Fishing management decision is grossly unfair

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The more recreational anglers there are, the more that will fish from boats resulting in more fishing-boat sales for dealers. It’s a given and we must vigorously oppose any decision that fails to treat recreational fishermen equitably.

So forgive me if I vent about the latest slap in the face for America’s saltwater anglers. I’m referring to last week’s rejection by the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee of a proposal to transfer management of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery to the five Gulf States (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas). Red snapper is a highly sought-after fish in both sport- and commercial fishing.

The letdown by the committee is a textbook illustration of the failure in Washington to recognize the economic impact of recreational fishing (now greater than commercial fishing), while federal agencies like NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service get played like harp strings by commercial fishing interests.

Red snapper management has become a lightning-rod issue. In recent years, the recreational anglers' season has been cut to the shortest duration in history while the red snapper has been deemed recovered and plentiful. But hold on: it will be announced this week that recreational anglers in federal waters will be given a longer season this summer. Yes, it’s being expanded from a paltry nine days last summer to a whopping 10 days in 2015. OMG! I can’t hold back my joy!

It’s important to note the failed amendment was similar to a successful plan established in 1984 to regulate Atlantic Ocean striped bass. Moreover, the amendment had the support of the nation's largest recreational-fishing advocacy groups including the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association, the Recreational Fishing Alliance and it was even requested by the directors of the fisheries agencies of all five Gulf States.

After the loss, Center for Coastal Conservation executive director Jeff Angers told the New Orleans Times-Picayune there were some positives. "There seemed to be, on both sides of the aisle, unanimity in the committee that the system is broken. While that committee didn't rectify it, the first step to solving any problem is identifying it." Really?

I think Angers and the Center for Coastal Conservation do a great job fighting for recreational anglers, but this committee failed to act responsibly. The truth has been well documented for a long time — that federal fisheries management has been based on pseudo-science and inept regional management councils that favor commercial interests.

Hard to believe, you say? Try this: Last fall, the bungling Gulf Fishery Management Council decided to grant special red snapper fishing privileges to Gulf of Mexico charter boat operators. Under their plan, federal fisheries managers will give charter captains a share of red snapper that they can catch during a special 44-day season. Remember, private boat recreational anglers will have only a 10-day season beginning June 1.

To stir anger even more, the charter boat operator’s favored allotment will be taken from the overall recreational quota, which has been an inequitable 49 percent, not the commercial quota of 51 percent of all red snapper. In other words, the recreational quota will be reduced by the allotment given to charter captains. Such privatization of a segment of red snapper further reduces the amount and time family anglers in recreational boats can catch a red snapper.

This also marks the first time two segments of the recreational fishery have been allotted open dates different from one another. It sets a disturbing precedent. And let’s put the horse’s head in the right bed — this “sector separation” plan was signed by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker on April 10.

Finally, there are the lawsuits. The commercial interests sued, claiming that the recreational fishermen should be penalized for past fishing over quota. Specifically, recreational anglers were allowed 5.39 million pounds of red snapper last year, but actually caught 8.83 million pounds. In March 2014, a federal judge ruled those fish had to be "paid back" by the recreational sector.

On the other side, the Coastal Conservation Association filed a lawsuit in the Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to stop the segment separation plan that will allow the take of red snapper from the recreational quota and awards it to individual charter captains. It’s patently unfair to the 3.4 million licensed recreational anglers who fish the Gulf. We can only hope the Coastal Conservation Association prevails.

Ultimately, the overriding failure in all this rests on the members of Congress. It’s a broken system they spawned when they first passed Magnuson-Stevens and continued to reauthorize it with little concern for America’s recreational anglers. It’s an inequitable management system and it must be changed with the pending reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens this spring.

Our entire industry — manufacturers, dealers, marine trade associations, marinas and suppliers must become engaged in the reauthorization process now. Further, the bipartisan Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, with its more than 300 members from almost all 50 states, needs to step up. A continuation of the current management policies and systems is simply not acceptable. It needs an overhaul and the time is now.

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