Red snapper battle lingering on

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The battle over red snapper continues in Congress, as local representatives attempt to over-ride rules that allowed federal officials to limit the recreational season for a catch prized by anglers and commercial fishermen to a mere ten days.

Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, helped author an amendment to a key appropriations bill, which prohibits the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from using federal money to enforce a matrix of separate rules for commercial, recreational and charter-for-hire fishers, all of whom have different season lengths.

Co-authored by Rep. Austin Scott. R-Ga., the amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act also mandates that the recreational season cannot be shorter than one-fifth the length of the commercial season.

“For the first time in many, many years, this is a win for recreational fishermen. Our amendment will ensure that our recreational fishers have the opportunity to enjoy Red Snapper,” said Graves. “Earlier this month, we passed the Magnuson-Stevens fisheries bill to improve the science used to sustainably manage our Gulf resources. Together, these bills will prevent the federal government from limiting recreational fishing to 10 days while continuing to protect our commercial and charter fishing industries.”

The amendment has drawn criticism from the commercial industry, which is allowed up to 365 days of fishing for snapper under a quota system. Graves is also attempting to move management of the snapper fishery from regional councils organized under the Magnusen-Stevens Act, which charts federal fisheries management, to a council made up of representatives from the states where snapper are fished.

A conference between the House and Senate is expected later this year. A Senate version of the funding bill contains similar – though non-identical – provisions regarding snapper, said Kevin Roig, a spokesman for Graves.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is among lawmakers who have expressed support for the Graves amendment, agreeing that changes need to be made in snapper management.

“It’s time to end the federal government’s short sighted attempts to solve the problems that plague the Gulf red snapper fishery. Four million anglers in the Gulf and I agree – we need to give authority to the states for a more permanent solution,” Vitter said.

Vitter has been urging the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council to protect public access to the red snapper fishery. Earlier this year he introduced the Red Snapper Management Improvement Act, which – like legislation Graves has proposed – would grant the Gulf States regional management authority of the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico upon their joint agreement on a management plan. Vitter continues to work with local authorities to codify a regional management agreement made by the five state fisheries directors.

Graves’ attempt to transfer oversight to the five states was withdrawn from consideration, after it failed to pass in committee as part of another funding bill. But Roig said the freshman congressman has plans to reintroduce that plan as a stand-alone bill later in this year’s session.

Another Louisiana lawmaker, Rep. Charles Boustany, fully supports that idea.

The current rules, Boustany said, are based on flawed science.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had announced in March that the state, along with Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida had reached a “historic and unprecedented” unanimous agreement to transfer authority away from the federal government on the red snapper issue.

“Congressman Graves and I know it is rare for all five Gulf states to agree when it comes to ocean management and conservation policy,” Boustany said. “So it’s remarkable when these five states come together on a proposal to transfer Red Snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico away from the federally managed program that continues to fail recreational anglers. I believe as Representative Graves does when states come together to present a working proposal to Congress, we as their Representatives should listen.”

A consortium of commercial fishing organizations presented a letter opposing the five-state plan when it was still under committee consideration.

“We strongly oppose the push by the five Gulf states to take possession of the red snapper fishery through a legislative exemption to the Magnuson Stevens Act,” the letter reads. “This action sets a dangerous precedent for fishermen like us throughout the United States and the conservation measures we need to protect our fisheries.”

A tug-of-war over snapper has existed for some time now between federal officials and Louisiana, with the state claiming a nine-mile limit, six miles more than what the feds recognize, for fishery management purposes, and keeping an open snapper season.

State officials also warn fishermen that they could be subject to federal penalties if apprehended with snapper out of season in waters over which the federal government claims jurisdiction.

Red snapper