Friday, January 19, 2018
Opinion

Don't retreat on gulf fisheries progress

As someone who has been fishing in the Gulf of Mexico for more than 25 years, I'm exasperated by the actions of some in Congress, like Rep. Steve Southerland, who are working to destroy the livelihoods of myself and hundreds of other hard-working gulf fishermen.

Earlier this month, Southerland, a Republican who represents Florida's eastern Panhandle, wrote in the Hill newspaper about his God-given freedom to fish.

God-given freedoms in civilized societies come with responsibilities. Sport fishermen want more fish, and so do the 97.3 percent of Americans who are simply consumers. Healthy fisheries are the only way that this can happen. We should be celebrating the innovative management in recent years that finally reversed depletion and began rebuilding our fisheries. But Southerland wants to stop that and its economic benefits in their tracks.

As someone who relies on the God-given resources in our oceans to make a living, I have seen firsthand that healthy fisheries are essential. Just like a healthy bank account produces more revenue, healthy fisheries produce more fish. Because of our rebuilding efforts, for the past several years managers have been able to increase allowable catches of red snapper at the fastest pace ever.

In his essay, Southerland expressed his support for defunding catch share programs. This innovative management system has proven vital to rebuilding our fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. Equally important is that we now have systems in place to assure our fisheries stay healthy. Twenty years ago we would never have dreamed that we could provide fresh domestic seafood year-round while rebuilding our fisheries and jobs.

In 2005, as the Gulf Council fishery management body tried to restore our fishery with conventional management, our season was cut short and restaurants had to take grouper off the menu. Fishermen sat at the dock for a third of the year because managers hoped that would help rebuild the stocks, yet overfishing still happened. Fish prices were among the lowest in the United States, leaving more than 70 percent of fishermen with incomes below the poverty level. Quality was poor because of gluts caused by fishermen catching all they could during the open season. Imports increased to fill the void caused by the closed season.

Things were so bad that the biggest players in the industry developed a federally underwritten buyout plan to eliminate the 600 smallest businesses from the fishery. The command-and-control management system the government was using wasn't working. The future of fishing was bleak unless we changed something drastically. The buyout plan proved wildly unpopular with the 600 fishermen who were being eliminated. It was eventually abandoned, and fishermen looked for a better solution.

The catch share system was the fairest solution that didn't force fishermen out. We worked with federal managers and the regional Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to establish our own program. At the local level — not through federal mandate or expanded regulations — we established individual fishing quotas that would enable us to spread out our fishing season and rebuild our fishery at the same time. In 2009, 81 percent of qualified fishermen voted in favor of an active fishery management program that was focused on rebuilding our grouper stocks. In 2010 the grouper catch share program took effect as a companion to the red snapper catch share program.

Now, for the first time we have year-round sustainable fishing jobs and no closed season. The fishery is more valuable because we provide fresh grouper throughout the year. The product is the best it has ever been. Fresh fish has become a reality again in our region. Competition from foreign imports is down, and restaurants are putting fresh gulf grouper back on the menu.

The solution that fishermen forged locally is working better than anyone imagined. In spite of this success, Southerland is determined to prevent fishermen and regional councils from considering this solution for foundering fisheries. He wants to micromanage fishermen from his office in Washington.

Instead of taking away control from local fishermen and regional councils, we need stay on track with the rebuilding programs and science. Fishermen and regulators need the freedom to develop tools that increase access to fisheries while still conserving the resource. Southerland should leave fisheries management in the hands of fishermen and regional councils.

John Schmidt is a commercial fisherman from Palm Harbor and a member of the Gulf Fishermen's Association.

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