Red Snapper — Allow Reallocation Among Fishermen

It’s time for the Gulf Council, which has never allowed a reallocation of quotas among sectors, to step aside and let state managers do the job.

OPINION

Strange Times

Red snapper caught at a Gulf oil rig
In the bizzaro world of federal snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico, anglers in 2016 are enjoying a nine-day season (and not enjoying it very much). That's all they have to vie for the big red snapper omnipresent around offshore oil rigs like this one.Mike Mazur / Sport Fishing

Many Gulf Coast anglers have been asking themselves what the world is coming to lately, when they can fish federal waters for red snapper for only a few days this year while commercial boats can take sport fishermen out anytime to catch snapper for the boat to sell.

I sure wondered how that could be when, in April, I first heard about Texas captain Scott Hickman’s “catch-share experience trips,” which — quite legally — allow him to take sport fishermen along to fill his fish boxes per the commercial catch shares he owns.

He accepts no payment from these anglers, just as by law he can accept no tips. The anglers cannot legally keep any fish nor buy fish from Hickman. But they can buy fish caught that day from the fish house back at the dock — for a premium price (at least a few bucks more per pound than the usual market price).

At first, this scheme seemed outrageous to me, as it apparently did to many in the recreational-fishing community. Then I started trying to put my finger on why it pissed me off, and mostly I came up with reasons why it shouldn't, especially when considered within the context of our bizarro snapper-management regime.

Working Within the System

After all, the guy has been given or purchased a share of the commercial quota to catch. He is sure to harvest those fish (especially with snapper so abundant). Why should I care who pulls ’em into the boat? No matter who does that, the absurdly short recreational season won’t change.

Second, at least there’s virtually no waste this way. The certain mortality of “released” fish that float away, and the possible mortality of those vented or lowered via a fish-descending device, is eliminated in this approach because nearly all fish caught are kept and eaten.

Third, reports indicate that most people who have participated in catch-share trips (and as it turns out, Hickman’s been offering these trips going on three years now) seemed to enjoy it — and why not? Tourists visiting the coast get a free day on the water and the chance to catch lots of fish. They have the option to buy some of their catch for dinner (and more for their freezer, if they wish). And Hickman says most anglers end up buying plenty, despite the premium price of $16 per pound, for the privilege of keeping the fish they caught themselves.

The Real Problem Goes Beyond Catch Shares

So I think one can argue that Hickman has come up with a clever entrepreneurial strategy here that makes sense within the context of present Gulf snapper laws.

That said, to me and I suspect to many who read SF, there’s not a lot of appeal. When I go fishing, I prefer to use my own light gear in my own way and keep or release what I want. But still, I can see how tourists and more casual fishermen could enjoy this catch-share fishing experience.

To expend emotion and energy getting angry about such trips is a waste. In part, I think that’s a knee-jerk reaction to anything with the words “catch share.” But our problem is far greater than catch shares.

The real issue is the way the federal government, via the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, manages and allocates red snapper for recreational fisheries.

The council promised years ago to reassess the allocation of red snapper among sectors. Yet it’s kept pretty much the same allocation that’s been in effect for decades. The council also said it would consider allowing sectors the opportunity to re-allocate via intersector quota-share purchase. That’s another broken promise. Hickman’s catch-share trips like Hickman’s prove just how blurred the lines between sectors have become.

Quotas Locked Up by the Gulf Management Council

Contrast that with the North Pacific Council, which has begun providing the opportunity for sector-quota transfer so halibut sport-fishing interests (such as charter organizations) can purchase quota directly from commercial shareholders. Realizing that solutions like this are possible reaffirms the idea that there are better approaches to management than what’s going on in the Gulf.

But the Gulf Council has never shown much interest in the progressive management of red snapper when it comes to recreational users. That makes it very difficult not to support the growing clamor to shift management to the states.

Even if states are handed the management of red snapper, however, that will not necessarily resolve problems stemming from federal allocation among sectors.

Somehow, state managers must be allowed to find the means to obtain more quota for their growing population of recreational users.

Releasing a small red snapper
Most of the year in Gulf of Mexico offshore waters, red snapper like this caught on a metal jig must be released. In the Atlantic all must released all year in 2016.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

Creative Thinking

Just one way that could be accomplished is via what fisheries economist Brad Gentner has termed “buffer sector management,” which in simplest terms would allow each state to purchase or lease commercial quota that could then be harvested by anglers. Funds for this approach could be raised in part by instituting a red snapper endorsement (e.g., a red snapper stamp to be purchased with each fishing license, as Florida already does with snook).

This is an example of the sort of creative thinking that could lead to replacing the current snapper sector allocation, which the Gulf Council seems to consider set in stone, with fair, flexible and market-driven allocation of snapper among sectors.

It’s a shame that council members can’t — or won’t — recognize what study after study has shown. A red snapper provides many times more economic (and social) value as a recreational fish than it does as a commercial fish. The interest in Scott Hickman’s catch-share fishing trips, where anglers pay well above market price to keep some of the fish caught by participants, is yet another indicator of how true this is.

A Case for Shifting to State Management

But it seems apparent that changing snapper allocations won’t happen without the approval of legislation removing red snapper management from the Gulf Council in favor of state management. When it comes to fish and wildlife management, states generally have an excellent track record and the support of their constituents.

Otherwise, I fear that as long as we continue on the same path we’ve been taking, 10 years from now we’ll be looking at two- or three-day federal snapper seasons.

There has to be a better way.