Sen. Allain seeks talks on red snapper regulations

MORGAN CITY, La. -- The argument over the red snapper fishery continues to intensify.

Everyone from a Louisiana senator and restaurants to both state and federal level agencies charged with conserving natural resources has something different to say on the matter.

Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said he will introduce a bill Monday to open talks at the state level on the status of the red snapper fishery.

On March 25, a temporary emergency rule was published in the Federal Register that gives the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries department the authority to set separate closure dates for the recreational red snapper season in federal waters off individual Gulf of Mexico states. The closure dates are dependent on whether state regulations are consistent with federal regulations for the recreational red snapper season length or bag limit.

The action was requested by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council at their February meeting to provide a distribution of recreational red snapper fishing opportunities among anglers in all of the Gulf of Mexico states.

The emergency rule has set Louisiana’s red snapper season at only nine days for the 2013 season. As recently as 2007, the season was 194 days, according to the senator.

Allain said he believes that this unprecedented action deserves an examination by the Legislature on how to help Louisiana’s fisheries recover.

“If NOAA Fisheries believes the situation in Louisiana is so dire that its citizens can only fish for nine days, then we should take drastic steps to help our state’s fisheries recover more quickly. I propose that until such time that the fisheries and season return to a more normal level, the harvest, the sale or the transportation for sale of red snapper should be prohibited in Louisiana and her waters,” Allain said.

In introducing the bill, he also invited NOAA Fisheries, the Louisiana representatives to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and all stakeholders to attend the Senate Natural Resources Committee to join in the discussion about what is best for the health of the fisheries in the State of Louisiana.

“No one is more disheartened by this than I am that these drastic measures may be necessary. Since I was a young child, I have enjoyed snapper at our local restaurants and fishing for them with my father. I couldn’t imagine not having this resource available for future generations of Louisianans, and I will do everything in my power to restore the snapper fisheries as soon as possible for everyone to enjoy,” Allain said.

A group of celebrity chefs, including some of New Orleans’ finest, sent a letter to Congress in February urging lawmakers to maintain a catch-share scheme for managing red-snapper stocks in the Gulf of Mexico, a move 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.

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.

“(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.

Red snapper management has come under particularly close scrutiny in recent years because of short seasons and small quotas.

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

On March 20, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries took action to move forward with a Louisiana-only recreational red snapper season.

Beginning March 23, Louisiana began implementation of a weekend-only recreational red snapper season that will end on Sept. 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.

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.”

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.

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.

The Wildlife and Fisheries officials encourages fishermen to use caution and their own personal judgment when fishing beyond the three-mile boundary that is currently recognized as federal waters, as it is fully expected that federal agents will continue to enforce federal law.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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