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Part One:
Fishing on the Gulf Coast
The Red Snapper Issue

Three Musketeers - Bill Sargent, Mark Mansius, and John Gay
Bill Sargent, Mark Mansius, and John Gay all ran for Congress in the 2012 Republican Primary. They became friends and have been writing weekly columns for the Galveston County Daily News since May 2013.

Red Snapper caught by a female fishermanEditor’s Note:  The Three Musketeers have spent five weeks interviewing red snapper fishermen from all sectors in preparation for this column series. This is the first of a five part series which delves into some of the issues and possible solutions to the management of red snapper on the Gulf Coast.

March 20, 2017

The natural resources in the Gulf of Mexico are plentiful but limited.  Because of high commercial and sports fisherman demand, one fish, the Red Snapper, is hotly contested.   Red Snapper is a saltwater fish which thrives in rigs, wrecks, natural shelves and reefs in deep water.  Adult red snapper seldom venture more than twenty miles unless caught in currents.
The five Gulf States independently control and manage fishing within nine miles off shore.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), oversees management of fishing in federal waters out to the 200 mile limit.

Prior to 1990 the red snapper population was rapidly depleting and landings were in decline.  All fishermen agreed something needed to be done to replenish the fishery.  One solution was to limit the number of red snapper permits issued to commercial vessels and to reduce the number of fish that could be caught.   Initially NOAA established “catch share” limits on the number of fish landings, splitting it 51%/49% between the commercial and recreational sectors. 

In 1992 NOAA attempted reducing the size of the commercial fishery by establishing a three-year moratorium on the issuance of new commercial fishing permits.  In order to qualify for existing permits, vessels needed to demonstrate they caught 5,000 pounds of red snapper in two of three years.  Vessels that didn’t qualify, most of which were part time fishermen, were given a 200 pound limit.  At the time, 133 [2,000 pound] and 579 [200 pound] commercial permits were issued.

From the late 1990s-2007 commercial red snapper fishing in the Gulf was brutal. Fish stocks were continuing to decline and the limits on how many could be caught on each trip caused undue stress on the boats, equipment, and crews.   Additionally commercial fishing was only allowed during the first ten days of the month regardless of weather and fishing conditions. 
2007 ushered in the era of Individual Fish Quotas (IFQs).  IFQs were initiated at the urging of many commercial fishermen.  In order to participate in the IFQ program owners were required to demonstrate they had been fishing between 1990-2004 and the extent of their allocation was based upon their best ten years during the qualifying period.  Because these fishermen paid no fees or royalties for their allocations, we’ve been told some people– including the federal government -- have said their shares were “gifted” to them.  Others have said it took hard work over many years to qualify and that IFQs are only granting the “opportunity” to fish, not a guarantee of actually catching them.

After the establishment of IFQs, NOAA then cut the allowable catch limits by 50% across the board which – although designed to speed the replenishment of the fishery – made it more difficult for those with smaller allocations to remain commercially viable.
According to NOAA, the distribution of landings has remained similar both before and after IFQ’s.  The top 25% of the landings were caught by 2% of the vessels.  The bottom 25% of the landings was caught by 87% of the vessels while 46% of the bottom 25% landed less than 500 pounds each. 

This series continues tomorrow!

Bill and Mark and John