Reef fishermen from the Gulf of Mexico expect to appear in court against the National Marine Fisheries Service later this summer. They challenge the agency’s recent redistribution of some of their red sea bass’ individual fishing quotas to the recreational sector.
Fishermen have more at stake than the reduction in their sea bass quota: the NMFS and the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Board are already in the process of redistributing series of other fisheries. The trial may be their best, if not only, chance to stop them.
“We’re 2 and 0 against NMFS in the courts,” said Eric Brazer, deputy director of Galveston, the Texas-based Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance. Other plaintiffs in the case include the AP Bell Fish Company, Cortez, Florida, and the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, a longline group based in Madeira Beach, Florida.
The courts sided with the commercial fishermen in 2014 and 2017, when they challenged the council and the NMFS over measures to extend the recreational red snapper season and redistribute more quotas to the sector.
“The council took action that harmed the commercial fishermen and rewarded the recreational fishermen. We told them it was not legal, they did not believe us. They approved the document, we took them to court and we won, ”Brazer said.
The environmental groups Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund also sued the NMFS in 2017 for allowing private red snapper anglers to exceed their catch limits, even after the agency in the federal registry stated it would lead to overfishing. That case did not proceed to trial after the NMFS convinced the judge that its temporary rule was a one-time event.
In contrast to these lawsuits, which challenged measures that were openly taken to benefit the recreational sector, red perch is billed as a technical solution.
The change stems from the 2018 renewal of the NMFS ‘recreational survey, American Sportfishing Associations stressed Kellie Ralston as he addressed the Golf Council at its June 2021 meeting.
“As a reminder, the recreational sector has not brought this change to the council,” Ralston said. “The change is simply a result of the recalibration from the MRIP Coastal Household Telephone Survey to MRIP-FES and the subsequent corrections of historic recreational landings.”
The Marine Recreational Information Program and its associated Fishing Effort Survey, is called MRIP-FES in fisheries management jargon.
The NMFS adopted its current survey of recreational fishing efforts in 2018. A 2006 review by the National Research Council showed that the agency’s long-standing telephone survey was deficient, in part due to a decline in household landline telephones.
After several years of development, the new MRIP-FES was operational in 2018. To maintain a consistent series of recreational catch statistics, NMFS converted the historical estimates back as far as 1981 to the “currency” of the 2018 method.
The current recalibration increases virtually all of the leisure sector’s historical catch estimates. The NMFS argues that if recreational catches were higher, total quotas should have been higher and the recreational sector should have had a higher allocation rate. Red grouper awards are based on landings from 1986-2005.
The agency urged the Golf Council to increase the recreational share of the £ 3 million grouper quota from 24 per cent to 40.7 per cent and reduce the commercial share from 76 per cent to 59.3 per cent. Roy Crabtree, then NMFS Southeast Regional Administrator, formally introduced the call to change the reef fishing plan at a council meeting in October 2019.
“If the FES data found that the historic recreational landings were higher than previously thought, the number of dead discards from that sector was also greater than previously thought,” says Brazer of the Reef Fish Alliance.
With that argument, the redistribution of more fish to recreational fishermen therefore violates the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s National Standard Nine, which requires that bycatch be minimized.
The redistribution is in violation of several of the law’s national standards, as well as other laws, according to the Fishermen’s case, which Brazer expects will be heard by the U.S. District Court of District of Columbia around August.
In the meantime, the Golf Council is applying the same technical solution to the amber jack and gag grouper fishery.
Amberjacken’s 484,280-pound quota is currently allocated 73 percent recreationally and 27 percent commercially. Proposed redistribution options will reduce the commercial quota to 22, 20 or 16 percent.
The council expects to hold hearings on the amberjack change in August. Rebuilding deadlines for the overfished species must be implemented by April 2023.
The gag groupers’ quota of 385,055 pounds has been allocated 61 per cent recreationally and 39 per cent commercially. The Golf Council’s recovery plan for the overfished species includes a possible redistribution that would increase the recreational share to 79 percent and reduce the commercial share to 21 percent. The Council plans to have these new rules in place for the 2024 fishing year.
(Robert Fritchey is a long time National Fisherman contributor and author of several books on fisheries management conflicts in the Gulf of Mexico. His latest, “A Different Breed of Cat,” was published by the New Moon Press in 2020.)