By Dr. Bob Shipp
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ell, as any Gulf saltwater fisherman knows, the red snapper season has shrunken to a near useless season. At the Gulf council’s April meeting in Baton Rouge, the Council voted to shorten the season to eleven days, from an already pittance season originally projected to be about forty days. And then the outrage. Media of all sorts, print, video, internet, bemoaned and chastised the Council for its action. Practically every headline or lead story included a phrase “Council shortens red snapper season again” or some similar paraphrase.
But what choice did the Council have? First, it is handcuffed by federal law, the Magnuson Stevens Act, which mandates that it manage fish stocks by a quota system. In addition, the data on which the harvest is measured have been all over the charts, due to a fatally flaw system in effect until a couple of years ago, replaced by a new system which has cast even further doubt on landings over the past three decades. And now, a Federal Court decision in late March held that the National Marine fisheries Service and the Councils failed to control the recreational harvest, allowing large overruns in six of the last seven years. The court decided this was a de facto reallocation of harvest to the recreational sector, and could not be allowed. Essentially the court ordered the Council to set a quota and buffer which would almost certainly constrain the recreational harvest to its quota.
Thus the eleven day season.
And then the fallout. Louisiana immediately decided to open the red snapper season in its state waters year round. Florida voted to have a fifty-two day season in its waters. Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana voted to extend their state waters out to nine miles, matching the territorial seas of Florida and Texas. Of course, the federal government doesn’t recognize those boundaries.
The Louisiana extended season will lop two or three days off the federal season. At this writing, we won’t know exactly how long the adjusted season will be, but will find out in May. What the other states will do remains to be seen.
At this point, I think we need to eliminate the federal season completely. Why? Because this system is insane. Operating on a quota system insures failure. The stronger and healthier the stocks, with so many large fish, the quicker we blow through the quota. If red snapper stocks were in trouble, the quota would likely not be met. And eliminating the federal season would force the issue. Either Congress would approve a different management system (such as using limited area openings with extended seasons, as I have advocated in several previous columns) or it would transfer management to the states.
Our coastal Congressmen are acutely aware of the problem and working hard to rectify it. But everyone knows that things run slow in DC. Hopefully this crisis, with its many socioeconomic downsides, will be the catalyst to create the pushback needed. The negatives extend far beyond our coastal counties. Certainly in our coastal areas near Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, tourists from practically every state vacation here. During the winter season, our coast is populated with thousands of “snowbirds” from the north and mid west. A winter snapper season would be a godsend.
I return to the title of this piece, don’t blame the Council. As a longtime Council member, and current chair of the reef fish Committee, I can only say that the frustration I hear at the marinas and tourist hangouts is shared by Council members. And I think I can safely say that sentiment is shared by the staff of the Fishery Service. This is not intended as a criticism of people but of a system. When it was put in place, its creators had only positive intentions. But oh, those unintended consequences!!
Dr. Bob has served on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council for eighteen years, three terms as chair, and currently chair of the Reef Fish Committee. He is author of “Dr. Bob Shipp’s Guide to the Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico” available at bobshipp.com.