How States Can End the Fed’s War on Fishing

By: Tho Bishop

One of the Gulf of Mexico’s most iconic fish has also become one of its most politicized, the red snapper. For years now the prized catch has been part of a heated battle between federal regulators, the commercial fishing industry, and charter and recreational fishermen. The result has been fishing seasons consistently shrinking, even as snapper populations grow. On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its shortest season yet: just three days.

Why so short? Because the NOAA is punishing fisherman for catching more fish than they expected during last year’s 9-day season.

Given these tiny windows being set by the feds, it would be natural to assume red snapper populations are dangerously low. This was certainly true at one point, in the 1980’s multiple studies concluded that red snapper populations were severely over fished. Since then, significant steps have been taken. Not only have federal and state programs reduced the number of fish that can be caught, but private interests worked with various government agencies to create a rich network of artificial reefs throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

The result has been a dramatic turnaround for red snapper. Talk to a gulf fisherman and most will tell you that you will see more red snapper than anything else. In the words of Chris Macaluso, a conservationist with the Theodore Roosevelt Partnership, “It’s undisputed that red snapper stocks are larger now than they’ve ever been.”

Yet federal regulations continue to increase.

Luckily for non-charter boat captains most anglers, the NOAA’s fish window only impacts federal water and each state can set the limits for their own waters. As such, in the face of having the same data, Gulf states have increased the length of their snapper season.

Why the dramatic difference between state and federal policy?

One of the biggest is the priorities of the agencies themselves. State governments are more dependent upon the economic benefits of a thriving fishing industry, so they can’t afford to regulate it into extinction. The NOAA simply has no such skin in the game, leading it to prioritize conservation over reasonable fishery management.

That does not mean that there aren’t economic interests that have benefited from the NOAA’s heavy handed approach to snapper. While NOAA continues to squeeze recreational anglers, a select number of large commercial fleets have been able to take advantage of a quota program to dominate the snapper industry. As reported last year, 77 percent of the annual red snapper harvest is controlled by just 55 people.

The aim of the Individual Quota System (IFS) is itself quite reasonable, it attempted to establish a price for the act of catching snapper. Unfortunately, instead of establishing an actual market place for fisherman to compete for the ability to fish, the IFS system divided up control among the largest commercial fishing outfits. The result is a legalized cartel in snapper that has ever increasing control of the waters. Another classical example of federal regulation empowering established big business at the expense of consumers and smaller market players.

For years now, politicians from the gulf at all levels of government have been advocating to change the federal management system. Given its most recent action, even a new administration has done nothing to change the NOAA restrictions placed on fisherman.

Gulf states, however, don’t need to beg Washington to change how things are done.

While the rules governing federal waters are written in Washington, their enforcement is dependent upon state agents. As such, state government could effectively nullify federal fishery regulation by ordering their employees to refuse to enforce the NOAA’s fishing season when it conflicts with state rules. States have made similar moves in the past to oppose other federal abuses, and the non-commandeering doctrine has been repeatedly recognized by the Supreme Court.

In response the federal government could respond by cutting funding to state fish and wildlife agencies, but it’s worthwhile for state lawmakers to debate how much they value their fishing industry and the sovereignty of their own waters. Particularly since states like Florida are currently debating whether or not to spend tax dollars on agencies dedicated to tourism advertising. How many Floridians would prefer tax dollars going giving them more fishing freedom than music videos starring Pitbull?

The NOAA’s three day snapper season is an outrageous outcome from an absurd federal fishery management regime. Unfortunately, as long as state politicians are content to simply write angry letters at Washington, nothing will change.

Whether its fishing or the Fed, the answer isn’t trying win over Washington — it is fighting it.  

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