Commentary: Fishermen are losers in grudge match between feds, states

Posted Sunday, May. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Two week from now, on June 1, saltwater fishermen from Florida to Texas will gather at the docks to pursue red snapper in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It happens every year at this time, and should be a joyous occasion and a simple operation.

Yet, this year, some of the anglers won’t have a clear idea of just where those federal waters are or how long the season will be open.

There is a battle going on — a grudge match really — between state and federal officials, and caught in the middle are the recreational fishermen. This thing is a total mess with government bureaucrats blustering back and forth while Congress and the courts are expected to be the cooler heads.

Not a promising scenario.

Texas has been pretty clear from the beginning. State fisheries experts here say unequivocally that snapper numbers have rebounded from previous lows and the season should be long and profitable. The feds, however, have ignored dozens of studies to support that contention and each year the restrictions become even tighter. Texas doesn’t close snapper season in its waters; the feds hardly open theirs.

To begin with, you’re only allowed to catch two snapper a day, so it isn’t like fishermen are hauling them in hand over fist. This isn’t a salmon run where the water churns madly and fish jump in the boat.

Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana generally have gone along with the federal government, but enough is enough and this year governors from those states, and Texas, have sent a joint letter to the U.S. House and Senate that insists federal management of Gulf red snapper is a system that is irretrievably broken.

What these Gulf Coast states want is legislation that would change the system and allow a Gulf-state partnership to manage the fishery.

In today’s contentious political setting, it’s hard to imagine that happening. Florida no longer will apply federal snapper rules within its state waters, and Louisiana — which once set the state boundary at 3 miles off shore — has decided to expand to the 9-mile limit used by Texas and other Gulf states. Louisiana also has said it will not apply federal snapper regulations within its jurisdiction.

You would think that when four of the five Gulf states have such conclusive evidence, the federal government would at least listen. You might even feel that if the Coastal Conservation Association agreed with the states, it should be considered. It would seem logical that if the states felt so strongly as to change their territorial boundaries and ignore federal regulations, the federal government would pay a little attention.

Instead, NOAA Fisheries, the umbrella agency in charge of the fishing regulations, has given regional directors in the National Marine Fisheries Service the power to punish these rogue states for their impertinence. The federal government refuses to acknowledge Louisiana’s decision to expand its state waters and has already issued citations to some fishermen there for taking snapper out of season.

The state’s attorney general has yet to say whether he’ll take up the fight.

Originally, the red snapper season was set to run from June 1-27. But now, the feds say none of the brazen states are going to get their full share. Texas recreational anglers will have a 12-day snapper season in federal waters, Louisiana anglers would have just nine days and Florida anglers 21 days.

It is a ridiculous decision. Texas fishermen get 12 days to catch red snapper in federal waters. That’s 12 calendar days, not 12 days of suitable weather, or 12 days of weekends when working stiffs can get to the coast. No, if June winds whip up six-foot seas for five or six days, then those days are gone for the average recreational boater. And, if those winds blow on the weekends, then it is conceivable that the majority of Texas recreational fishermen will get no chance at all to harvest red snapper.

Texas and Louisiana have filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fishery Service to stop the federal government’s bullish tactics. The states are asking that a full red snapper season be instituted for everyone on the gulf coast.

All we need now is a cooperative Congress that is able to pass bipartisan legislation, and an understanding federal court that can come to a ruling in the next 30 days.

Pray for calm seas.

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