The Gulf War

In the Gulf of Mexico, commercial and recreational fishermen are squaring off in a battle over the coveted snapper.

The waiter at New Orleans’ Red Fish Grill, a wiry and spring-loaded man, recommended the whole red snapper. “Head, tail, eyes, looking at you up off the plate,” he said.

I opted instead for the snapper fillet, grilled over a hickory fire and served atop a bed of roasted vegetables. It was the most expensive entrée on the menu. But it was smoky and sweet, elegant on the plate, so satisfying by itself that the accompanying pitcher of herb-lemon vinaigrette sat untouched.

I knew how fortunate I was to be eating a red snapper caught in the Gulf of Mexico. After World War II, this trophy fish—mild and buttery, easy to catch, with pink-orange scales that stand out on market shelves—started disappearing from the sea. It bottomed out in 1990, when potential egg production, a key measure of population health, fell to 2.6 percent of what it would have been if no fishing were taking place. Not only were snapper being overharvested, but the juveniles, which cohabitate with shrimp, were also getting fatally caught in shrimp trawls. A new federal system of regulating the commercial catch took effect in 2007, and the rebound since then has been called a fisheries-management success story. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which uses a rigorous methodology to make its consumer recommendations, removed Gulf red snapper from its “avoid” list in 2013. The population is more than halfway to a healthy size, which scientists project it should reach by 2032 if the current system remains in place.

But snapper has also become the source of a battle between commercial and recreational fishers, the subject of lawsuits, congressional hearings, and accusations of elitism from both sides. While those sectors clash everywhere—over prized species like king salmon and striped bass—the dispute over Gulf red snapper has become a particularly sprawling rumble. It has sucked in not just fishers but also politicians, regulators, charter boat captains, scientists, environmental activists, chefs, and restaurateurs. Disputes over data give way to accusations of hidden agendas. One side gets accused of plantation economics. The other gets accused of shafting their own grandmothers.

“It’s gone from being just a desirable fish to this cultural representation of the conflict between commercial and recreational interests,” says Ava Lasseter, an anthropologist with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which was established by federal law in 1976 and oversees the federal waters where mature snapper is most abundant. Snapper has also become, for sportfishers, a symbol of an overreaching federal government—and the object of an aggressive push for states’ rights.

Red snapper at the Red Fish Grill restaurant in New Orleans.
Red snapper at the Red Fish Grill restaurant in New Orleans. Photo by Kathy Anderson.

My own snapper came with a tracking tag from an industry group called Gulf Wild. Using that data, I went looking for the fisherman who caught my meal and the wholesaler who bought it off the boat. I talked with the executive chef of the restaurant group that owns Red Fish Grill. Independently, I sought out recreational anglers who might have wanted to catch that fish themselves, but were excluded from the Gulf’s federal waters for all but ten days last year. As they talked about their own roles in the snapper wars, two fundamental questions emerged for me: How do we fairly divide the products of a finite sea while also respecting the constraints of biology? And does any group have a higher moral claim to that bounty?

I didn’t have an appointment with William “Bubba” Cochrane, the fisherman responsible for my dinner, when I arrived a few days later in Galveston, Texas. Cochrane had been at sea when I tried to text him, but bad weather had chased him back to shore. I showed up at Katie’s Seafood Market, which buys his fish, and found him supervising the unloading of 11,000 pounds of snapper from his boat, the Chelsea Ann. A beefy man of 46 with a gray-flecked beard and a deep, self-assured voice, Cochrane was recording weights as large blue vats filled up with tagged fish. Outside, his 12-year-old son and deckhand Conner moved around the boat in orange bib pants. “Kids in school say, ‘I want to be a video-game designer,’” Conner told me. “I’m the only one who has ever said, ‘I want to be a fisherman.’”

It was the Monday before Thanksgiving and Cochrane’s last load of the year; he had just used up his annual quota. Like each of the roughly 378 commercial red-snapper fishers in the Gulf, Cochrane operates under a system called Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs). He owns the rights to 2.8 percent of the commercial catch; the Gulf Council sets the exact allowance each year. He was given part of that quota based on his historic landings. He refinanced his home, and his father’s, to purchase more from a retiring fisherman. Cochrane can fish year-round until he reaches his quota. He must notify the government when his vessel heads out and returns home and report precisely how much he catches. When the Chelsea Ann is at sea, the government can monitor its movements electronically.

How do we fairly divide the products of a finite sea while also respecting the constraints of biology? And does any group have a higher moral claim to that bounty?

The system wasn’t always like this. When Cochrane started fishing for a living in the early 1990s, the stock was at its lowest. The Gulf Council and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), were scrambling for solutions. For years the season was limited to the first ten days of the month during annual spring and fall seasons. This led to a mad race—a “derby” in industry parlance—as every commercial vessel barreled into the Gulf at once. “If it was blowing a gale on the first, you kinda have to go,” Cochrane said. “You’ve got bills to pay and a boat loan. Or even worse, if you have a kid sick at home, or a birthday, you just miss it.”

Captain William "Bubba" Cochrane unloads his catch.
Captain William “Bubba” Cochrane unloads his catch. Photo by Jody Horton.

Under those conditions, commercial fishers didn’t have time to find the perfect spot dominated by mature snapper. “If I’ve got to kill 200 pounds of undersized fish to catch 50 pounds of legal fish, I’ll do it,” Cochrane said of the attitude during those years. He would throw the young ones back, but snapper live so deep underwater that they often don’t survive releases because of the pressure change. Still, that ten-day clock was ticking. “You can’t afford to go looking somewhere else. A few discards, you try not to think about it.”

There’s no shortage of stories from the derby years. At Katie’s I met owner Keith “Buddy” Guindon, the wholesaler who bought and sold my snapper. A 60-year-old ex-Marine, Guindon has sausage arms, a wild gray beard, and blue-gray eyes of disarming softness. His second-floor perch overlooks the floor of the market, a corrugated metal building that’s surprisingly modest given that, by his estimate, it handles 25 percent of the red snapper caught commercially in the Gulf.

These days Guindon leaves his son to run the market while he fishes in the summer and concentrates on advocacy work for commercial fishers. He told me how, before IFQs, ten-day sprints meant constantly recruiting new deckhands. “We used to say there’s a schedule of people you want to hire. First is the alcoholic, and then the heroin addicts are the next best because they’re not violent. They don’t steal anything. They just get fucked up and sit there in the corner. You looked at a guy: If his teeth are rotted, you’d know it’s meth or crack. You don’t want that guy, unless you have to have him.” Guindon has hired temporary workers, he says, only to learn at sea that they were convicted murderers. “Fuck ’em, I’m gonna sleep tonight?” he says. “I’m gonna go back to the dock and change crew members.”

Derbies didn’t just stress the fishers; they also failed as a conservation tool. The commercial sector exceeded its harvest limit 10 out of 17 years ending in 2006. The stock improved, but not by much. And with mini-seasons constantly opening and closing, the market cycled through glut and scarcity.

Still, when the Gulf Council developed IFQs as an alternative, Bubba Cochrane was skeptical. The government had served his industry so poorly that he didn’t trust any plan coming from the feds. Plus, IFQs were being promoted by the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit that advocates market-based policies—in this case, creating fishing rights that could be sold and leased. “Environmentalists,” he said, “were the enemy.”

Federal law required the Gulf Council to win the support of a majority of commercial fishermen and boat captains before implementing IFQs. Cochrane voted no in the referendum. “Whoa, boy, was I wrong,” he said.

Haley Bittermann is the corporate executive chef and director of operations of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group.
Haley Bittermann is the executive chef and director of operations of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group. Photo by Kathy Anderson.

Shortly after IFQs took effect in 2007, red snapper started rebounding. Scientists point to the Gulf Council’s deep cuts in the total allowable harvest, along with a decline in shrimping activity after Hurricane Katrina. The IFQs played a significant role too—by downsizing the fleet, reducing fish discards, and creating strict procedures that hold fishers individually accountable for reporting their own catch. “Since the systems were implemented, the commercial fishery has not overfished its quota even once,” said Gulf Council biologist Steven Atran.

It’s a contentious system: Because snapper shares are now transferable, some IFQ holders rent out their quotas and profit off the fish without actually catching them. In a blistering article published last January by regional newspapers, including New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, journalist Ben Raines referred to those fishers as “kingpins of the Gulf.”

Still, those who depend on the snapper catch (commercial fishers, wholesalers, and restaurateurs), along with government and academic researchers who have evaluated the system, say it generally works. The fish are more abundant. They fetch higher prices—because fishermen can “harvest their allocation when market conditions are most favorable,” says a paper by NOAA researchers—which means more profitability. “Our boats are safer because we have money to invest in them,” said Buddy Guindon, who used to skimp on replacing alternators and bilge pumps. Plus, captains can hire year-round deckhands. “Now you’ve got guys with families and they’re buying houses and cars. They have a stable life because we have a more stable fishery.”

Cochrane, looking out toward the Chelsea Ann, pointed to a reel held in place by a metal stanchion. It seemed to be sitting askew. “You’re not cockeyed,” he told me. “It is.” During the very last derby, in December 2006, Cochrane braved an ominous forecast because he needed the money. Seventy miles offshore, he hit a cold front that forced him to anchor down.

That night, at sea, Cochrane heard a boom. The deck was in disarray; the coolers were overturned. “A wave came over the side of the boat so hard that it bent that stainless-steel stanchion,” he said—a wave he could have avoided if not for the derby. He decided not to repair the damage. “I leave it like that to remind me where we came from,” he said. “Nowadays, I wouldn’t be caught dead in shit like that. I don’t have to.”

Cochrane used to miss birthdays and holidays. Now he plans around them. If the waters are crowded with young snapper, he takes the time to relocate. “I have a real business that’s worth something, that I can pass down to my son,” he said. He wants Conner to go to college, so he can become an advocate for the commercial sector when he’s not at sea. “It’s easy to fish for yourself,” Cochrane said. “It’s harder to be a voice for all the fishermen.”

Katie's Seafood market, Galveston, TX.
Katie’s Seafood market, Galveston, TX. Photo by Jody Horton.

George Huye and Ben Graham would have rather spent that morning in a boat. But the federal recreational snapper season was closed and, besides, the weather wasn’t cooperating. So we met instead in the Baton Rouge office building where Graham, a commercial real-estate broker, works.

Huye and Graham are fishing buddies. Huye is also Louisiana state president of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), a sportfishing advocacy group formed in 1977 to “combat commercial overfishing.” He’s a 62-year-old retired insurance agent with big ruddy cheeks and a shock of gray hair. And he’s something of a poet when it comes to describing his pastime.

“There’s something about leaving a dock at daylight and watching the sun come up,” he told me. “Surveying the horizon for storm clouds, and then you start thinking about how blessed you are. And knowing that other people on the boat feel the same way. The camaraderie, the laughter, the spirited joking. Someone who is catching all the fish, they’re bragging ’cause they’re the king fisherman, and then the guy in the back, he can’t catch a thing, and they’re dogging him out.

“The ride home is always special,” Huye continued. “The sun’s setting on the other horizon. Everybody’s popping a beer, and the music’s playing loud, and the prayers go out thanking the Lord for providing the day and getting you home safe.”

These bucolic days at sea, though, complicate the story of snapper’s recovery. The Gulf’s almost 400 commercial fishers share the catch with many thousands of sportfishers like Huye and Graham who are bound by different rules.

The Gulf Council sets a total annual limit for the red-snapper harvest, which changes each year. That limit is divided between the recreational and commercial sectors—the recreational share is now 51.5 percent, up from a longtime allocation of 49 percent.

Recreational anglers don’t have individual quotas. Their haul in federal waters is limited by a season length, which varies from year to year, along with daily bag limits and a minimum size limit of 16 inches. (There’s no maximum size.) Unlike the commercial fleet, private recreational anglers can also fish closer to shore in waters regulated by more permissive state governments. Federally permitted charter boats—some rented by private parties, others open to walk-up traffic—are also considered recreational, though they can only operate in federal waters.

The federal recreational season is based on educated guesswork. NOAA doesn’t track the recreational catch in real time—there are too many boats landing at too many docks—so it can’t close the fishery when a total limit is reached. Instead, it extrapolates from dockside and telephone surveys of private anglers to estimate the total recreational harvest. It then sets this year’s season, in part, based on last year’s estimated federal and state harvests. Problem is, nature and human behavior don’t necessarily conform to projections based on old and imprecise data. Introduce variables like weather and bigger fish (thanks to the rebound) and it’s easy to make a bad prediction of how many days it’ll take for recreational anglers to reach their annual limit.

Sportfishers—who, like their commercial counterparts, have been subject to a collective catch limit since the early 1990s—exceeded their share most years from 2007 to 2013. (The exception was 2010, the year of the BP oil spill.) “The failure wasn’t on the part of individual recreational fishermen,” says Holly Binns, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ oceans program for the southeastern United States. “It was the failure of the management scheme.”

snapperFINALOvershot limits contributed to shrinking federal seasons—from 75 days in 2009 to 42 days in 2013. The states, friendly to recreational anglers, protested by lengthening their own seasons, which in turn led the feds to scale theirs back further. In an audacious assertion of states’ rights, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama also unilaterally extended their jurisdictions nine nautical miles into the Gulf, defying federal law that set that line at three miles. (Last December, over NOAA’s objection, Congress temporarily extended those three states’ authority to nine nautical miles for some fish-management purposes, making them consistent with Texas and Florida.)

The red-snapper catch limit kept growing. The recreational sector kept blowing past its share, often by large margins.

Like many commercial fishers, Galveston’s Buddy Guindon worried that recreational overfishing would threaten snapper’s recovery, and therefore threaten him financially. In 2013 he become the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government to make the excesses stop. Joining him were other commercial fishers, including Bubba Cochrane, along with seafood businesses and trade organizations.

After an 80-minute hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jacobs Rothstein sided with Guindon, writing in 2014 that the current system of setting seasons based on year-old data “has done very little” to prevent overages. Rothstein didn’t mandate a specific fix but instead ordered NOAA’s fisheries office to develop a better plan. “At a certain point [NOAA Fisheries] was obligated to acknowledge that its strategy of incrementally shortening the season was not working,” she wrote. “Administrative discretion is not a license to engage in Einstein’s definition of folly—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

The Gulf Council took several steps after Rothstein’s order. First, it subtracted a 20-percent “buffer” from the total recreational catch limit to account for human error. That brought the 2014 recreational season down to nine days.

Later, the Council tried another experiment to rein in overfishing: It subdivided the recreational sector into two sub-sectors—private anglers (like Graham and Huye) and charter-boat captains—each with its own share of the quota based on historic landings. This, the Council said, would allow for “flexible management approaches tailored to each component.” It would also reflect the differences between the two sub-sectors: While the number of private vessels is growing, the number of federally permitted charter boats has been capped since 2004. What’s more, unlike private anglers, the charter boats can’t operate in state waters. Based on the total charter-boat harvest and the number of licensed vessels, NOAA set this year’s charter-boat season at 46 days—more than five times what they were allowed in 2014.

By contrast, personal boats are limited to nine days in federal waters this year. (The recreational season starts June 1.) The new policy has further infuriated some private anglers—not only are they virtually shut out of federal waters, but now they’ve lost ground to both commercial fishers and charter-boat captains.

Thirty-nine-year-old Graham, who serves on CCA’s Louisiana state board and often fishes with his two small children, felt particularly galled. To him, there is something pure about tapping into the gulf’s riches as a hobbyist rather than a professional—and yet, he felt, he was the one taking the brunt of the restrictions.

“Name me a recreational guy who has a financial motive,” Graham told me. By contrast, commercial fishers are making money off a public resource, in some cases without leaving the dock—and all, Graham said, for an item that sometimes costs more than steak. “I have an issue when you hear these commercial guys saying, ‘We’re feeding America.’ What common person in America is going to spend $25 a pound on a damn fish? Nobody. It’s complete bullshit.” (Gulf red-snapper retail prices vary widely and can often be found for considerably less than that.) He has equally choice words for charter-boat captains, who he says charge a “pretty penny” to ferry the boatless offshore.

Ben Graham fishes for red snapper south of Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ben Graham fishes for red snapper south of Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Kathy Anderson.

This resentment is exacerbated by many recreational anglers’ distrust of the federal data that govern the season length. Graham and Huye say the western Gulf, where they fish, teems with snapper. Just by being on the water, “we monitor this fishery probably better than most of the people that get paid by NOAA,” Graham said. “There is no shortage of red snapper at all.”

Scientists say the recovery is not as far along as it might appear from a boat. Red snapper can live more than 50 years, and egg production is a function of age. The Gulf is still dominated by young fish, which are not nearly as fertile as their elders. “Everybody says, ‘Wow, look at all the red snapper,’” says Jim Cowan, a professor of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University. “But red snapper don’t reach their full potential until they’re 15 years old.”

This is a bigger problem, Cowan said, east of the Mississippi River than west. But currently, Gulf red snapper are treated as a single fishery. Not only does federal law calls for a “comprehensive approach” to managing fish stocks, but splitting the Gulf, notes biologist Atran, would also require a major overhaul to the commercial IFQ program.

 “I have an issue when you hear these commercial guys saying, ‘We’re feeding America.’ What common person in America is going to spend $25 a pound on a damn fish? Nobody. It’s complete bullshit.”

Private-vessel recreational anglers have been battling the short seasons on three fronts. First, they’ve been pushing for a larger share of the total snapper harvest. Before the recreational share increased to 51.5 percent, CCA supported a plan that would have increased it to about 58 percent. Others have advocated giving sportfishers two-thirds or even the entire allocation. “The commercial industry does not deserve any percent of the snapper,” wrote Florida fisherman Palmer Long in a comment to the Gulf Council. “Let them all go raise talapia [sic].”

Private anglers have also been fighting the policy that sets aside some of the recreational allocation for charter boats. In April 2015, CCA sued the government—Huye was a co-plaintiff—but a federal judge rejected the claim. The case is under appeal.

That leaves the biggest fight of all. Sportfishing groups want to take red-snapper management entirely out of federal hands and turn it over the states. They’ve thrown their support behind a measure sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican who served as then-Gov. Bobby Jindal’s coastal advisor. House Bill 3094 would remove funding and authority over snapper from the Gulf Council and transfer it to a consortium of state fishery managers from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

Gulf state officials have long been allied with sportfishers—partly because they vastly outnumber their commercial counterparts, and partly because CCA has built a mature political infrastructure. CCA donates generously to Gulf state projects; in 2012, for example, it kicked in $500,000 to launch a Sportfish Research Center at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. This alliance starts to explain why Texas keeps its state waters open to red-snapper fishing year-round and Louisiana kept its open for 214 days last year.

The commercial sector and its allies worry that the recreational endgame is to eliminate commercial snapper fishing altogether. David Cresson, CCA’s Louisiana state CEO and executive director, denied this and called the seafood industry important to his state. But CCA has also advocated for the states to manage red snapper “based on concepts they have used so successfully on species like red drum and speckled trout in the Gulf.” Both species, which in the past suffered from overfishing, are now practically off-limits to the commercial fleet.

“That is the CCA’s mantra: to eliminate commercial fishing from all the waters of the United States,” said Guindon, the Galveston wholesaler. Katie’s Seafood runs a storefront that sells directly to the public, and Guindon counts sportfishers among his customers. “I always engage the CCA guys: Do you want to take that fish away from your grandmother, who’s not going to go fishing with you, that lives in Idaho, that the only way she’s ever going to get a snapper is in a retail market or a restaurant? Because you’re not bringing it up there to her. You’re going to eat your snappers right at home, you fat bastard. Not caring about your poor grandma.”

Unloading Wild Gulf caught red snapper.
Unloading Wild Gulf caught red snapper. Photo by Jody Horton.

Last October, a House subcommittee held a hearing on Rep. Graves’s snapper bill. One of the witnesses was Haley Bittermann, executive chef for New Orleans’ Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group. She sat at the witness table, wearing a pink double-breasted chef jacket and sensible glasses, and clutched a sheaf of prepared remarks that she read aloud almost without looking up.

Bittermann’s employer owns the Red Fish Grill, the French Quarter restaurant that served my grilled snapper. A Midwesterner raised on overcooked vegetables, she had originally come to New Orleans for what she thought would be a six-month culinary-school externship. The city’s seriousness about food was a revelation to her, she told me when we met later at the restaurant.

“This was the first time I’d worked in restaurants where the waiters had been doing it because that’s their profession: This is what I do. And this is my father did and this is what my son does.” After work, she and her coworkers would gather over beers and study the encyclopedic Larousse Gastronomique. Hooked, she returned after graduation and has worked for Brennan restaurants for more than 20 years. New Orleans instilled in Bittermann an appreciation for local seafood, which was missing from her childhood in landlocked Cincinnati.

The irony of our meeting at Red Fish Grill is that wild redfish—that is, red drum—is virtually unavailable commercially from the Gulf. Aggressively harvested during the blackened redfish craze of the 1980s, its commercial harvest is now banned in Louisiana and throughout most of the region. (The restaurant serves farm-raised drum from Texas.) “That’s one of my big fears about snapper,” she said—that it, too, will become recreational-only. “If it happens to snapper, then why not cobia? Why not amberjack? What are we going to be left with?” Her voice switched from defiant to plaintive: “I don’t want to import fish in. I want to know where fish comes from.”

In 2013, Bittermann was recruited by Share the Gulf, a coalition of restaurant- and seafood-industry representatives convened by the Environmental Defense Fund to advocate for the commercial snapper fishery. That led her to speak at Gulf Council meetings and then to represent the National Restaurant Association at October’s congressional hearing.

It was a combative event. Bob Zales, a Florida charter operator active in the sportfishing lobby, compared commercial fishers who lease their quotas to “old-time plantation owners who allowed sharecroppers to farm the land.” Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, described NOAA Fisheries staff as “federal desk jockeys” with less expertise than state authorities.

Graves, the bill’s sponsor, cut off a NOAA official repeatedly during questions and accused the agency of neglecting wetlands loss in Louisiana and damage from the BP spill. “I’ve got to be honest,” he said. “I’m having a little bit of trouble believing that NOAA is out there to be good stewards of the natural resources, to be our friend.”

When Bittermann’s turn came, toward the hearing’s end, she adjusted the mike and launched into her testimony. “At the state level, it appears that the needs of the private anglers outweigh those of consumers, restaurants, and the seafood community,” she said—meaning commercial fishers, wholesalers, and the like. “Gulf red snapper is an American treasure that should be accessible to all, not just those who can afford to fish for it themselves.”

George Huye (purple shirt and visor) and Ben Graham stand dockside. Huye is the president of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana, the states main advocacy group for recreational anglers.
George Huye (left) and Ben Graham stand dockside at Grand Isle. Photo by Kathy Anderson.

Fifty years ago, the British economist Kenneth Boulding wrote a landmark essay called The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth. In it, he argued that we are moving from a “cowboy economy [of] illimitable plains” to a “spaceman” economy in which the earth must be treated as “a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything.”

Martin Smith, an environmental economist at Duke University, says this too describes our seas and explains the growing conflict between recreational and commercial fishers. “There was a time when they could co-exist and not be perceived as competing with each other,” Smith says of the two sectors. But as fishing has intensified, “we’ve moved further from the range, closer to the spaceship.” Our understanding of the ocean has deepened too: We recognize that it’s not as limitless as we once imagined it to be.

If we accept that both fishing sectors have value—they nourish us, bring us pleasure, and stimulate the economy—then it’s clear recreational anglers are being ill-served by a system that produces such a short season.

All our solutions, so far, have been variations on a theme: We open the Gulf of Mexico to anyone who wants to fish it, then fiddle with the dials (season length, bag limits) and hope it doesn’t get overfished. The latest adjustment has kept sportfishers within their catch limit for the past two years, but at the cost of almost shutting them out of federal waters.

What we haven’t tried in the snapper fishery is holding private anglers personally accountable for each fish they catch. This could be done with tags or stamps, available for purchase or through a lottery system. “In order to land a red snapper, you’d have to have a stamp,” proposes Louisiana State University’s Cowan. “It’s the same way that we do with ducks and deer and all sorts of other wildlife. If you get caught with a snapper without a stamp, you get a ticket.” That would end the short-season dilemma: Anglers with tags or stamps could fish year-round.

 Bob Zales, a Florida charter operator active in the sportfishing lobby, compared commercial fishers who lease their quotas to “old-time plantation owners who allowed sharecroppers to farm the land.”

This is anathema to many recreational fishers because the tags and stamps are finite and some people would be excluded. If a lottery system were used, Huye told me, a visitor “from Schenectady can apply for fish tags, come down here, get on a charter boat, catch fish and go home. And George Huye, who has invested into a property on Grand Isle, who has invested in boat, tackle, all this kind of stuff—I may not win that lottery and get to fish snapper at all.”

Many sportfishers hold sacred the idea that everyone with a boat should be allowed equally into a recreational fishery. But that principle has inadvertently contributed to the extra-short seasons. Giving more of the harvest to private anglers isn’t the answer either—research shows it could compromise the rebuilding effort.

The current system “is untenable,” says Cowan. “There’s no limit on the number of participants in the recreational fishery. And the boats are getting better; the electronics are getting better; the fishing power just keeps going up. Are we just going to give more and more of the allocation to the recreational sector? Or are we going to come up with a viable system where everybody can get what they need, but not necessarily all they want? We just need to start thinking about fish more like we think about wildlife, and it’s an easy transition.”

Well, maybe not so easy. But the longer this intractable battle continues, and we do no more than tweak the existing arrangements, the longer we forestall what should be an obtainable trio of goals: reasonable access for all fishermen, healthier populations in the sea, and the promise of snapper on our dinner plates until we’ve had our fill.

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