State, feds still snapping red

Image from the Angler's Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of MexicoSilk snapper another species that closely resembles red snapper.
Image from the Angler's Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of MexicoSilk snapper another species that closely resembles red snapper.

The battle between the Gulf states and the multi-layered federal fisheries management system has carried into the halls of the U.S. Congress now that Sen. David Vitter and Congressman Bill Cassidy filed companion bills in the 113th Congress.

The two Louisiana Republicans want to limit the power of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to manage red snapper throughout the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of four South Atlantic states. The three agencies are in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

It’s called the Offshore Fairness Act of 2013, and Cassidy said the point of the legislation is better fisheries management.

“It’s a (red) snapper bill that’s clearly important to Louisiana,” Cassidy said from his Washington, D.C,. office. “It’s where we go to manage fish in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic. It’s about red snapper populations, about how to use the science of this species and who can use that science.”

Cassidy and Vitter agree that constituents have pleaded for years that Commerce agencies misuse, and sometimes skew, data to constantly restrict recreational red snapper seasons in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cassidy said he’s studied the situation and said he believes the federal agencies are miscounting red snapper stocks.

“(Federal agencies) are restricting our ability to recreationally fish … when we know the fish are there, and if there’s no scientific reason, there’s no reason to limit the right for recreational fishermen to fish,’ Cassidy said,

Cassidy and Vitter point to the economic effects brought on by the increasingly restricted red snapper seasons. The GMFMC has also restricted seasons on recreationally caught amberjack, grouper and gray triggerfish among other species.

The bill also extends state boundary waters out to three marine leagues, or 10.357 miles, for all state activities including mineral rights. The fisheries management boundary extends to the Exclusive Economic Zone, which takes in all federal waters ou200 miles.

Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are identified to be the eight states affected by the Offshore Fairness Act.

In an interview earlier this year, Cassidy said the fisheries issues was the driving force behind offering this legislation, but said the mineral royalties adds another dimension of fairness to the act.

“We in Louisiana wonder why we have three miles (state boundary waters) and Texas has nine miles. Yes, we’d like to have those (mineral) royalties. That’s a fairness issue, too, but if we get (state) control of our fisheries, that would be a victory.”

Vitter knows it’s the fishery issue that will generate support for the act, and the consternation among states along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico in dealing with federal fisheries management schemes has drawn support from coastal states’ delegations.

Vitter termed the federal management of red snapper “abysmal, and the Gulf states should be granted rights to their offshore resources.”

Cassidy said current data and collection methods on red snapper is “yesterday’s news. Why not have a current law that’s more effective.

“This act lays groundwork for a different way to assess fish populations, and sets up a different way to manage those populations.”

He admitted the biggest problem will be to convince members of the House and Senate to vote for these new measures.

“The strategy is to convince key members of the (House) Natural Resources Committee of the importance of this bill, then build from there,” Cassidy said. “We do not want this to be a partisan issue. We want this to be driven by science. We want good (fish stock) assessments, and that’s why the science should be different, and should be used differently.”

Both Cassidy and Vitter filed the bill after the GMFMC rejected a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ move for regional management for red snapper and other reef fish species earlier this year, and after the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission’s vote to move state fisheries boundary waters out to three marine leagues and establish a recreational red snapper season that went beyond what was planned a 27-day season beginning June 1.

Filing the act came before GMFMC administrator Roy Crabtree cut Louisiana’s recreational red snapper season to nine days, while allowing more days for the other four Gulf states for the season in federal waters.

Know your snapper

The U.S. Coast Guard is writing citations in the disputed waters between three miles and 10.357 miles off the Louisiana coast.

The citations are for red snapper only, because that’s the species at the heart of the dispute between Louisiana and federal fisheries managers.

The two-red snapper limit and the waters don’t apply to other snapper species. Among the species mistaken for red snapper are the blackfin and silk snappers. Although not as prolific along the Louisiana coast, these species are lumped with a dozen other snapper for a 20-per-day limit and have no seasons.