by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Congressional leaders called upon two Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI) board members to testify on The Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act of 2013. Florida’s Bob Gill and Louisiana’s Harlon Pearce represented the interests of Gulf of Mexico fishermen before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs in the ongoing saga of red snapper management.
The subcommittee, chaired by Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, heard testimony on the challenges resulting from the current recreational red snapper management structure and whether the proposed management changes in H.R. 3099 are the correct approach to solving a complex management struggle.
Pearce and Gill joined panel members David Cresson, the executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana, and Captain Jim Green, vice-president of the Destin Charter Boat Association, on the four member panel.
Commercial Red Snapper Management Works
“It is very important to understand that the current red snapper program on the harvest side is working,” Gill told the Congressional hearing. “The species is no longer undergoing overfishing and is now being managed under a rebuilding plan which will allow the species to rebuild back to target population levels.”
According to the Gill, a former member of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, the commercial red snapper Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program, which began in 2007, has reduced the number of vessels and improved the operation of this fishery. The IFQ program now provides the harvesting sector with flexibility to fish during times that suit their needs and the needs of the market resulting in less pressure on the fishery, less pressure on the resource and a consistent supply of red snapper to meet consumer demand.
The problem in the Gulf remain the inability to find a similar solution resulting in turmoil in the federal management of the recreational side.
“Fishery managers, still relying on the antiquated “days at sea” model for management, have drastically reduced fishing days for recreational red snapper leading to serious economic implications for the entire Gulf coast economy,” he said. “While I agree that Congress should take steps to improve management of recreationally-caught red snapper, any solution that upsets the success of the commercial red snapper program is not a solution at all and would only harm the industry, seaside communities and the millions of consumers who depend on the year-round availability of red snapper.”
According to Pearce, effective and fair management of Gulf red snapper is not only a concern for the recreational fishing community, but for the broader Gulf coast economy and consumers nationwide.
“While red snapper is a highly coveted sport fish, consumer demand for red snapper at the retail and restaurant level remains high,” GSI’s president told subcommittee members. “Red snapper is an iconic American favorite, and according to the National Restaurant Association, seafood sales are one of the biggest drivers of the important tourism industry in Louisiana, Florida and the other Gulf states.”
Accurate Data Needed
Gill told the committee that one challenge facing red snapper management in the Gulf continues to be the lack of accurate and timely data on the species.
“Until we have a reliable system to collect and process information on the fishery itself, it will remain impossible for the Council, federal OR state policymakers to make sound management decisions that can protect the longevity of our ecosystems while keeping up with demand from fishermen,” said the Naval Academy graduate.
One component of the Gulf recreational fishing community is poised start collecting and processing accurate data, the charter-for-hire sector.
“This action is widely supported by charter boat captains and their customers, as well as the seafood community and conservationists,” said Pearce.” This will increase stability for the for-hire component, increase flexibility in future management of the recreational sector, and minimize the chance for recreational quota overruns which could jeopardize the rebuilding of the red snapper stock. By managing the charter component separately, state and federal managers can be more responsive to the needs of professional fishermen and their hundreds of thousands of non-boat owning customers who must plan their travel to the Gulf coast months in advance.“
During a recent meeting, the Gulf Council voted 10-7 to separate out the federally permitted charter-for-hire community from private anglers in the Gulf, setting the stage for the charter fleet to be managed independently for purposes of red snapper. GSI has worked closely with charter boat captains across the Gulf to generate support for a program to collect real-time, verifiable data on reef fish using technology that can be as simple as a smart phone or tablet application attached to a Vessel Monitoring System.
“These systems are ready to roll out and have received overwhelming support from fishermen, stakeholders and charter captains themselves,” said Gill. “This cost-effective and sleek technology will allow fishermen to quickly and accurately report their catch to a secure database administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) thus providing regulators with enough data to more fairly and equitably manage red snapper for charter boat fishermen and their customers.”
GSI member CLS America is working closely with representatives from the Gulf charter-for-hire community, NOAA and other stakeholders to identify ways to incorporate their Thorium product into an electronic data collection program for the Gulf charter community. GSI also worked with Congress to include $2 million in the Senate version of the FY 2015 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill to help cover the cost of such an electronic data collection program. We look forward to working with Congress to see funding included in future federal appropriations bills and have this important electronic data collection program off the ground in 2015.
H.R. 3099, Red Snapper Conservation Act
Both Gill and Pearce testified that H.R. 3099, The Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act, would not solve the recreational red snapper management challenges in the Gulf.
“While both the commercial and charter-for-hire communities are seeing great management improvements in red snapper, there is no question that red snapper management in the private angling community in the Gulf is in dire straits,” testified Pearce.
“Simply shifting management authority from the Council and NOAA to another agency, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission will not address the fundamental issues of a lack of data, rapidly increasing participation on the part of private anglers, and a lack of accountability measures to address egregious overages on the recreational side,” said Pearce, who owns Harlon’s LA Seafood in New Orleans. “Further, H.R. 3099 does not authorize any new funding for the Commission to carry out its new responsibilities under this bill, neither does it address how the resource should be equitably allocated between the five Gulf states – an issue the five state resource agencies have been unable to solve after repeated attempts.”
Both GSI members expressed concerns to the committee over H.R. 3099:
- H.R. 3099 Tasks the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission with Tremendous New Responsibilities But Provides No New Resources – GSMFC is not equipped to handle the mission of a de facto fisheries management agency as outlined in this legislation, even if given ample financial backing, meet staff and infrastructure needed to required to comply with the legislation.
- Does Not Address Increased Recreational Fishing Effort – According to the Coastal Conservation Association, there are approximately 3,000,000 private anglers in the Gulf and another 3,000,000 Gulf tourists wanting to go fishing. There are approximately 700,000 red snapper available to be caught by the recreational sector. Based on those figures, fishing trips directed to catch red snapper alone more than consume the available resource with only one person on the boat. It is clear that resource managers must determine a method for reducing fishing effort or the supply of red snapper will always fall woefully short of demand.
- The Legislation Would Shut Down Effective Management of the Commercial Red Snapper Fishery – This legislation does not address the need of preserving the current, effective management regime for commercially caught red snapper in the Gulf.
- Does Not Maintain Federal Sustainability Standards Under Magnuson Stevens Act – Section 5 of H.R. 3099 requires the Secretary of Commerce to determine if the Commission’s red snapper fishery management plan is compatible, “to the extent practicable” with the sustainability requirements outlined in the Magnuson Stevens Act. This loophole may render red snapper as the only major fishery in the entire United States that is not fully compliant with important federal sustainability guidelines needed for both preservation of the stock as well as marketing of the species.
- Accountability Measures for the Fishery Remain Unclear – This strategy leaves state waters open, and possible continued fishing with significant impact to the overall stock, as well as inevitable cross boundaries of federal waters of an adjacent state, further imperiling stock status.
- Enforcement Challenges Would Arise – Turns management of the red snapper fishery over to the five Gulf States and grants the Commission oversight of these state management programs. As such, enforcement and oversight of the red snapper management plans put forward by the states would be, to a certain extent, self-enforced leaving the door open for a slippery slope of missed deadlines, loose enforcement and future mismanagement.
- Charter Fleet Would be Placed in Limbo – Turning management of the entire red snapper fishery over to the Commission and the states threatens to dissolve the new federally-permitted charter-for-hire red snapper management program and rope professional fishermen and their customers back into the unmanageability of the private angling community.
Both GSI members believe that serious strides have been made in terms of the commercial and charter components of the fishery under the current Council-run process. They feel that given the increased emphasis on new data collection programs and the willingness of the Council to begin adopting a more progressive management strategies, a solution to the challenges facing private red snapper fishermen can be developed without much change in federal law as it is currently written.
“While drastic management solutions are needed, it is clear that programs outlined in H.R. 3099 are not the right approach. This bill will result in a worsened, not bettered, management system and impact the Gulf of Mexico seafood community and the consumers who depend on them,” said Pearce after his testimony. “While I applaud the sponsors of H.R. 3099 for their effort to take some action, it seems that an equitable solution for managing the recreational sector of this fishery remains a long way off.”
Complete GSI Testimony
December 4, 2014 – Bob Gill, Owner, Shrimp Landing, Crystal River, Florida Representing the Gulf Seafood Institute Before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs “H.R.3099, The Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act of 2013”
December 4, 2014 – Written Statement of Harlon Pearce Owner, Harlon’s LA Fish, Kenner, Louisiana Before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs “H.R.3099, The Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act of 2013”