GUEST COLUMN: The Race for Fish

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
Capt. Jim Green, Vice President of the Destin Charter Boat Association.

The political landscape of Red Snapper Management in the Gulf of Mexico is ever changing. It is filled with emotion, and that can be a mechanism for disaster if not removed from the equation. The National Marine Fisheries Service last week announced that the recreational Red Snapper quota for the entire recreational fishery would be increased by almost 32 percent. This announcement comes as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission starts a series of Red Snapper Workshops along the Panhandle to get feedback on their proposed 2015 state water season, which is aiming at 70 days this year.

Now most will cheer for the increase in access to the iconic reef fish in the Florida Panhandle, but there are some issues that need to be raised with this arbitrary increase? For one, why would the state commission believe that an increase of access larger than the federal increase would be acceptable in the 9 mile state water fishery?

In comparison the federal fishery for Red Snapper off the Panhandle is 9-40 miles. With that being said, the state water fishery is less than 25 percent of the Red Snapper’s habitat. Which leads to the question what science is being used to prove that state waters off the Panhandle can handle that amount of harvest.

The Red Snapper stocks in the Gulf are rebuilding, and anyone who has spent anytime reef fishing can acknowledge that. Yet, how did they rebound so well? The short answer is the congressional mandates that require federal regulators to end over fishing and restore fish stocks to sustainable levels. In turn that equated to a constant reduction of the federal seasons, which crippled the for-hire sector and the American anglers our vessels represent.

Federal law, which handcuffed the for-hire sector to abide by the most restrictive regulations, removed our angler’s access to a mere 17 percent in the state of Florida last year. This is not because for-hire anglers did not desire to catch the cornerstone fish of the Florida Panhandle, it was because we were held to a higher standard of management practice.

Unfair? Sure, but it benefited the stock as a whole and brought the biomass back to a level where an increase in harvest was acceptable. This rebuilding primarily happened in federal waters where all anglers were restricted. The difference is that the anglers that rely upon federally permitted vessels were continually removed from their access while private recreational anglers enjoyed the generous state seasons.

So why is the private recreational angler’s access in federal waters purposed to be at the lowest level in history this year? The answer is called “state non-compliance”. To insure that our fishery remains healthy for generations to come there is only so much harvest available. The Gulf States with each of their respected amount of harvesters have maximized their access, and have created a shortage of federal access. The “race for fish” is in fact created by each state’s determination to acquire their maximum days on the water. You cannot expect for federal regulators to not up hold federal law, and by the states allowing for such generous seasons this shortage of federal access has been perpetuated.

Some will say this is not the case, and those believe that the recent push by the majority of the for-hire industry to “sector separate” is the cause of the shortage. This does hold some truth, but it is not a “fish grab” as some would have you believe. Sector separation was a reinstatement of the access for the American anglers that do not have the ability to access their resource other than on federally permitted vessels.

Some will say it’s a move to privatize the fishery into the hands of private businesses, but in the recent proposed management plan that our industry has put forth there is contradiction to this statement. Sector Separation is to accommodate the anglers that have been the pawns in this game of chess between the state and federal regulators. Privatization is not what our industry is working for. It is simply to add flexibility to our management. As the needs of the for-hire angler differ from the private angler.

The reason for this editorial is not to enrage or drive a wedge further. It is to give the for-hire business operator’s view of the management make up we are currently living in. If federal access is the desire of the private recreational angler then the scale has to swing back the other way. Longer state seasons are what is crippling the private recreational angler’s federal access. If you want more time in federal waters to chase the Red Snapper the pendulum must swing back to a state of balance.

Capt. Jim Green

Vice President, Destin Charter Boat Association