Column: No-win fishery bills would undermine businesses and innovation

Published April 19 2018
Updated April 19 2018

The federal government delivered good news for anglers this week. Under newly approved two-year pilot programs, Florida and the other Gulf Coast states will manage red snapper fishing for private anglers. This means states can test ways to improve access for anglers fishing from their own boats while staying within science-based catch limits and without negatively affecting other industries like charter and headboat operators, and commercial fishermen.

These new pilot programs show that we donít have to break or weaken our nationís fisheries laws, hurt other industries or sacrifice science and sustainability to improve fishing for everyone.

Unfortunately, a number of bills making their way through Congress would in fact weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act (the law that governs U.S. fisheries), and could hurt my business and my customers, while undoing years of progress to restore threatened fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico.

HR 200 and S 1520 are largely driven by the need to fix the broken recreational management system in the gulf. But unlike these new state pilot programs, these bills donít solve any problems, they just create new ones by threatening fisheries with the risk of overfishing and creating bans and hurdles for proven tools.

Iíve worked on a fishing boat nearly my entire life. I started working as a mate on weekends when I was 13. I was a full-time mate by 18 and worked my way up to captain, just as my dad did and his dad did. Iím now running the business they ran, using my share of the annual profits to buy the company (no one gets anything for free in my family).

We own two headboats that take large groups of individual fishermen into the gulf for half- and full-day fishing trips. Most of my customers could never afford their own boats, so weíre the only way they can experience deep sea fishing. My customers come from all over the United States, and many of them plan entire vacations around their day at sea.

Headboats are governed by most of the same flawed rules that individual recreational fishermen have to deal with. Because many gulf species like red snapper were severely overfished and for other reasons, fishing seasons were painfully short. Recently, weíve made progress on addressing the issue of short seasons.

We did it by using the same pilot process the gulf states are using for private anglers; itís called an exempted fishing permit or EFP for short. EFPs are a way to test solutions to some of our most difficult management challenges.

For boats like mine, a system was designed that allowed us to take customers out fishing whenever we wanted throughout the year, modeled after the catch share system that has helped commercial fishermen improve the management of their sector.

In exchange for that flexibility, we had to adhere to very strict catch limits and keep impeccable records of what we took out of the gulf. All of the participating boats stayed within those limits, and because our customers were allowed to keep fish year-round, we actually decreased by half the amount of wasted fish thrown back. We were able to serve customers from all 50 states year-round, allowing us to take twice as many anglers on trips and to target a more diverse set of species. Business was steadier for us, and our profits increased.

We are working with the Gulf Council to create a long-term program that would have this kind of flexibility and conservation value, and improve our industryís accountability even further. I hope that private anglers are able to use their EFPs to find an approach that works for them.

But HR 200 and S 1520 would undermine these programs by imposing unnecessary restrictions or burying them in bureaucratic red tape. HR 200, in particular, would establish a set of requirements that would make EFPs very difficult to use. HR 200 would also ban the use of EFPs to test new catch share programs, a proven management tool.

Iíve been fishing my whole life, and Iíd like my kids to be able to do what I do. I also want to continue making the gulf accessible to so many people around the country who otherwise wouldnít have an opportunity to experience it. HR 200 and S 1520 are unnecessary and threaten the progress being made by fishermen.

Chad Haggert is headboat captain for Double Eagle Deep Sea Fishing in Clearwater.