U.S. agrees not to extend Gulf snapper season in court order

Conservationists are expressing relief over the U.S. Department of Commerce’s agreement — codified Wednesday in a federal court order — not to extend the 2018 recreational fishing season for Gulf of Mexico red snapper beyond what science warrants. An extension in 2017 had threatened the already over-exploited fishery.

The Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) had sued the government in July after it lengthened the snapper season for private anglers from three to 42 days in federal waters. At the time, the Commerce Department acknowledged that red snapper were overfished in the Gulf, and that extending the season “may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as 6 years.” (The target date for returning snapper to healthy levels under a federal plan is 2032.) The department also predicted that, with a longer season, “the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit.”

That’s precisely what happened. Private anglers landed 5.87 million pounds of Gulf red snapper this year, well above the 3.55 million-pound catch limit set by the federal government, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries office.

As FERN explained in a 2016 article, snapper populations bottomed out in 1990. Their recovery began in earnest in 2007, shortly after the federal government made deep cuts in the total allowable harvest and implemented a new system of regulating the commercial catch. Commercial fishers now have individual quotas, which are tradeable and strictly monitored. Sportfishers do not have individual quotas, and instead are regulated largely through season lengths. Their seasons have shrunk dramatically over the years in the federal waters where mature snapper are most abundant.

In memos released in response to the lawsuit, Earl Comstock, the Commerce Department’s director of policy and strategic planning, described getting requests from the White House and a dozen Gulf congressmen to consider lengthening the recreational fishing season. Comstock told his boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, that more fishing days were warranted because of “immense frustration to anglers and grave harm to businesses that depend on recreational anglers.” He acknowledged that lengthening the season would “result in overfishing of the stock” by 40 percent but insisted that “the stock could handle this level on a temporary basis.”

A longer season, Comstock argued, “would allow a reset in the acrimonious relationship” between the federal government and Gulf states, which tend to be sympathetic to private anglers. It would also “set the stage for Congress to adopt a long-term fix,” he wrote.

In October, Commerce officials asked U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson to dismiss the case, saying that the 2017 extension was a “one-time action” that would not be repeated in 2018. Based on that promise — and on the fact that the government didn’t defend the longer season on its merits — Jackson on Wednesday issued a stay in the lawsuit. In her order, she directed the Commerce Department to notify the court when it sets the 2018 season, and gave the Ocean Conservancy and EDF seven days to challenge the season length.

“It’s a concession that the extension in 2017 was illegal,” says Robert E. Jones, Gulf of Mexico director for EDF’s oceans program. “It codifies that the government says it will not repeat this illegal action in 2018.” What’s more, he says, Jackson will serve as a “watchdog” by maintaining jurisdiction over the snapper season. “If the government makes a move that appears to be over science-based limits, we have a court we can go to in a matter of hours.”

Commerce Department officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Jackson’s order does not resolve the long-standing conflict over red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico. Private anglers still feel shortchanged by shrinking seasons, while environmentalists and commercial fishers worry that additional recreational days will endanger fish populations. Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican sympathetic to sportfishers, introduced a bill last summer that would extend state jurisdiction over the recreational season 25 miles into the Gulf (it’s currently nine miles) or to a depth of 150 feet. Beyond that, sportfishing would be off-limits. The bill advanced last week through the House Natural Resources Committee.

Without legislation, private recreational anglers are likely facing an extremely limited, if not obsolete, federal season next year,” Graves said in a July statement.

Jones says the bill in its current form lacks “accountability measures” that would permit the federal government to step in, if needed, to prevent overfishing. He feels “hopeful” that environmentalists will eventually be able to support Graves’ bill. “But we’re not there yet.”