In a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., 29 commercial fishermen, seafood processors and trade groups closely associated with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), are seeking to further restrict angling for red snapper. The lawsuit challenges the National Marine Fisheries Service's policy of managing recreational fishermen with seasons, size limits and bag limits.
"After the shortest recreational seasons in history, it appears that the goal of EDF is to ultimately keep the fishing public off the water as much as possible and by any means necessary, including litigation," Chester Brewer, chairman of CCA's National Government Relations Committee. "A lawsuit filed by an elite group of snapper barons to protect their financial interests and further restrict recreational participation is probably the last thing we need along the Gulf Coast right now."
The Environmental Defense Fund has long promoted the concept of catch shares for the commercial industry, which gives businesses a share of the harvest to manage as its own. Catch shares were originally touted to reduce overcapacity and bycatch in the commercial sector, but in the Gulf snapper fishery the program has created a class of "snapper barons" that have bought out smaller operations and now lease their shares back to other fishers. Many no longer actually fish for red snapper and are instead profiting from the lease and sale of a public natural resource that they obtained originally for free. From a high of around 1,800 commercial license holders, currently about 350 people, including many of the plaintiffs listed on the current lawsuit, now claim they own 51 percent of the entire harvest of Gulf red snapper.
"Seasons, size limits and bag limits have been used for decades with great success by the states in both marine and freshwater fisheries to manage recreational angling. Those tools work," said Brewer. "What doesn't work is taking a federal system that is geared almost exclusively to manage commercial fisheries to the pound and trying to apply those same standards to recreational angling. That is the recipe for chaos, and it leads to ridiculous diversions like this lawsuit."
In contrast to the conditions described in the lawsuit, a red snapper benchmark stock assessment released just a few weeks ago paints a glowing picture of the recovery of Gulf red snapper. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meets next week in New Orleans to discuss lengthening the recreational season in 2013 because the assessment allows so much increased harvest.
"This lawsuit is not about conserving the stock or rebuilding a fishery or preserving access for the public to a public resource - it's about a large environmental organization preserving a flawed catch share system for a few commercial entities and greatly restricting Gulf recreational angling, which is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people," said Brewer. "There is far more to managing a fishery than counting, weighing and selling every dead fish for profit. We cannot allow successful management of our nation's wild natural resources to be defined in these terms or be dictated to by deep-pocketed environmental groups."
Over the past several years, Gulf Coast governors, Congressmen and the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus have voiced concern and opposition to privatizing wildlife resources and limiting public access to public resources through catch share programs. In 2009, four Gulf governors wrote to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce stating that, "We are concerned that in the desire to adopt and implement catch share systems NOAA has forgotten its most fundamental responsibility under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act-to maximize the net economic value from the use of a public resource. Recreational fishing is an important activity in all of our states, and one that we would like to see continue to grow as a healthy activity for the public. However, we are concerned that NOAA policies could frustrate our ability to do that."
–– Source: CCA Florida