From dissing descending devices and artificial reefs to opening the red drum commercial fishery and defending screwy models that make no sense, it’s business as usual for federal management.
A common piece of gallows humor among veteran observers of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is that you can skip a decade of meetings and walk right back into almost the exact same conversations. True to its form as a meeting that has never been particularly receptive to recreational anglers, the Gulf Council met last month and produced a familiar litany of discussions ranging from the convoluted to the alarming.
- NOAA representatives again went on the record diminishing the value of artificial reefs in their belief that they have made fishing too great – high catch rates of big fish allowing anglers to reach their quotas too fast. NOAA seemingly gives no credit to those artificial reefs as valuable centers of production that add to the overall population, and laments how these mere “fishing spots” screw up the red snapper fishery. From NOAA’s perspective, if all the artificial reefs were gone the fishing would be much poorer and more difficult, and that would be a good thing because the seasons would be longer. You may not catch anything anymore, but you could try for a really long time. In contrast, thankfully the Department of Interior has announced no desire to fill in prairie potholes or bulldoze marsh to make fewer ducks and longer duck seasons… (And people wonder why I’m so negative and jaded about federal fisheries management.)
- There was not as much discussion as there could have been about the recalibration of NOAA’s historical recreational catch data showing the potential for massive shifts in allocation of many species important to the recreational sector. No one wants to talk too much about that yet because the implications sort of redefine reality for many species, particularly red snapper, and not in a way that NOAA is inclined to accept gracefully. Therefore, no one should be surprised if there are systemic efforts underway behind the scenes to downplay the new data. This is one issue that is going to need a lot of sunshine to keep on track.
- NOAA representatives again went on the record opposing requirements for descending devices in the reef fish fishery and successfully guided the Council to remove them from consideration as a management tool. This opposition to a tool that has proven to be successful in releasing alive a deep-dwelling fish is just baffling from a conservation standpoint. The only explanation is that while such a tool would be embraced by recreational anglers, any similar requirement for the commercial or charter/for-hire sector would be highly disruptive to their fishing practices, and NOAA apparently isn’t willing to impose that on them for the sake of conservation. Additionally, widespread adoption of descending devices in the private angler sector would inevitably open a Pandora’s Box of scrutiny into release mortality in all sectors, and NOAA’s track record on that significant management component, and even any real data on discards, is embarrassingly meager.
- There was a very long, technical discussion that attempted to explain why NOAA data for the gray snapper fishery indicates it has been undergoing overfishing for 40 years, but somehow the stock still isn’t classified as overfished. That much effort to explain something that makes no sense in the first place should shake the confidence of anyone who still has faith in NOAA’s models.
- Finally, efforts are again brewing to open the red drum fishery in federal waters to harvest. The Gulf red drum fishery is a perfect example of how wildlife resources should be managed and so any effort to unravel it should always be regarded with alarm. The brood stock of mature fish that spawn offshore has been off limits to all harvest since the 1980s and that protection fuels a massive, sustainable inshore fishery on juvenile redfish that is an economic powerhouse for the Gulf states. Opening federal waters jeopardizes the entire system, and yet calls to do so emanate occasionally from the commercial sector. At the October Council meeting, requests to target the brood stock came from quarters as varied as Scott Hickman, president of the Galveston Professional Boatman’s Association/charter operator/commercial fisherman, to Ed Swindell, commercial Council member from Louisiana with a long history in the menhaden industry. Why anyone would knowingly want to target an oversized breeder redfish that is critical to the future of the species, and oh, by the way, is probably filled with worms and potentially high mercury and other toxins, isn’t clear. However, given NOAA’s unabashed bias and support of for-profit harvest of any kind, there is a danger that someone somewhere in the agency is now feverishly trying to figure out how to allow it. That should send shivers down the spine of anyone who has ever held a fishing rod on the Gulf Coast.
It has been said that anyone who enjoys a meeting shouldn’t be in charge of anything, and nowhere is that more applicable than the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. The recurring beat from one or 100 Gulf Council meetings is that the less control federal management has over the fish and the habitat, the better it is likely to be for everyone.