By Ted Venker, Vice President, Director of Conservation, and TIDE Editor-in-Chief
The federal fisheries management process is a tough environment for recreational angling. The agency that oversees marine resources in federal waters – NOAA Fisheries – was originally designed to promote and subsidize industrial harvest with indiscriminate gear like longlines and trawls. That mission still exists inextricably in the agency’s DNA today. Anglers fishing out of their own boats have never been a priority with NOAA Fisheries, despite the fact that recreational fishing is an economic and conservation powerhouse in this country. Given the breadth and diversity of the recreational fishery, NOAA Fisheries generally regards properly managing anglers as an unsolvable problem.
With the close relationship that exists between the federal agency and industrial harvesters, it is important to pay attention to seemingly random ideas floated by one or the other that foretell a possible sea change in the fishery management regime. In recent meetings of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council – one of eight regional councils charged with managing the nation’s marine fisheries in federal waters – commercial interests have made it clear what they want the management agency to do with recreational anglers.
A letter dated August 21, 2022, from the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance (ShareholdersAlliance.org) urges the Gulf Council to “Find real solutions to managing the unrestricted, open access private angler fishing sector.”
In the language of federal fisheries management, the commercial sector is asking NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf Council to devise methods to limit the number of people and families who are allowed to go fishing on their own boats.
The Shareholders Alliance is a trade group of commercial fishermen who are regarded as Snapper Barons because a handful of them own the vast majority of commercial harvest of red snapper and grouper in the Gulf. A statement like this from a small group of individuals who have reaped great wealth from private ownership of a public marine resource is offensive. When representatives of the federal agency in charge of managing the nation’s fisheries indicate that they agree with that kind of statement, it is alarming.
It takes just one pebble to start an avalanche, and if an elite class of shareholders is publicly calling for NOAA Fisheries to decide which recreational anglers can fish and which can’t, then this dangerous avalanche is already moving.