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Red alert on red snapper management

For those of us in boating and fishing, New Orleans is a center of activity this week. As you read this, both the Sport Fishing & Boating Partnership Council and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council are holding separate multiday meetings in the Big Easy.

For the Sport Fishing & Boating Partnership Council, chaired by NMMA president Thom Dammrich, the topics are wide-ranging, from the National Fish Habitat Partnership to a National Boating Access Assessment, and from the mass marking of Great Lakes salmonids to the Susquehanna River smallmouth bass disease highlighting a packed two-day agenda.

But most eyes are likely focused on the nearby Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meetings. They’re watching to see what action, if any, the council might take concerning the contentious issue of red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the agenda is Reef Fish Amendment 39: “Regional Management of Recreational Red Snapper.” To say that federal management of red snapper has been less than acceptable is an understatement. So, the amendment includes several options, one of which is changing nothing, of course. But another would delegate authority to states to establish certain management measures for the harvest of the recreational red snapper quota. Essentially, that’s what the Gulf states want. In fact, the states have been pushing for it for years, but it hasn’t happened. However, there’s new pressure for change in play now.

The Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act was introduced in September by a bipartisan coalition led by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La. If passed and signed into law, it would shift responsibility for management of the Gulf’s red snapper fishery to the Gulf states. In a sign of broad support for state-based management of fish resources, the entire leadership of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus has signed on to the bill (H.R. 3099). A companion bill (S. 1161) is floating in the Senate.

“Federal management of Gulf red snapper is irretrievably broken,” governors of four Gulf states wrote in a joint statement. It hit rock bottom this year when frustration with it compelled several Gulf states to seek greater control of the fishery in their own waters. The National Marine Fisheries Service retaliated, using an emergency rule process to reduce the recreational season to just nine days off Louisiana and 12 days off Texas. Both states sued and a federal court overturned the action.

Notably, going to a partnership between states to manage the red snapper fishery isn’t a new idea. It would be similar to the current Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that so successfully manages the striped bass fishery or how the Gulf states already successfully manage red drum. In fact, states consistently show how effective they are at managing fisheries.

To the heart of the matter for our boating industry, NMMA president Thom Dammrich is spot on when he says: “Uncertainty in fisheries management translates to uncertainty for fishing-dependent businesses. Addressing the red snapper issue will mean that marine manufacturers, dealers, marina operators and many other businesses that rely on stable saltwater fisheries will have greater opportunities for success.”

“Federal management of red snapper has painted itself into a corner,” Center for Coastal Conservation president Jeff Angers says. “We have a robust red snapper population in the Gulf, but 2013 was as chaotic a season as anglers have ever seen. The season started as the shortest ever, saw a revolt by some states that resulted in even shorter seasons, endured a lawsuit, received a glowing stock assessment and the promise of a fall season, only to crash on wild estimates of overharvest that put the fall season in jeopardy.

“This is no way to manage a fishery and this legislation presents a way out of this no-win situation,” he added.

It will take a three-quarters majority vote of Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council members this week to adopt the proposal for Gulf states management. One thing is sure: those of us that provide products to recreational anglers must be engaged and vocal when it comes to forwarding the interests of the nation’s fishing families. It seems best time to end the federal red snapper management debacle altogether and support passage of the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act.

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