U.S. senators from six southern states have filed a request asking the GAO, the federal government’s accountability office, to review the methods used to determine fish populations and fish stocks by agencies within the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Louisiana’s two senators, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, are listed on the request along with senators from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sought explanations for ever-decreasing recreational fishing seasons in the Gulf of Mexico and off the south Atlantic states.
The American Sportfishing Association’s statement last week read that Rubio sought the request because federal fisheries biologists and fishery managers have not “placed a high enough priority on conducting robust peer-reviewed stock assessment on fisheries on the Gulf Coast and (the) south Atlantic.”
While the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and its companion for the south Atlantic states control setting seasons and daily limits for recreational and commercial take in the federal Exclusive Economic Zone (from state waters boundaries out to 200 miles), the councils are part of a multi-layered federal management scheme.
The councils report to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is under the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which is part of the Commerce Department.
ASA vice-president Gordon Robertson said the Gulf and south Atlantic council’s are using what he described as “flawed science” for setting season quotas, which has had economic consequences in the Carolinas, Georgia and the five Gulf states.
“Unfortunately, this information has been lacking for many important fisheries, particularly those in the Southeast,” Robertson said in a prepared statement.
For most of the past 10 years, Louisiana and recreational anglers across the Gulf of Mexico have questioned the ever-reducing seasons and daily creel limits on red snapper. The GMFMC approved a June 1 start of a 27-day, two-per-day recreational red snapper season this year.
Texas has managed its nine-miles-out state waters without regard for federal regulations. Florida, too, has nine miles of state waters. The federal government recognizes only three miles of state waters for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Until this year, the other four Gulf states mostly have complied with the council’s seasons and quotas.
The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission voted last year to open a three-day weekend recreational red snapper season with a three-fish-per-day limit, and also voted to extend its state boundary waters out to a fisheries-only three marine leagues, 10.357 miles. Mississippi’s Legislature enacted a state law pushing its territorial waters out to three marine leagues in March.
Florida has joined Texas and Louisiana in what the Gulf Council terms “noncompliant status” for the red snapper season in their state waters.
University of South Alabama Marine Science’s Department head Bob Shipp also decried the Gulf Council’s determination of red snapper quotas and seasons in testimony before Congress’ Committee on Natural Resources in March.
“With red snapper populations we have a conundrum of logic,” Shipp said. “Red snapper stocks are considered overfished. Projections of red snapper maximum sustainable yield made during the past 20 years have varied between about 15 (million) to 30 million pounds annually for the Gulf of Mexico.
“But we have never harvested more than 10 million pounds, and often much less than that. So if a stock can yield 15 or more million pounds annually, but has never yielded anywhere near that number, how can it be overfished?”
Shipp said the answer is that the northwestern Gulf of Mexico has thousands of artificial reefs in the form of oil and gas platforms that have provided valuable reef habitat for species like snappers, especially the red snapper.
One week after Shipp’s March 13 testimony, Gulf Council administrator Roy Crabtree announced that he was taking action to reduce Louisiana’s 27-day offshore red snapper season to nine days, and reduced other Gulf states’ seasons in federal waters, too.
During its Thursday meeting in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission took the unprecedented step when it granted Department of Wildlife and Fisheries secretary Robert Barham the authority to take legal action against the Gulf Council and Crabtree over the issue of the state’s regulatory powers regarding the recreation take of red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico and the nine-day season.
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