Fishing boat dealers should be seeing red

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Some say it’s just about red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. But the truth is it goes much deeper and will set a dangerous precedent for all saltwater anglers and the dealers who sell them their boats.

The recreational fishing season for red snapper in the Gulf is closed, but wide open is the fight to prevent what can essentially lead to the privatization of this and, eventually, other fisheries. It’s a program called “sector separation” and it’s been debated for several years by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service. Yet, in spite of knowing there’s widespread opposition, the Fisheries Service keeps pushing the envelope.

The latest proposal is called Amendment 40 Sector Separation. It would divide the recreational fishermen’s red snapper quota into two categories: the private angler sector and the for-hire charter boats sector. In essence, it would rob a percentage of the sport fishermen’s annual share of red snapper (currently only 49 percent vs. 51 percent for commercial fishers) and give it to the for-hire charter boats/head boats. They would also be allowed to fish for red snapper any time until they took their individual quota. Recreational anglers would remain limited to a specified open season which this year was the shortest ever, just nine days.

In fact, below the radar, it’s already happening and we should be calling foul. Beginning last January, under the guise of a pilot program, a percentage of the 2014 red-snapper quota for recreational anglers was given to a select group of charter boat owners. Seventeen captains operating in Texas, Alabama and Florida were handed unhindered access to 5.4 percent of the recreational quota. Moreover, it allows these 17 captains to target red snapper throughout the year, while the rest of the private recreational fleet can’t.

The pilot program that will last two years has appropriately received heavy criticism from groups like the Coastal Conservation Association.

"The public has already sent literally thousands of comments against concepts that attempt to funnel access to marine resources through a very few select businesses," Coastal Conservation Association conservation director Ted Venker said.

The sector separation idea is particularly popular with head-boat operators. They want to skim off a portion of the recreational segment and, basically, be given a quota — an individual fishing quota — like the commercial fishers already have. Back in 2007, the commercial fishers were granted quotas that allow each boat to harvest its share of the allowable commercial red snapper quota anytime during the year.

But transferring such a commercial concept to head-boats or charter boats is patently unfair for two reasons: (1) the quota would be taken solely from the recreational sector; and (2) all the people who pay to board a head boat or charter boat are still recreational fishermen, but they’d be allowed to catch red snapper when all other recreational anglers could not.

What incites even more anger is the fact that, even though the Gulf red snapper population is healthier than it’s been in decades, federal fisheries managers continue to reduce the recreational fishing season rather than developing fair programs to sustain the red snapper fishery. And let’s be absolutely clear about this: Amendment 40is not a plan to improve the fishery to serve all, nor is it a plan for badly-needed improved data collection on the recreational sector as a whole. No, it is a blatant plan designed to serve a very few federal reef fish permit holders — 1,300 charter /head boats — who complain their industry is in decline. Red snapper today, which fishery next?

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act established eight regional Fishery Management Councils to prepare plans for managing fish stocks in their regions. NOAAs Fisheries Service then reviews, approves and implements the plans.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council held a public hearing last Wednesday in Orange Beach, Ala. Of the 28 people who spoke, 17 were charter captains expressing their wholehearted support of Amendment 40. No surprise there. The disappointment is only 11 recreational anglers spoke objections and no dealers or marine industry people reportedly spoke.

There are three hearings remaining: Tonight (Aug. 12) Holiday Inn, Panama City, Fla.; Monday (Aug. 18) Hyatt Place, Baton Rouge, La.; and Tuesday (Aug. 19) Courtyard by Marriot, Gulfport, Miss.

The next full Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting is slated for August 25-28, at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss. The council is scheduled to discuss Amendment 40 and review the public comments.

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