by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Before the current Gulf red snapper controversy that has lasted what seems like an eternity, the Gulf of Mexico’s most hotly contested fish was red drum, or redfish. In his latest work, author Robert Fritchey brings to life the history of a recreational fishing organization that influenced fishery management and the politics of the Gulf states in a way that resulted in taking fish off Americans’ dinner plates and placing them on the hooks of private anglers.
Missing Redfish: The Blackened History of a Gulf Coast Icon ($9.99), from New Moon Press, chronicles the transformation of a universally shared source of nourishment and recreation into an engine for the consumption of goods and services related to sport fishing.
Fritchey, from Golden Meadow, LA, is the author of Wetland Riders. In his latest e-book recently released on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press and Apple iTunes, he documents how politics, policies and bad science and fishery management by both federal and state agencies led to the Coastal Conversation Association’s (CCA) takeover of a species gone missing years before Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme blackened his first redfish.
“Our wildlife and fishery resources are held in public trust, which in essence means they are owned by everyone,” Fritchey told Gulf Seafood News. “When everyone has a say in how these valuable resources are to be utilized, a babel of conflicting and emotional claims arises. And in Gulf fisheries, so it has.”
Science Steers Fishery Management
According to the author, science is the rudder that steers fishery management. Based on impartial facts, science trumps emotion and serves as a touchstone for truth. Like any science, fishery science gets complicated.
“In ‘Missing Redfish’ I’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible, in part to avoid boring the general reader and also because a complete understanding of the scientists’ equations and statistics is beyond my own abilities,” he said. “As a mythical sea creature, the redfish ranks with Jonah’s regurgitating behemoth and the vengeful white whale of Melville, the difference being that the red drum really does exist, and that the myths surrounding this bitterly contested fish originated not in great literature but in the slick campaign rhetoric of privileged anglers from that land of tall tales, Texas.”
Mature spawning-size redfish occur mostly in offshore waters. Initial stock assessments of these fish using purse seiners, large walls of netting deployed around an entire area or school of fish, found a relatively large population. However, they also found that at least three year-classes were lower than what was expected, fish spawned in 1975, 1976, and 1977.
“The missing year classes of redfish were discovered after the purse seine fishery prompted the government to assess the population in federal waters,” explained Fritchey.
“Those stock assessments took place in the “late 1980s.” What they found was beginning in the mid 1970s the recruitment of young fish to the brood stock abruptly declined. The federal researchers never positively identify the cause, but after the states limited or eliminated commercial fishing–which historically accounted for about 25 percent of the harvest—and severely limited the recreational harvest—which accounted for about 75% of the harvest—the population began to rebuild.”
Regional panels of scientists and stakeholders managed federal fisheries, but the redfish became controversial enough to attract the attention of the U.S. Congress, Secretary of Commerce, and even the President of the United States.
The federal government’s involvement in redfish management enabled an unprecedented overview of the entire Gulf of Mexico’s red drum population. The resulting study uncovered something astonishing—the species had begun to go missing long before Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme blackened his first redfish.
The offshore purse seine fishery took off in response to the demand created by Prudhomme’s blackened redfish. The “missing fish” that went missing years before the dish became popular was largely due to the inadequate management of the fishery by Gulf States that hadn’t kept pace with the growing number of local commercial fishermen and the tsunami of sport-fishing Baby Boomers beginning to hit the Gulf waters.
Formation of CCA
In the late 1970s, anglers in Texas organized the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, predecessor to the CCA, and won exclusive access to the fish in Lone Star waters. After GCCA’s 1981 “gamefish” victory in the Texas Legislature, like-minded sportsmen opened chapters of the group across the Gulf.
“What happened to red drum, or redfish, is similar to what is happening currently with Gulf Red Snapper,” said the book’s author. “Today CCA is using similar tactics by turning to the states to take control of snapper, and eventually Gulf grouper.”
When the late Chef Prudhomme introduced blackened redfish to an unsuspecting public in 1980, the Cajun-inspired dish took off like a “house on fire”. Soon restaurants across the nation were serving versions of the charred, spicy fish.
As a result of Prudhomme’s success, pressure from sport fishermen and inaccurate fishery science, four of the five Gulf States in the 1980s granted sport fishermen exclusive access to red drum by designating it a game fish. Mississippi remained a holdout and continued its small commercial redfish harvest.
According to the author, sportsmen in those states regarded fishing as a zero sum game, with any redfish taken by a resident commercial fisherman representing one less that they could catch. For many anglers, the political battles over the fish had themselves become a sport, and winning meant having them all.
In the book, Fritchey documents the fact red drum egg production by the brood stock never fell to a level that jeopardized the recruitment of young fish and rapidly recovered inshore, after states cut back on their fisheries.
“The species was never “endangered,” on the “brink of extinction,” or even close,” he writes. “Yet virtually every pop account of the fishery entails some variation of “Chef Paul blackened a redfish and commercial fishermen fished the species into oblivion.”
“Ironically, the states had traditionally managed their fisheries for the benefit of their own residents, both for recreation and food. They basically let their anglers catch as many as they wanted because, relative to the number of fish available, their numbers weren’t great enough to impact the species for a long time,” says Fritchey. “But effort increased over the years and they got caught with their pants down. Nobody really at fault, just the way it is.”
The Louisiana author believes the overview of the brood stock makes the case that it should in some way be fished again. “However, that thought is largely academic. I doubt the industry is up for that kind of fight. Not only would it bring the CCA out in force, but they already have their hands full with red snapper,” he said. “I think the synopses of the red drum stock assessments reveal that they leave a lot to be desired. That is an identical issue with the red snapper—people do not trust the feds’ stock assessments.”
Today red drum, or redfish, remains closed to commercial fishers, except for 45k pounds harvested in Mississippi waters. Across the Gulf the fishery has recovered. But, with the continuously increasing number of sport fishermen, the CCA continues its effort to keep it out of the hands of the American consumers.
Fritchey feels the fishery has recovered enough for limited commercial fishing to be reinstated. He also feels that there needs to be an accurate stock assessment taken this year by the National Marine Fisheries Service before it is reopened. “It would be nice if the stock assessment was done using cooperative research, partnering with fishermen and scientists from NMFS and universities to collect the information,” he said.
Missing Redfish: The Blackened History of a Gulf Coast Icon is a recommended read to better understand current players and their politics affecting the harvesting of Gulf seafood for all Americans to enjoy.