Fishing for Red Snapper in the Gulf: Quotas and Derbies

Michael Giberson

While Lynne was visiting Maryland in search of the perfect yarn score, I was in New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage festival. I’ll share a photo or two once I have a chance to sort through them myself. In the meantime, I’ll share this article from the Monday morning Times-Picayune, which reveals how hare-brained schemes from economists of 30 or 40 years ago are now being used to manage over-fishing of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

As part of a new plan to manage harvest of the popular but ailing red snapper, [Walter] Heathcock and [Kirk] Fitzgerald are among the Gulf’s pioneers in a privatization of fish in the sea.

Unlike the past, where snapper fishers competed for the catch in brief, 10-day-long fishing seasons each month, Gulf commercial snapper fishers now are assigned individual, personalized quotas they can fish at any time throughout the year. Every pound they catch is monitored and tallied by the federal government, and fishers can buy, sell or lease their rights to the fish like stock brokers.

The tradable quota system works much better than the earlier limited fishing seasons:

In the past, regulators managed commercial fishers by saying when and how they could fish. The idea was that those limitations would translate into fewer fish harvested.

But unintended consequences soon followed. Allowing snapper to be caught the first few days of each month meant that every licensed boat was sent scrambling after the same fish. The “derbies” became costly, as fishers braved high seas and stormy weather to pursue the signature bright-red Gulf fish.

“You were basically forced to fish,” said Wayne Werner, a snapper fisher from Galliano. “There were a lot of days in the derby when we shouldn’t have been out there. Personally, it was a nightmare. Biologically, it was a nightmare.”

The new approach of dividing the catch among individuals puts emphasis on personal responsibility.

A Times-Picayune video explains a bit more about fishing under the system:

Red Snapper Fishing

Meanwhile, from about 350 miles to the west, the Houston Chronicle reports that recreational fishers in Texas are not so happy about how the new system limits their take of red snapper.

“Nobody in the Gulf of Mexico is happy. I’m not happy. You’re not happy,” [Roy] Crabtree, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s southeast region, said to a crowd of about 100 aggravated anglers during a meeting Friday evening at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

“I can understand your frustrations,” he said to the group who had come, mostly, to voice their exasperation with increasingly tighter federal regulations on recreational red snapper harvest. “But I need real solutions that are consistent with the science and that will stand up in court.”

The meeting, arranged and attended by Congressman Nick Lampson, D-Stafford, was meant as a way for Texas anglers to hear the reasoning behind recent moves to further tighten the already choked recreational snapper regulations in federally controlled Gulf waters and to question the point man for the federal agency responsible for managing the snapper fishery.

It was a grim 2 1/2 -hour session. And at its conclusion, it was obvious that the controversy surrounding the red snapper fishery is not going to fade any time soon.

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