Chefs back red snapper catch shares

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A group of celebrity chefs, including some of New Orleans’ finest, sent a letter to Congress last week urging lawmakers to maintain a catch-share scheme for managing red-snapper stocks in the Gulf of Mexico, a move vehemently opposed by recreational fishing groups. Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation, reacted strongly to the push by Susan Spicer of Bayona, Rick Tramonto of Tramonto Steak & Seafood and other chefs from across the country.

“I was disappointed to see some of the famous cooks of New Orleans take such an ill-informed stance,” Angers said. “I would hope those who signed that letter would look for the facts of fish management rather than the propaganda of an environmental organization.”

Catch shares are supported by the Environmental Defense Fund.

In general, catch shares seek to give commercial fishers permanent access to a predetermined portion of a fishery. The advantage is that those fishers, unbound by the strictures of traditional season openings and closings, can target the fish in their individual quotas whenever they wish.

Restaurants like catch shares because the management policy provides them with a more steady supply of fresh fish. In traditional derby fishing, commercial fishers would bombard the fishing grounds soon after the opening of a season, hoping to catch a higher percentage of the quota than their competitors. Once the overall quota was met, the entire season would be shut down.

This led to a glut of fresh fish on the market followed by lean months and limited options for chefs.

Angers acknowledged that the catch-share system certainly has its merits.

“Catch shares do work in some fisheries,” he said. “In a bunch of purely commercial fisheries, catch shares work great.”

Chris Macaluso with the Louisiana Wildlife Federation said he can certainly understand the push for catch shares by those who sell fish.

“I agree with the chefs that the flexibility of when the fishermen can catch their fish allows for a fresher product and eliminates the bonanza of the system in place before,” he said.

The issue arises when catch shares are attempted in fisheries that include a significant recreational component, like red snapper. Currently, the 500 or so commercial snapper boats in the Gulf of Mexico receive 51 percent of the annual quota, Angers said. The entire recreational fishery receives the remaining 49 percent.

Under the catch-share system, the total commercial take can never be reduced, Angers said.

“Catch-shares lead to rusted-shut allocation,” he said. “Where (the allocation) has been set due to historical data, there are significant problems.

“(Commercial) fishermen are given a public resource forever simply because their dad fished it 50 years ago.”

Under the catch-share system, the individual quotas that are given to the commercial fishers can be passed on to progeny or sold for often significant sums.

“Catch shares make a certain number of fishermen very wealthy,” Angers said. “They have access to the fishery for perpetuity. Government is gifting to a select number of citizens that which belongs to all.”

Under the catch-share system, when the recreational quota percentage is set in stone, individual recreational limits have to be reduced whenever new anglers are recruited into the sport, Angers said. Either that, or quotas are met more quickly.

“Everyone’s participation is marginalized,” Angers said. “That’s why members of Congress are taking notice. Those who understand the resource see that catch shares are folly.”

Macaluso said recreational anglers should fight catch shares for any fishery in which they participate.

“This system doesn’t work for recreational fishermen,” he said. “While the commercial section is getting more flexibility, the recs are getting less. The system is inherently designed to severely restrict and possibly eliminate the recreational sector.”

Red snapper management has come under particularly close scrutiny in recent years because of short seasons and small quotas. This summer, the official Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council-approved recreational red snapper season will stretch only 27 days, which some conservation groups have called ridiculous.

Louisiana has joined Texas in breaking away from federal mandates and establishing unique red-snapper regulations in state waters.

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