Trump Administration Violates Law, Extends Fishing Season for the Gulf Red Snapper
What Happened: The fisheries office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decided to disregard their science-based quota requirements and extend the recreational fishing season of the red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico after pressure from Gulf state members of Congress.
Why it Matters: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under NOAA is responsible for preventing the overfishing of stocks in federal waters by requiring annual science-based quotas on allowable catch to rebuild overfished stocks in collaboration with the fishing industry. Its decision to extend the recreational fishing season without scientific evidence jeopardizes the rate of recovery for the red snapper and could negatively impact the economy for those who depend on red snapper stocks.
In June of 2017, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross extended the private recreational fishing season of the Gulf red snapper without scientific evidence to support such a decision. The move allowed recreational fishermen to continue fishing an extra 39 days after the original three-day fishing season closed, undermining the science-based quotas in place for the red snapper.
The decision came after Earl Comstock – the current director of policy and strategic planning at the Department of Commerce – sent an internal memo to Secretary Ross. The memo advised Ross to extend the catching season of the red snapper as a political tactic to pressure Congress to relinquish much of the federal authority of the red snapper management to Gulf states, despite admitting that doing so “would result in overfishing”.
Several recreational anglers and Gulf state congressmen argued for a longer fishing period and less strict restrictions on recreational catch of the red snapper. These same individuals critiqued the three-day season as being unfair and insufficient for recreational fishing, given that commercial and charter fishermen are allotted more time and higher catch quotas. They also noted that the federal government should not dictate who can or cannot fish in state waters. However, the allotted three-day season was a result of recreational anglers exceeding their catch quota the previous year. An analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts points out that any overages are to be deducted from the next year’s catch limit, which leads to shorter fishing seasons.
In July, Secretary Ross, NOAA, and NMFS were sued by the Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund on the grounds that the decision to extend the red snapper fishing season violated the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs marine fisheries management in federal waters, setting quotas for overfished stocks therein. Scientific advisers to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (established by the Fishery Conservation and Management Act) recommended a 14.8 million-pound limit on red snapper catch by all fishermen to prevent overfishing – the extension was projected to increase the catch by 6-8 million pounds or more. In October, a judge ruled that the case would be held in abeyance, or suspended, for a year.
The Gulf red snapper population was once on the brink of vanishing due to overfishing, but it has shown much improvement over the years due to federally mandated management measures. Science-based fishing quotas are vital to ensuring a fish population maintains sustainable yields. The decision to ignore the science could delay full recovery of the Gulf red snapper stock by at least six years, which would be detrimental to the species, the delicate reef ecosystem in which they live, and those who rely on the fishery for their livelihoods.