Red Snapper Sector Separation Reality
On Tuesday of this week the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will host a public hearing in Panama City on the concept of sector separation in the red snapper fishery. I’ll be there, and I think you should, too if you value this resource and the economic impact it provides our tourism-based community. As a charter captain, restauranteur, and commercial fisherman, I see this issue from many perspectives and empathize with all of them. The reality is we all need to give a little for the long term sustainability of our community, economy, and fishery.
Destin and the panhandle of Florida caters to angling visitors. Some anglers bring their own boat, while others find it more convenient to utilize a head boat or a charter boat. Some visitors choose not set foot on a boat at all; they come for the fresh seafood that’s a cornerstone of Destin’s and the Panhandles heritage. All of these methods of engagement with our fisheries are important. Yet, that sharing of the resource has gotten out of balance. This is really where the concept of sector separation came from —the imbalance.
In the fisheries world, private vessel anglers who access the fishery through their own or a friend’s boat are currently tied at the hip to head boat and charter boat operators. All are seen as one in the recreational sector and must share a quota of fish meant for the sport fishing community.
Over the 36 years that I’ve been fishing for red snapper I’ve seen both the for-hire operators and the private anglers have the upper hand on catching the lion’s share of the recreational sector’s red snapper quota. Sector separation is quite simply leveling the playing field while ensuring accountability to maintain the world class red snapper fishery we now enjoy.
Just 15 years ago, things were very different,, we didn’t have the fishery we have now. The fact was the charter captains had the upper hand, they caught most of the red snapper because it was their job,they built private snapper reefs and they went fishing everyday to put customers on fish. Private anglers had it a lot tougher, there weren’t as many fish or public published reefs and not very many private anglers back then could fill their 4 fish bag limit of 16″ fish everyday.
Then, around 2003 , the pendulum started to swing the other direction. The commercial fishermen began development of a program that stopped them from overfishing their quota yet the recreational sector was overharvesting. To address this, the gulf council had only two options under their control to manage recreational fisheries ,reduce seasons and bag limits in federal waters and more tightly regulate the federally permitted for-hire captains who were catching the majority of the fish within the recreational sector.
The council started by putting a moratorium on federal for-hire permits and limiting fishing opportunities for those holding those permits to the more restrictive regulations between federal and state waters. This left a loophole for private anglers and their advocacy organizations have exploited it. They promote states to expand their state-water seasons, resulting in more opportunities for them to fish for red snapper, all the while knowing that the increased take requires the federal season to reduce in order to compensate for the additional fish coming out of the water. The state water loophole ignores the simple fact that only so many fish can be caught per year, that it’s all one stock no matter where the fish are caught.
This has culminated in exorbitant state water season fishing opportunities for private vessel anglers while federally permitted captains and private anglers across the gulf who aren’t lucky enough to have red snapper in their state waters got only a nine-day red snapper season this past year. Exploitation of the state water loophole and the imbalance it has wrought is really the driving force behind sector separation.
States are clearly catering to private anglers and while that loophole can’t be closed, states have sovereignty to allow fishing in their waters as they see fit, sector separation can level the playing field. As it’s own sector, the private anglers and their advocacy groups can still ask and be given by states the seasons they desire in state waters. Yet, the fish they catch will go against their own federally recognized quota, not the combined quota with the for-hire operators as it does now. In turn, the for-hire sector will have its own quota to live within. By separating the charter for-hire captains and their saltwater angling customers from the private recreational anglers, each group gets an even ability to both catch red snapper and just as important, be accountable to stay within their quota.
It’s time to balance the imbalance brought on by unfair rules and regulations that don’t give equal consideration to all anglers and sea food consumers. Go to the nearest public hearing on amendment 40 and support fair access for everyone. Support your local charter for hire Captains and their customers. And support a new modern managment plan for all the participants of recreational fisheries not just for only one sector.
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