Under federal fisheries management, red snapper populations in the Gulf of Mexico are recovering and the boating and fishing industries have grown. But on Thursday, a U.S. Senate committee will hear a proposal that could gut a decade of recovery and growth for both. The idea floated by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., would create a piecemeal system by extending the state waters of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi from 3 miles to 9. In addition, his plan would loosen some of the stronger tenets of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — like science-based rebuilding timelines and annual catch limits.
The other gulf states' gains would be Florida's loss, particularly for anglers in the Tampa Bay area who must travel at least 30 miles offshore to find 60-foot waters where the red snapper population flourishes. In effect, those other three states' extensions would create enough extra state-water fishing pressure that the stock's rebound would be imperiled. To keep the fish populations from plunging, the government would have to severely limit the number of days for fishing in federal waters. As a practical matter, Florida fishermen would have far fewer days to catch snapper.
On Thursday, Vitter will argue before the Senate Small Business Administration Committee that the 3-mile limits hurt small coastal businesses across the gulf that rely on healthy fish populations and liberal access to them. He is wrong. And as a small boat dealership and marina owner, I know something about this.
Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the gulf red snapper catch has rebuilt from 5 million pounds in 2007 to more than 14 million in 2014. Not to mention, Vitter's arguments fly in the face of the American Sportfishing Association's economic reports, which suggest the Southeast has a healthy fishing population and an even healthier fishing industry.
His argument is based on a flawed narrative by fishery rights groups that claim short federal-water red snapper seasons are hurting industry growth and that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is broken. But here's what is really going on: These groups are part of a growing national move by the states to take public natural resources from federal stewardship and pass them to the states. Think of the fiasco of the armed occupation of the Oregon Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — but in flip-flops and sunglasses.
The problem is, red snapper don't respect state boundaries, and the gulf fishery is bigger than any one state. It takes a big-picture view to manage it appropriately.
Vitter's narrative threatens Florida's saltwater fishing industry that, according to the ASA's Sportfishing in America, supports more than 65,000 jobs with an annual retail sales base of $3.9 billion. This is a huge economic driver for Florida, and these jobs and retail sales are complemented by attracting a robust and vibrant fishing tourism industry that draws more than 1.2 million anglers annually, resulting in out-of-state tourism spending that nudges a $1 billion a year.
For the gulf region, even more telling is our ability to buck national trends of decreasing fishing license sales; excepting Mississippi, all other gulf states enjoyed increased license sales from 2004 through 2013, the last year registered in the report. How do these numbers reflect a burden on small business, when the economics and participation trends suggest otherwise?
Vitter's proposal is an attack on public federal natural resources and threatens Florida's economic health and Florida gulf anglers. But more frightening for me, the senator's proposal carries the real threat to inject an undue level of chaos into a stable fishery management system that will trickle down to uncertainty in Florida's boating, fishing and tourism industries.
Brad Kenyon is an avid angler who has served on fishery advisory panels to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. He owns and operates Boat and Motor Superstores in Tarpon Springs. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.