Fisheries Bombshell! Legislation Redraws Offshore Boundaries for Entire Southeast

snapper lores

snapper lores

Doug Olander

"A simple matter of fairness," says U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) in describing the bombshell bill labeled the Offshore Fairness Act that he introduced into the Senate on Wednesday, April 10.

That bill would extend the offshore jurisdiction of states from Louisiana to Virginia from three miles, per current federal law, to approximately 10 miles. (Texas’ state boundary is already set by the federal government at 10 miles, as is the boundary for Florida's Gulf coast.)

A companion bill has been introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

The implications for fisheries management are huge, albeit largely unknown and unpredictable. And of course it’s frustration over fisheries management and alleged mismanagement by the feds that account for this legislation. And to put a finer point on it, it’s all about red snapper, with Gulf states (not) enjoying the shortest federal seasons on record, measured in days vs. weeks or months. Yet virtually to a person, anyone who spends time fishing the Gulf will say snapper are simply everywhere in unheard-of numbers. It’s a recipe for aggravation.

I agree with much of the recreational-fishing community, such as the Coastal Conservation Association, that states could much more effectively manage their fishery resources than the federal government.

But the Vitter/Cassidy bills go beyond fisheries to give states control over all mineral rights out to 10 miles as well; that means states vs. feds get all royalties. That also means, from what insiders tell me, that these bills aren’t likely to pass.

Whether they pass or not, however, they certainly send a clear and, I think, an escalating message. Something's gotta give with the red snapper-management situation.

As if things weren't bad enough, the federal government had indicated that new stock-assessment data on red snapper should be out this spring, likely to show populations improved sufficiently to offer at least a bit of an extended season this fall. At the moment, it seems that data may not be available in time to extend seasons, after all, which would mark yet another disappointment in a fishery bereft of good news.

Unprecedented signs of trouble are already popping up, with Louisiana anglers fishing for red snapper out to 10 miles offshore, in waters recently declared by the state as its own, and in a weekend snapper fishery the state has said is legal in its waters. The federal government, however, does not recognize Louisiana’s right to extend its boundary beyond three miles, nor to give anglers the right to keep red snapper in those newly extended state waters.

The result? The Coast Guard has been boarding boats and giving or threatening to give citations to anglers who, according to state law are fishing legally but according to federal statutes are law breakers.

In a recent blog where I cited the "Gulf snapper wars," I concluded that "it's going to be a mighty bumpy ride on the Gulf this summer."

That was less than a month ago, but now I'm thinking you ain't seen nothin' yet.