Environmentalists sue over new red snapper fishing rules

Two environmental groups sued the U.S. Department of Commerce Monday over a new recreational fishing policy that—by the government’s own estimate—will delay the recovery of Gulf of Mexico red snapper populations by up to six years.

The temporary rule, unveiled last month, lengthened the 2017 red-snapper fishing season from three days to 42 days in federal waters where mature snapper is most abundant. In exchange, state officials in the five Gulf states agreed to match the federal calendar, at least for the summer, in waters closer to shore. Florida and Alabama also canceled their fall seasons, and Mississippi and Louisiana (but not Texas) might follow suit.

As FERN described in a 2016 story, the once-imperiled Gulf of Mexico red snapper has been recovering since 2007, when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council reduced harvest limits and placed commercial fishers under a closely monitored system of individual quotas. Scientists have forecast the population will reach a healthy size by 2032.

Recreational management has been thornier. Sportfishers are governed in part by season length, which has gotten progressively shorter as the sector continues to exceed its collective quota. This year’s original three-day season (down from nine days in 2016) was an all-time low, irking private anglers. “Red snapper is known throughout the nation as a man-made fishery management disaster,” Mark Ray, chairman of Coastal Conservation Association Texas, testified at a congressional hearing in May.

When the Department of Commerce announced that it would lengthen the 2017 federal season, it acknowledged that red-snapper populations might suffer. “While the stock is ahead of its rebuilding target, if employed for a short period of time, this approach may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as 6 years,” the department explained in its temporary rule. What’s more, it said, “the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit, which was designed to prevent overfishing the stock.”

However, the department added, for the sake of sportsfishers and Gulf state economies—and for better coordination between federal and state regulators—“a more modest rebuilding pace for the stock is a risk worth taking.”

Other scientists agree that a longer season will make it hard for snapper to rebound by 2032. “I’d be willing to bet you that this additional harvesting is going to put that rebuilding schedule in jeopardy,” says Jim Cowan, a professor of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University. If future seasons are lengthened even further—“which they’re talking about doing,” he says, “it may delay [the rebuilding] by many, many more than six years.”

Monday’s federal lawsuit, filed by Ocean Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund, alleges that the longer season would allow private anglers to catch between 282 and 356 percent of their quota—up to 9.6 million excess pounds. The complaint asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to declare that the rule violates federal law.

Andrea Treece, an attorney with the law firm Earthjustice, which represents the plaintiffs, worries that the Commerce Department’s temporary rule could set a national precedent. “If the government decides it’s easier to cut political deals than it is to do the hard work of implementing essential fishery conservation measures, and honoring all of the work and the sacrifice that stakeholders have been making,” she said at a Monday press briefing, “fisheries around the nation are going to suffer.”

The Department of Commerce did not respond to messages seeking comment. At the Gulf Council, which normally plays a large role in fisheries policymaking, staff members were instructed to refer all media queries to the department’s public-affairs staff. “We had nothing to do with that,” a Gulf Council biologist said of the new rule.