by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
The Fiscal Year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act heading to the White House for a Presidential signature includes $10 million for Gulf of Mexico fisheries data collection, stock assessments and research due to the tireless efforts led by Alabama’s Senator Richard Shelby, Chairman of the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, and Florida’s 13th District Representative David Jolly, who sits on the House’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science.
According to Senator Shelby, who authored the provisions for red snapper in the legislation, the 2016 omnibus provides up to $5 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Sea Grant College program to support external research and development through its network of academic institutions for a red snapper tagging study in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, it provides $5 million for independent, non-NOAA stock assessments for Gulf reef fish, including red snapper.
Additionally, the bill directs NOAA to count fish on artificial reefs and offshore energy exploration infrastructure, and incorporate those counts into future stock assessments and management decisions for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico. It provides continued support for electronic monitoring and reporting to collect real-time data that is more economical and efficient than current management processes.
“Commercial and recreational anglers across the Gulf Coast depend on the red snapper fishery, which is not only a key economic driver, but also integral to their way of life,” Senator Shelby told Gulf Seafood News. “That is why I pushed to include common-sense reforms in this year’s omnibus bill to ensure that both commercial and recreational fishermen have increased access to the red snapper population in the Gulf.”
Stock Assessments Cornerstone
NOAA’s fisheries stock assessments are the cornerstone of fishery conservation and management measurements, but according to Senator Shelby current stock assessment data inputs must be improved.
“Specifically, my language targets the issue of counting fish where fish live – on and around reefs,” said Shelby. “While NOAA’s assessments currently fail to include fish on reefs in the Gulf, this bill provides funding for external researchers to assess these fish and for NOAA to incorporate the data in its fishery management decisions. I believe that this new funding and policy, along with the collection of electronic data, will allow for a more accurate count of the robust red snapper population in the Gulf – leading to a longer red snapper season for all fishermen.”
Senator Shelby, Rep. Jolly and others in the Gulf Congressional Delegation have expressed concerns about the short recreational fishing season for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico where the economy is largely dependent on a robust fishing and tourism industry. This legislation is a step in the right direction towards giving fishermen much-needed relief.
“This is a significant victory that will ultimately give us a better, more accurate picture of the fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Rep. Jolly. “Many in the fishing community, from private anglers, to charter, to commercial, have questioned the government’s assessments. Third-party data collection will now expand the information available to the government, particularly for Red Snapper, and improve the data used to set fishing seasons.”
According to Jolly, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Southeast Regional Office in St. Petersburg and federal Sea Grant Universities will manage the expanded data collection efforts.
“In the end, if the research shows a larger fish population than the government suggests, this will open the door for a longer fishing season for species like red snapper. And a longer snapper season is an economic and quality of life win throughout our community, positively impacting everyone from local scientists committed to the protection of fish populations, to recreational anglers, to charter operators, to businesses that depend on fishing tourism, like hotel and restaurant operators,” Jolly concluded.
GSI On Capitol Hill
GSI’s Dr. Bill Hogarth, Director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, said. “I’ve had the privilege of working closely with Congressman Jolly to increase federal support for fisheries data collection and stock assessments in the Gulf of Mexico. With his efforts and those of Senator Shelby, fishery managers will be given the resources to better count fish which is an objective that everyone agrees is hugely important.”
“This is the second year in a row that the Gulf Seafood Institute has successfully worked with members of the Gulf Congressional delegation to ensure funding for projects that will be beneficial to both Gulf recreational and commercial fisherman,” said GSI’s Executive Director Margaret Henderson. “Within two years, we have helped to ensure that more than $12 million in funding was directed towards Gulf fisheries.”
According to Henderson, GSI has worked diligently throughout the past year to preserve federal management of the Gulf red snapper fishery. For example, the organization initiated an industry coalition of national trade associations to promote access to red snapper for all Americans.
Last year Senator Shelby, working closely with GSI, was instrumental in authoring language in the 2015 omnibus bill to establish a cost-shared electronic reporting program for federally permitted charter-for-hire vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. Installation of monitoring equipment on more than two hundred boats is underway and the program start date is scheduled for early 2016.
“With Senator Shelby’s strong support, the charter boat community in Orange Beach has made big strides this year towards greater accountability, said GSI Alabama Board Member Johnny Greene, captain of the Intimidator. “Dozens of captains in our area are participating in the groundbreaking electronic data collection program made possible with funds similar to what was just included in this most recent federal spending package. We look forward to getting the Senator down here soon to see first hand the work Alabama’s charter fleet is doing to increase data flow on all our most critical species.”
Harlon Pearce, GSI’s President, said the organization appreciates the efforts of both Senator Shelby and Rep. Jolly. “Senator Shelby has been really responsive to the needs of the Gulf fishing and seafood communities. With their positions on the Appropriations Committees, Senator Shelby and Rep. Jolly, among others in our Delegation, have been leaders in asking for better data to manage the Gulf’s fisheries,” he said.
Pearce feels there is still much work to do and GSI will continue to bring the entire supply chain together to educate Congressional leaders on workable solutions that benefit the entire community and the resource itself. “Data collection and preservation of access to red snapper for all Americans will be top issues during our ‘Walk on the Hill’ next month,” he said.