Push in Gulf Coast States to Remove Federal Fishing Restrictions on Red Snapper

Federal regulation of fish stocks outside of state waters has been a source of contention between the commercial fishing industry, recreational anglers, and environmental groups for a long time. A group of scientists, state regulators, and fishing interests are developing a new proposal to tailor the federal regulatory model under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to meet the different conditions in each individual state in the Gulf of Mexico.

Located within the Department of Commerce, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is the federal agency charged with the management, conservation and protection of living marine resources within the United States' Exclusive Economic Zone (water three to 200 mile offshore). According to data provided by NMFS, Americans spent over $80 billion on seafood and US commercial fisherman caught over 6.5 billion pounds of fish in 2010. Recreational fishing, an increasingly important economic sector for coastal states, yielded 197 million pounds of fish and contributed billions of dollars to local economies through hotel stays and other related spending during that same time period.

The primary tool used by NMFS to regulate fish stock numbers and prevent over-fishing is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act through eight regional fisheries management councils that are geographically dispersed across the US. The most recent reauthorization of the legislation set firm limits to end over-fishing in federal waters by 2011 and it implemented new gear restrictions to reduce bycatch, which is an unintentional landing of a fish or marine species. 

Recreational and commercial fisherman have long been at odds with the determination of catch limits set by the regional management councils. These decisions effectively determine how many pounds are allocated between the commercial sector and recreational fisherman and charter boat operations. Once those poundage levels are estimated to have been met by NMFS' surveys, the fishery is shut down to help preserve and replenish the stock. For years, many stocks were heavily fished and federal regulators noted their significant decline prompting additional tough regulation in the Magnuson Act that effectively shuts down any fishing activity. A uniting factor between the opposing fishing groups is the perceived limitations of the information being collected on NMFS survey that force season closures. A anecdotal story shared by many fishing groups in Florida was that older surveying techniques used by NMFS to make these closures were based off simply cold calling people in the telephone book to ask about their fishing activities. Further, fisherman are at odds with the increasingly short seasons being set by federal regulators despite the fact that stocks like red snapper are rebounding. This year's red snapper season will only last for 40 days and the 2011 season was only 48 days. Many in the recreational fishing community worry that such short seasons have a severe impact on the continued economic viability of their industry. 

One member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, Bob Shipp, who is also the head of the marine sciences department at the University of South Alabama has criticized the federal one-size-fits-all policy when fish populations for red snapper and other species vary considerable from state to state. For instance, the state of Alabama has created a significant artificial reef system that has significantly increased red snapper populations but they are not included in federal stock assessments. Officials in Louisiana and Florida are considering allowing fisherman to continue fishing for red snapper in state waters despite the early closure in federal waters - a break from usual practice where states follow federal actions on fisheries management decisions. Shipp has also suggested that the federal government should apply flexibility for each state to manage reef fish populations and that their efforts should instead be focused on highly migratory species where one large, over-arching policy could be more effective. He told the Mobile Press-Register, "Look at spotted sea trout. Louisiana has a 25-fish-per-day bag limit on speckled trout, and they have no problem with their stock. Meanwhile, Alabama has a 10-fish-per-day limit, and Florida has just a four-fish bag limit. The different regions of the Gulf have different fish stocks. We need to manage accordingly. The states are already doing that with the stocks under their control." 

The proposal has been met with criticism by environmental groups that believe that the Magnuson-Stevens Act is working to restore fish stocks and they have concerns with transferring authority over specific management plans to states. Many groups believe that states do not have the capacity to institute accurate measuring and population metrics for each species as well as ensuring that tough enforcement will be carried out.