“Missing Redfish” Documents Blackened History of Gulf Icon

by / Newsroom Ink on February 28, 2016
Redfish

The offshore purse seine fishery took off in response to the demand created by Prudhomme’s blackened redfish. NOAA scientists purse seining redfish in the Gulf. Photo: National Marine Fisheries Service/Karen Mitchell

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 RedfishMissing 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.

Fritchey

“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,” said Fritchey. Photo: Brian Gauvin

“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.

Purse Seine

The federal government’s involvement in redfish manage purse seinement enabled an unprecedented overview of the entire Gulf of Mexico’s red drum population.NOAA scientists in the Gulf. Photo: National Marine Fisheries Service/Karen Mitchell

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.

Chef Paul Prudhomme

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”. Photo: LSPMB

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.”

92RedDrum_Temp1000_Rev2

Today red drum, or redfish, remains closed to commercial fishers, except for 45k pounds harvested in Mississippi waters. Illustration: Gulf FINFO

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.

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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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  1. RUSSEL says:

    Here is what people don’t know is the pogy fleet can have 10% by catch and a lot time redfish is underneath of the pogies. And guess who owns part of the pogies fleet Barbara Bush and the Bushes are a big supporter of GCCA. That why we can’t fish redfish commercially and sports can only catch 5 redfish.

  2. H. Dickson Hoese says:

    I have watched the sports/commercial resource conflict for nearly six decades, including some involvement in both Texas and Louisiana. I also knew Fritchey briefly back during the time of the blackened redfish fiasco. It may be logical that the conflict started in Texas because it showed up in records of a century or so ago, and south Texas fish populations historically fluctuated widely, principally from freezes and drought, the latter easily confused as to cause. It was also confounded by the environmental movement of the 1960s which usually blamed things on humans despite the fact that all major fishery collapses have had associated changes in environmental factors, often temperature. Redfish, along with blue crabs, are particularly adapted to the need for freshwater which showed up in the large year classes from the floods of 1973-75. A 1947 symposium on fish populations dealt with the difficulty of separating human predation from environmental factors, a problem still existing.

    Furthermore, there were other factors like the rise of the ease of using computer models without adequate understanding of the statistics or environmental factors. I liked the one, given certain assumptions as all had to have, which produced the suggestion that we “need a bounty on redfish.” Others predicted their near extinction. Your photo illustrates both their abundance and susceptibility.

    Al Collier was Texas’ first state marine biologist who came to the coast after the 1935 red tide. He went on to an illustrious career, but lamented, living almost to 99, about policy makers asking for the science, then ignoring the facts. The “best available science” often asked for is sometimes not very good which is another problem. There has been some discrimination against biologists, but it was much worse for commercial fishermen. There was a very bad case in Scotland when they burned old classic wooden fishing boats to prevent their reentry into the fishery.

    After WWII J. L. Baughman put together a strong Texas research program dedicated to conservation, but quit after six years for unclear reasons. He was a scholar, producing large bibliographies both on oysters and fisheries. I got an education from the materials he accumulated. This was a time of the first extensive research in the area, some from Project 9 of the Texas A & M Research Foundation on oysters and oil and Project 51 of the American Petroleum Institute on the geology and related subjects important to the northwestern Gulf.

    A December 18, 1952 Rockport (Texas) Pilot article ”BAUGHMAN RESIGNS AS CHIEF MARINE BIOLOGIST FOR STATE, following a brief description of the lab’s work, wrote- “Such knowledge is vital, Baughman feels, pointing out that many so-called conservation laws (forced through by pressure groups) were designed to give special privileges to such groups. Such laws, besides being discriminatory, have no real bearing on conservation of the fisheries. ”

    I look forward to reading the book and hope that efforts by your organization will be successful.

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