House panel moves to shift red snapper oversight to states

The House Committee on Natural Resources approved a measure that would shift all management of the Gulf red-snapper fishery to state-government hands. The 24-14 vote represents a victory for private recreational anglers, who have been battling commercial fishers over access to the coveted trophy fish — a fight that was recently covered by FERN in an in-depth story

Currently, the harvest in federal waters, where mature snapper are most abundant, is regulated by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and its parent federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). States manage the catch in their own waters closer to shore. House Bill 3094, sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), would consolidate control into a new authority made up of state fisheries managers from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.

Red snapper, once in peril from overfishing, has rebounded since 2007, when the Gulf Council slashed harvest limits and implemented a strict system to hold the commercial sector accountable. The new system, called Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs), allows each licensed commercial fisher to catch a certain percentage of the total harvest. Commercial fishers can work year-round until they meet their limits, and must report every pound they catch. They can also sell and rent their quotas.

By contrast, sportfishers are regulated primarily by the season length, which has grown progressively shorter in an effort to stop persistent over-harvesting by their sector. This year’s recreational season, which began June 1, lasted just nine days in federal waters.

Recreational anglers, who are permitted 51.5 percent of the total catch, say NOAA and the Gulf Council are biased against them. “There is unanimous consent that the Gulf red snapper fishery is thriving; fishing success rates are significantly higher, and the fish are significantly larger,” wrote ten prominent sportfishing advocates in a letter to Congress earlier this week. “However, NOAA continues to limit the days anglers can fish for red snapper with disproportionately short seasons.”

Graves, the bill’s sponsor, says Gulf states are better equipped to manage red snapper, even in distant federal waters. Critics, though, worry that state officials—who tend to be sympathetic to recreational anglers—would skew the balance against commercial fishers, even though the latter have stayed within their quotas. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) addressed this Wednesday during the debate over an amendment to remove federal funding from the bill.

“Adopting this amendment will not prevent the states from stealing red-snapper quota from hard-working commercial fishermen,” Grijalva said. “It will not require the states to prevent overfishing and manage the red-snapper stock sustainably.” Snapper is on the rebound, he added, and “this bill would roll back much of that progress.”