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Posted on May 21, 2009 in Top Shots
Pay to play for red snapper?

Managing red snapper recreationally by having anglers purchase a tag for each snapper he/she hopes to catch (within a total of allowable catch) - that's just nuts.

Or is it?

Recently an idea that the Coastal Conservation Association floated before the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council ended up floating itself right out into the public domain. The reaction, which has since died down a bit, was fast and furious.

That's understandable. On its face the idea is radical and seemingly counterintuitive to the idea of a public resource. Of course, as with most things (and new ideas), there's more to the story than meets the eye. But putting aside how the idea may not be as totally off-the-wall as at first blush it seems, in fact it's really a small part of a much bigger issue.

What CCA is apparently trying to do is not push any specific proposal into law but to start fishery managers thinking outside of the box.

Even those most immediately critical of the CCA proposal must agree that management of species like red snapper, gag grouper, fluke and others needs to be different, because our management regime to date sure ain't been working! If it were working, we wouldn't be facing massive closures and restrictions that now threaten a huge economic industry and, of course, threaten to put a big damper on the sport that so many of us pursue passionately.

And for that reason, I think the CCA should be more commended than condemned - that is, not for this proposal per se, but for trying to get top federal fisheries managers to start doing for recreational fisheries what its been doing for commercial fisheries.

What do I mean? Just this. While many of us will be cooling our props at the dock because more and more seasons are closed to protect stocks the feds say are overfished, our brethren on the commercial side will be heading out throughout the year to fish.

That's not because they're suddenly being given larger quotas. That's because they're suddenly being given new management strategies that work (and allocate) better.

Particularly that's the case with ITQs and the like (individual transferable quotas) that allocate a share of the resource (red snapper or whatever it may be) to those holding quota shares. Who gets the shares is another matter and while it's engendered some controversy, the fact remains that it has by and large been working. And by and large, the commercial fishing community and environmentalists actually agree (go figure that) that it's a better way.

That's not to say that ITQs are the answer for recreational fishing; they;'re not. Sport fishing is a very different situation from large commercial enterprises.

But it is to say that something has to be the answer since, again, what we're doing now is not the answer.

More to the point, I think, is that it's time for the government to step up to our plate as it's done for commercials and help! In fact, the National Marine Fisheries Service is making a big deal of the funds it's now directing to make commercial ITQs happen in many fisheries, notably at the moment in New England, where NOAA head Jane Lubchenco has pledged another $18.6 million at a meeting of fishery management councils. She sees it as a great opportunity to preserve "the industry."

Don't get me wrong. I'm delighted to see solutions that help achieve management goals. But, Dr. Lubchenco: There's another industry that needs preserving and needs NOAA's help - one which in many fisheries consumes a relatively small amount of the resource while providing a relatively large economic boost to regional economies: recreational fishing.

A longstanding criticism within the recreational-fishing community is that NOAA, within the Department of Commerce, was instituted to help develop commercial fishing and that orientation has never gone away. So far, I'd say we're seeing more evidence of that.

Coming back, then, to the CCA proposal, there are actually means by which something along those lines might be workable, but it's very complex, would ultimately need much work and would probably never actually occur in anything like that "first draft" that the Gulf Council saw. More importantly, keep in mind that a major goal of any such proposals is ultimately to bring stability and opportunity to long-suffering anglers.

So I'd urge all sport fishermen as well as the industry and groups associated with it to be a bit less quick to condemn new ideas and in fact to embrace the notion that new and innovative strategies must be proposed and considered with the assistance and resources from our fishery management officials in Washington - and hopefully soon. This sport and this industry need help.

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