just waiting to sue and claim that an overage proves state management of red snapper is a failure?

Furthermore, this action will increase access for some anglers, but will decrease access for others as it essentially trades state-water season days for some fraction of a federal-water season day. This is truly uncharted territory, and some anglers are understandably uncomfortable with anything that enables federal fisheries managers to impose their will on state fisheries regulations. The Gulf Coast states, for the most part, have been the only allies to recreational anglers in this decades-old red snapper mess.

Trading state days for federal days is not any way to manage a fishery for the long term. Widespread Congressional outrage should not be necessary to properly manage a fishery. Direct intervention by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce in a fishery is an extraordinary development. Requiring all three of these profound measures to limp to a bearable conclusion speaks to the abject failure of federal fisheries management of red snapper over the last decade.

This extension by the Department of Commerce is a step in the right direction, and the most encouraging thing to tug on the lines of recreational anglers in a long time. But, there is much work to do here, well beyond the action announced today. We need the Secretary and our champions in Congress to stay engaged and help us build a functional, fair, state-based management system for red snapper, and for the countless species behind it like amberjack and gray triggerfish, that are on the same federal management track to a dead end.

This order signifies that we have left the ramp, but we still have a long run ahead of us. We must ensure that this renewed scrutiny on the inherent problems in the federal management of this fishery leads to meaningful reforms to the Magnuson Stevens Act and ultimately results in a permanent solution that allows the Gulf states to fully manage the unique fisheries that exists off their coasts, from Key West, Florida to Brownsville, Texas.