House Committee Holds Hearing on Gulf Red Snapper Legislation

by / Newsroom Ink on November 2, 2015
Graves

Sponsored by Louisiana Republican Representative Garret Graves, and endorsed by all five Gulf State fisheries managers, the new legislation would remove Gulf red snapper from the federal fisheries. Photo: House of Representatives

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

While former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s eleven-hour testimony before the 17-month-old House Select Committee on Benghazi took center spotlight on Capitol Hill, the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans met to a packed room filled with Gulf commercial and charter-for-hire fishermen to hear public testimony on H.R. 3094, the “Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act” which gives Gulf States control of the red snapper fishery.

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The Subcommittee, chaired by Louisiana Representative John Fleming, heard testimony from seven witness. Photo: House of Representative

Sponsored by Louisiana Republican Representative Garret Graves, and endorsed by all five Gulf state fisheries managers, the new legislation would remove Gulf red snapper from federal management authorized by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) and place it under state management.

In his opening remarks, the bill’s author said he was convinced the Gulf states themselves could do a better job at managing red snapper than the federal government. Rep. Graves said he had repeatedly reached out to get input on the legislation from the commercial industry, but received none. However, he did thank Stan Harris, CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association and Board Member of the Gulf Seafood Institute, for his input.

During his opening remarks, Ranking Member Jared Huffman of California stated that the red snapper issue is as contentious as California water issues in terms of items being considered by the House Resources Committee.

The Subcommittee, chaired by Louisiana Representative John Fleming, heard testimony from seven witness including Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Executive Director Nick Wiley and David Cresson, Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), who spoke in favor of the legislation.

Authority, Not Money

Barham2

Louisiana Sec. Robert Barham expressed willingness to have current legislation rewritten to exclude any federal funding. Photo: House of Representatives

Supporters of the Graves legislation built their case on the Gulf states’ abilities to do a better job managing the fishery than the federal government. Both Barham and Wiley touted state programs, claiming that they produce better data on the health of the fishery than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fishery experts. According to their testimony, they see a fishery that is almost completely recovered and healthy, and should be more accessible to private anglers.

Meanwhile, opponents to the legislation built a case that H.R. 3094 is a threat to the commercial fishery and seafood supply chain. According to the three witnesses appearing in opposition to the bill, the Gulf States are not in any position, especially financially, to manage a federal commercial fishery that it has been a proven success under Magnuson-Stevens oversight.

When addressing a question raised by Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar on why landlocked states like his should subsidize state-run programs with federal money, Secretary Barham stated, “I will do a better job. I don’t want your money, I just want the authority to regulate the fishery”, a statement with which his Florida counterpart concurred.

Barham’s willingness to have current legislation rewritten to exclude any federal funding was repeated twice during his time in front of the Subcommittee.

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Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar questioned “why landlocked states like his should subsidize state ran programs with federal money”. Photo: House of Representatives

Representing his small mom and pop fishing company as well as the largest federally permitted charter-for-hire fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, Captain Gary Jarvis, president of the Destin Charter Boat Association, told the Subcommittee, “This legislation is very controversial among fishermen. Many of us strongly believe that if Congress passes it, it would be harmful to the fishery, and in short order, small coastal businesses and coastal tourism.”

According to Jarvis, the rebuilding progress resulting directly from programs required by MSA has been so effective that during the current year the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council was able to approve a 30 percent increase in the annual catch limit for red snapper, bringing landings from 11 million pounds to over 14 million pounds – more than two times the entire annual catch limit of 5.1 million pounds in 2005.

“Charter-for-hire captains throughout the Gulf, and many commercial fishermen, chefs, and others involved in the seafood industry, are deeply concerned that this legislation will lead to an eventual, exclusive recreational fishery for Gulf of Mexico red snapper,” he said in his testimony. “My greatest concern is that this proposed legislation will give five state wildlife management directors total control of an individual iconic fishery in a system that has less oversight, fewer checks and balances, fewer financial and staff resources, less mandated science protocol, and less stakeholder input.”

Snapper Successful Under Magnuson

Delacruz

“Commercial fishermen are not willing to gamble our businesses on things like weakened enforcement, diminished rebuilding measures, diluted standards, and restricted public access,” Delacruz told the gathered Representatives. Photo: House of Representatives

“The commercial fishery is a success under Magnuson and it should not be turned over to the Gulf States,” Jason Delacruz, President and Chief Operating Officer of Florida’s Wild Seafood Company and the Executive Director of Gulf Wild, told the Subcommittee during his testimony. “Our federal fishery law is the bipartisan backbone of our management plan and is the reason that we have a rebounding red snapper fishery today. Strict rebuilding requirements, mandatory accountability measures, and a common core of conservation has helped increase red snapper quotas to some of the highest levels on record.”

According to Delacruz, the commercial individual quota (IFQ) program was put in place in 2007, and has remained within science- based quotas every year. “We simply have no assurances that the Gulf states will uphold Magnuson, and we have every reason to believe they won’t. We have no assurances that the Gulf states will protect our small businesses that we’ve built under the security of federal fisheries law. And we have no assurances that the Gulf states will identify and enact conservation as a keystone issue,” he said.

The current commercial red snapper fishery mostly occurs in federal waters and with boats that are federally permitted. The quota is managed through a federal database, with landings reported through a federal trip ticket system paid for with federal cost recovery fees.

“State management just does not make sense for one species in a federally-managed multispecies commercial fishery,” said the Florida fisherman. “Time and time again in the Gulf of Mexico, we have seen the Gulf States deliberately set fishing seasons in their state waters to conflict with and undermine federal regulations. We want nothing to do with being managed by the states that constantly thumb their noses at the policies that have helped rebuild this fishery and stabilize fishing businesses.”

Damaging Commercial Fishery

Cresson

Stating “I am not here to rail against commercial fisheries”, CCA’s Cresson testified it was the angling community who was largely responsible for the miraculous recovery of Gulf red snapper. Photo: House of Representatives

Stating “I am not here to rail against commercial fisheries”, CCA’s Cresson testified it was the angling community who was largely responsible for the miraculous recovery of Gulf red snapper due to its 2005 lawsuit against the federal government that resulted in the reduction in red snapper mortality from shrimp trawls.

Cresson, whose organization represents 60,000 of the three million Gulf recreational fishermen, told the Representatives, “Anglers gladly work with the states to help develop, pay for and contribute information to these state- based programs because they are state-based. Recreational fishermen trust the states. The states very successfully manage recreationally important species like redfish, speckled trout and largemouth bass.”

In her testimony, Chef Haley Bitterman the Corporate Executive Chef and Director of Operations for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, stated that red drum, better known as redfish, has become inaccessible to the American dining public because of state control of the fishery and she feared red snapper would face a similar fate.

Lowenthal

California Representative Alan Lowenthal expressed concerns that the commercial and charter-for-hire industries would be appropriately represented under this bill. Photo: House of Representatives.

“Red drum, once an important commercial fishery along the northern Gulf coast, is now almost wholly restricted to recreational anglers,” she told the Subcommittee. “This is because the Gulf states, in response to legitimate concerns regarding overharvesting of the species back in the late 1980’s, determined that the best way to preserve the fishery was to designate red drum as a game fish only, thus eliminating an important menu item for our restaurants. At present, after nearly 30 years being designated as a game fish in almost all Gulf states, the red drum stock has rebounded and recreational catch is now at an all-time high of approximately 16 million pounds, yet commercial fishers remain completely shut out. The Gulf states have simply shifted the catch of red drum from commercial to recreational and refuse to consider opening back up a commercial harvest. In fact, because of this, the only redfish we serve at Redfish Grill in New Orleans is farmed.”

Bitterman, who was representing the National Restaurant Association and the millions of tourists visiting the Gulf coast each year, testified, “Diners today are more and more aware of the importance of eating fresh, sustainable, locally-caught seafood. Unfortunately in the Gulf we have watched a huge number of our popular seafood items become import-only or recreational-only fish. Red snapper, on the other hand, used to be rarely available as a fresh fish before the commercial fishery improved its management and began the individual fishing quota program in 2007. Now I have the opportunity as a chef and a business person to not only vouch for the fish being sustainable and wild-caught, but in some instances the fish is actually traceable back to the fisherman who caught it.”

Bitterman

“The fishermen I work with are diametrically opposed to shifting management authority to the state authorities. As written, H.R. 3094 could potentially allow the reallocation of almost 10% per year of red snapper away from the commercial sector,” testified Chef Hailey Bitterman of the Ralph Brennen Restaurant Group. Photo: House of Representatives

According to the Chef, whose company operates nine restaurants in Louisiana and California, state management under H.R. 3094 may completely undo the successes the seafood community has experienced under Magnuson Stevens.

“The fishermen I work with are diametrically opposed to shifting management authority to the state authorities. As written, H.R. 3094 could potentially allow the reallocation of almost 10% per year of red snapper away from the commercial sector to the recreational sector and history shows us that is a very real possibility,” she explained, addressing a concern expressed earlier in the hearing by Arizona Rep. Gosar about the availability of the fish to landlocked states.

“H.R. 3094 is bad legislation bordering on a congressionally endorsed state fish grab outside of the federal management process,” wrote Dennis McKay, a recreational angler from Alabama, on the Marine Fish Conservation Network blog. “This is a bad idea based upon the Gulf states’ previous record of marine fish management and current political and economic standings.

Jarvis

Captain Gary Jarvis, president of the Destin Charter Boat Association, told the Subcommittee, “This legislation is very controversial among fishermen. Many of us strongly believe that if Congress passes it, it would be harmful to the fishery, and in short order, small coastal businesses and coastal tourism.” Photo: House of Representatives

David Krebs, President of Florida’s Ariel Seafood and a Gulf Seafood Institute Board Member, who attended the hearings said, “If passed, H.R 3094 could open loopholes undermining and eroding the commercial fishery. Three states could have enough influence to eliminate a portion of thee commercial fishery each year without Gulf Council participation. Earlier this year the five Gulf States voted to reallocate a portion of the red snapper fishery from commercial to recreational. Why would we think that they’d do anything different under state management?”

The legislation has an undefined enforcement plan, as well as unspecified measures to continue to rebuild the fishery. It falls short of identifying what standards will be used to evaluate state management plans, and only explains that public participation will be adequate.

“Commercial fishermen are not willing to gamble our businesses on things like weakened enforcement, diminished rebuilding measures, diluted standards, and restricted public access,” Delacruz told the gathered Representatives. “It’s very important to understand that this conversation is about more than just red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico – it’s about setting a precedent where states can sidestep federal fishery laws and conservation requirements, take control of a commercial fishery, and destabilize it to the point where it can be eliminated in less than a decade.”

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the former editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. .

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