Gulf stewardship

Posted on September 15, 2009

Editorial 

Houston Chronicle
 
Accustomed as we are to headlines communicating alarm about overfishing of our world's marine resources, it was with relief that we greeted this bit of good news recently: There is responsible stewardship of our nation's fisheries to report — and it's occurring right in the Gulf of Mexico.
 
According to early returns, a system of quotas to manage commercial fishing of red snapper, the filet mignon of Gulf catches, is accomplishing its mission. A report from the National Marine Fisheries Service confirms that the system is helping to turn around long-term trends of overfishing for snapper (“Catch and Relief,” Page A1, Sept. 5).
 
Two years after a system of shares for commercial fishers was instituted in the Gulf, observers say stocks of the desirable fish are improving. The shares, distributed in 2007 at no cost to the anglers, were based on their 10 best consecutive annual catches from 1990 to 2004.
 
A more complete analysis, due out in October, is expected to confirm the trend in more detail. Andy Strelcheck, a biologist for the federal fisheries, told the Chronicle's Matthew Tresaugue that the share system has contributed to improvement of snapper stocks, as has the shrinking of the Gulf's shrimping industry following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Shrimpers often unintentionally trap other species, including snapper, in their nets, contributing to the decline.
 
All this rates as good news for Gulf Coast residents who enjoy snapper on the plate, and for the overall health of the Gulf ecosystem. But there is much more to do to create a sustainable supply, according to Holly Binns of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization that closely tracks stewardship of the world's fisheries. We urge that her views be given a full hearing.
 
Binns' immediate concern is the greatly expanded volume of recreational fishing and the unknown toll it is taking on stocks of red snapper across the Gulf. She says that no one has a good handle on the exact number of recreational anglers across the Gulf, and that there's no effective way of managing the catch taken by these fishermen.
 
In previous years, when sport fishermen exceeded quotas by up to 1 million pounds per year, the agencies that supervise fisheries had to resort to shortening the season for this group, Binns says.
 
More accurate ways must be found to control the take of snapper by weekend anglers, but that must be accomplished without harm to the Gulf Coast's tourism industry and to the area's many charter fishing operations.
 
One thing that will be essential to continue to improve stocks of snapper and other overfished species, including gag grouper, greater amberjack and gray triggerfish, will be to ensure that the quotas are based on sound science. The exercise is pointless if they are not. Binns recommends that authorities create a margin of error, “a bit of a buffer,” in their targets so that “even if you go over the target you don't overfish.” That sounds both reasonable and commonsensical to us.
 
There may be some adjustments ahead. For several years it may be necessary to lessen quotas in the interest of ensuring adequate long-term supplies. That is likely to be where the difficult negotiations will occur.
 
For the typical layman, the debate about quotas and targets can quickly descend into a morass of confusing numbers. That's why we like the simplicity of Binns' analogy of the snapper harvest to that of properly managing the harvest of a fruit orchard.
 
“Would you pick fruit from an orchard before it's ripe?” she asks. “Probably not. We all know the best reward comes from patiently waiting for nature to finish its work. “The choice is no different when it comes to some of our dwindling fish species. If we give the young, smaller fish a chance to grow older, they will reach their best spawning years and yield a bountiful harvest.”
 
That process of allowing snapper stocks to mature as nature intends is being launched across the Gulf of Mexico with the implementation of the shares system two years ago. It should be continued with more effective monitoring and control of catches by recreational anglers.
 
There is no reason why the example of good stewardship set on the Gulf Coast shouldn't be a model for others across the globe to follow.
 
CCA Response to Houston Chronicle editorial 
 
The Coastal Conservation Association would like to offer a much different view of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery from the one expressed by Hollie Binns of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
 
First, a distinction for Chronicle readers: the term “angler” refers to those who fish recreationally. “Commercial fishermen” harvest fish for profit. The two terms are generally not interchangeable.
 
Ms. Binns is simply mistaken when she states that no one has a good handle on the exact number of anglers across the Gulf. Federal fisheries managers know how many recreational anglers are active in the Gulf of Mexico as every Gulf state requires a recreational license. In addition to that, anglers have stayed within the limits imposed by the federal government, including a two-fish per-person, daily limit and roughly a 60-day red snapper season in 2009.
 
Ms. Binns is correct, though, when she says that there is no effective management of the catch taken by recreational anglers. In spite of our adherence to the regulations imposed by the federal government, early indications are that the recreational sector may have exceeded its harvest limit by a million pounds in 2008 and 2009, which means there is a possibility that there will be no recreational red snapper season in 2010 in order to “pay back” those overages.
 
The real problem in the Gulf of Mexico is that the federal government has absolutely failed to provide a data collection system that is adequate to manage recreational anglers. The result may very well be that the sector that delivers the most economic benefit to the Gulf states from the red snapper fishery will be managed right out of the fishery in 2010. Ms. Binns lauds the successes of the red snapper catch share system in keeping commercial fishermen within their harvest quota for the past two years. In fact, the commercial sector has stayed within its harvest quota for at least the previous 10 years – long before government insistence on snapper catch shares.
 
 What the catch share system has done is give, really bestow, a majority of the red snapper resource – a public resource – to a very small, select group of commercial fishermen to harvest for their own personal gain. Those few commercial boats now literally own 51 percent of the entire red snapper harvest in the Gulf of Mexico in perpetuity. The millions of recreational anglers in the Gulf states are left with the remaining 49 percent. What did those commercial boats give back to the public (or the public treasury) for the exclusive right to harvest those fish? Absolutely nothing. Those commercial fishermen paid nothing for this permanent property right.
 
The editorial did give passing credit to the fact that shrimping effort in the Gulf was greatly curtailed after Katrina and Rita in 2005, but there was no mention of a lawsuit successfully won by CCA, an organization comprised almost entirely of recreational anglers, that forced the federal government to reduce shrimp trawl bycatch, a significant source of juvenile red snapper mortality, by 74 percent in 2007. Those two factors allowed a tremendously improved survival rate for juvenile red snapper and are far more responsible for the rebound that is being seen in that stock than the catch share program.
 
Catch share programs that privatize public resources for the benefit of a handful of commercial fishermen are not examples of good stewardship, and they are hardly a model that should be employed in any other fishery. Maximizing public access to public marine resources and managing them in a way that both conserves the resource and delivers the greatest economic benefits to the nation is the proper way to steward our marine resources.

Issues: Catch Shares