On April 10, the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) sent a national bulletin announcing that the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery had "all but closed" to recreational anglers. Citing a recent court decision brought about with help from Environmental Defense Fund, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council asked NOAA Fisheries to implement more rigid restrictions in federal waters on the basis of 2013 recreational data collection results, moving to create an 11-day red snapper season in the Gulf.
RFA has pointed out that recreational red snapper seasons in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico have been significantly reduced every year following the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. That federal law, which now incorporates rigid annual catch limits and punishing accountability measures on the recreational sector, also required that NOAA Fisheries rollout out a new recreational data collection program with improved survey methodologies as of January 1, 2009; that same year, scientific stock assessments proved that overfishing for red snapper had ended, however NOAA's use of old data methodologies forced the red snapper season to plummet to 53 days in 2010, ultimately falling to just 40 days by 2013.
While NOAA staffers have testified before numerous Congressional committee meetings as to the fact that the federal deadline to fix the recreational methodologies has still not been met, the agency, with help from Environmental Defense Fund, is forcing federal waters to be virtually closed to red snapper.
"Had NOAA attorneys simply told the truth in the Environmental Defense case, that they haven't made the required changes to the recreational data collection, perhaps the judge would've responded differently," said RFA executive director Jim Donofrio. "Federal agencies today can apparently do whatever they damn well please with support from the environmental community, and ultimately it's going to be up to states to stand up for their citizens, just like Governor Rick Scott of Florida."
Donofrio on Friday praised Governor Scott for a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker on April 17th calling for more support for recreational fishermen and major a overhaul of the federal fisheries law.
"I am very disappointed...in how the federal system has been managing red snapper and other fish stocks," Governor Scott wrote, adding "The Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Act) lacks much needed flexibility."
"The Act must be modified to allow more fishing opportunities, not less, as fish stocks improve," the governor added in his letter, which was also forwarded to 14 members of the House of Representatives and both U.S. Senators from Florida. Governor Scott also went on to describe for the Commerce Secretary how better stock assessments and recreational data collection are key to managing both recreational and commercial fisheries.
"As this act is revised and reauthorized by Congress, I urge you to support amendments that incorporate more flexibility, more up-to-date data collection and seriously consider social and economic needs," said Governor Scott, while also adding "now is the time to fix what is broken and to turn disappointment and frustration into a success story for those who depend upon and enjoy our fisheries."
Click here too read Governor Scott's letter in full
While an inflexible law, faulty data collection and deep-pocketed environmental lawyers continue to whittle away at federal rights, some states are responding defiantly on behalf of their constituents.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) voted last week to set a 52-day red snapper season in state waters, opening up on May 24th and continuing through July 14th with a two fish bag limit out to 9 nautical miles from shore.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries also announced that licensed saltwater anglers may harvest red snapper in state waters any day of the week until the end of the year with a two fish bag and 16-inch size limit. Louisiana officials are claiming state rights out to 10.35 miles.
Meanwhile, red snapper may be caught in Texas state waters all year long with a four fish bag limit and 15-inch size limit, though it's estimated that 95% of the state's annual harvest occurs in federal waters which extend beyond 9 miles from shore.
Alabama's Marine Resources Director, Chris Blankenship, said he'd been in talks with Governor Robert Bentley about a course of action there, while all signs are that Mississippi will be apt to comply with the federal red snapper season in their state waters. Both of those states' have a 3-mile line for state waters.
"We need a change in management of our fisheries," said Pam Anderson of Capt. Anderson's Marina in Panama City Beach, FL. "Our state fishery managers know we must be protective of our resources. That is a given as far as all of us are concerned. But, they know that the NOAA data collection and modeling process is seriously flawed and they know the economic impact to their states matters."
Anderson said the tone at the recent Gulf Council meeting setting the 11-day recreational season was noticeably anti-recreational. "The elation of the commercial operators and the enviro groups was over the top; high-fiving the potential economic losses planned for the recreational angling community, jeering at opposition like bullies in a middle school playground," she said.
"Adding insult to injury, when discussing the negative economic impact on the recreational fishery, certain Council members likened recreational anglers to inerrant children who need to be punished, not given more candy," Anderson added.
RFA board member Nate Odum owns Mexico Beach Marina- a Yamaha Outboard dealer, Sea Tow port and tackle shop- and he says he's very skeptical of what what's going on with fisheries management, noting how storms and high seas had a major impact on participation during the 2013 red snapper season, yet somehow NOAA Fisheries' data showed continued overharvest numbers.
"The marina's bait and fuel sales reflected a significant drop in recreational fishing," Odum stated, adding "I am here every day, I have my fingers on the pulse of one of the finest red snapper fisheries in the Gulf and after 5 years, I have not been approached once for my input. So you tell me, are they serious about common sense, sound science and the factual collection of data?"
NOAA Fisheries announced on April 7th that the agency would be developing a new national recreational fishing policy, but RFA's Donofrio said skepticism remains high in the recreational fishing community. "I hope the Commerce Department isn't putting forth any deadlines for this new angler friendly approach to management, we know from the data collection deadline what that would mean."
"Based on what we have seen in the past two weeks at the federal level and within these regional council meetings, NOAA clearly isn't listening," Donofrio added