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Fight Over Fishing Escalates

State/fed struggle continues over Gulf of Mexico red snapper

States are trying to wrest away control of managing their cost. (Courtesy Wikipedia) States are trying to wrest away control of managing their cost. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

By: Frank Sargeant, The Fishing Wire

It's the Tea Party all over again.

But this time, the rebellion is not about taxes but about fish management. U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, introduced the Gulf Fisheries Fairness Act in the U.S. House. The bill would extend the state water boundaries of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi to the 20 fathom (120 feet) line, allowing the states to manage reef fish species like snapper, grouper, amberjack and triggerfish.

In some areas, the rule would reach out to some 60 statute miles offshore, compared to the current 9 nautical miles, or about 10 statute miles, as set by federal law.

The bill, if it passes, seems made to order for a visit to the Supreme Court because it clearly attempts to break the long-established federal ruling on the division between state and federal waters that applies to coasts all around the U.S. But odds are that it won't pass -- getting it past even the House would be a struggle, where the vast majority of states have no vested interest in coastal fisheries, to say nothing of the Senate or the current President not being inclined to give up federal domain.

It's perhaps more of a protest than serious legislation, but it surely makes the point. (Louisiana, by the way, has already notified the feds that it's going to manage for a 9-nautical-mile limit -- the state had formerly accepted the standard 3-mile limit, but due to the snapper debacle, it's making a 'water grab' -- more work for lawyers, we suspect.)

The Southerland bill was generated in the Florida Panhandle, where a huge charter boat industry depends on harvest of red snapper and other reef species for much of their annual income. The local skippers say --with considerable empirical support -- that there are more and larger red snapper in the Gulf today than there have been in the last 50 years, and that the NOAA in its attempts to manage the fishery is about 10 years behind on the recovery curve.

NOAA, to its credit, is being constrained by an unfortunate wording of the Magnuson Stevens Act which sets harvest goals in pounds of fish rather than individual fish. The federal managers have thus far set seasons to open and close so that no more than a given poundage is harvested each year.

But as the snapper fishery has rebounded dramatically thanks to needed limits over the last 15 years, the average size of the fish has gotten larger, much larger. And so the poundage limit is being reached much faster. With that, the feds feel obliged to shut the fishery down more quickly, effectively putting the charter fleets out of business, as well as damaging the business of all the hotels, restaurants, marinas and bars that depend on the fishing clientele.

Now, the fishermen are mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. We are approaching, or perhaps with this bill we have already passed, the point of open rebellion of the states against the federal management system.

Louisiana released this statement:

Beginning this Saturday, March 23, Louisiana will implement a weekend-only recreational red snapper season that will end on September 30, with a recreational bag limit of three fish per day at a 16-inch minimum.

A weekend is defined as Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the exception of Memorial Day and Labor Day, when Monday will be classified as a weekend day as well.

"One day we will look back on today's actions and see them as a historic move for Louisiana recreational anglers and for our abundant natural resources," LDWF Secretary Robert Barham said. "No longer will we sit idly by, as our fates are determined by someone with so little understanding of our fisheries and a refusal to negotiate. Whether their actions are ones of arrogance or fear, we join our Gulf neighbors in Texas and Florida, who implemented similar state-by-state regulations today, in standing up to NOAA and showing them that their strong-arm tactics will not work on us."

LDWF Secretary Robert Barham was given the authority to modify the portions of this rule pertaining to red snapper recreational daily harvest limits and season if NOAA instituted sub-regional management for the species or if it is otherwise deemed necessary.

"Louisiana's recreational fishing community has spoken and we have listened," said LDWF Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina, head of fisheries for Louisiana. "In this unprecedented move, our department is challenging the recommendations set by NOAA through the National Marine Fisheries Service. Our actions may seem rogue, but I assure you we have not entered into this lightly or without great thought. We plan to conduct our own research, analysis and make our own decisions on what is best for Louisiana anglers and our resource. For years the wishes of our anglers have fallen on deaf ears ... that ends now."

The Louisiana Gulfward Boundary

In June 2012, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission took action to extend Louisiana state waters from three miles offshore to three marine leagues or approximately 10.357 miles.

LDWF officials encourage fishermen to use caution and their own personal judgment when fishing beyond the 3-mile boundary that is currently recognized as federal waters, as it is fully expected that federal agents will continue to enforce federal law. Until the time when the U.S. Congress confirms Louisiana's action, the battle will continue over Louisiana's state water boundary.

Meantime, NOAA is warning the three gulf states with 3-mile limits on state waters, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, that they can't arbitrarily change the location of those boundaries to the 9 nautical miles allowed Florida's west coast and all of Texas -- just after Louisiana said they intended to do just that.

All of this is not a good thing.

It has barely been 25 years since fishermen began to have any trust whatever in fishery science or state and federal ability to manage coastal fisheries. It used to be that commercial fishermen totally controlled fish management at both the state and federal levels, with predictable results-fishery after fishery collapsed. That's no longer the case, by a long shot; professional biologists and conservation-minded regulators are actually erring on the side of caution in many cases.

And though the worst that can happen to the fish as a result of this is that there will be more of them, that's not the case for the fishing industry, either recreational or commercial. The centuries-old fishing culture in New England is on the verge of collapse largely as a result of regulations that many say are far too stringent (though there's clearly a decline in some species there calling for tight rules) and now it seems the southeast is next under the gun.

It's to be hoped that there can be some sort of federal/state conclave, perhaps presided over by some senior Congressmen from the concerned states, to get coastal fisheries management back on an even keel.

Though, considering that everything else in Washington seems to be sliding off the decks, this may be a vain hope.

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