In Defense of America’s Fisheries

We are going to court because there is too much at stake–and not just for red snapper.

About a month ago, political appointees in the Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, sanctioned overfishing of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico by dramatically extending the federal private recreational season this year.

That decision is deeply concerning as it jeopardizes the long-term rebuilding and sustainability of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery. We are almost at the halfway mark on a 27-year red snapper rebuilding plan as the stock had plummeted to just three percent of its historic abundance because of overfishing. Extending the federal recreational season this year will impact those conservation efforts drastically. By the administration’s own estimates, it will now take six additional years to rebuild the red snapper fishery.

The department has set a dangerous precedent by deliberately undercutting the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), which requires science-based limits to prevent overfishing and rebuilding plans to return vulnerable fish stocks back to healthy levels. It is ignoring the proven success of the science-based strategies that have put America at the forefront of sustainable and economically productive fisheries. Made behind closed doors, the public was not given the usual opportunities to weigh-in on this decision. And it benefits only one sector of a fishery used by many, turning a blind eye to years of hard sacrifices made by fishermen and coastal communities.

Ocean Conservancy doesn’t think this is right. And we are fighting back. Together with the Environmental Defense Fund and Earthjustice, Ocean Conservancy is suing the Department of Commerce.

We did not make our decision lightly. Litigation is a tool that we use very sparingly, and only when we feel there is no alternative. We have a proven track record of working collaboratively with people to find the best possible solutions. In the case of the administration’s red snapper decision, we have absolutely no choice. Standing up for the long-term health and sustainability of this fishery compels us to go to court.

Our goals are simple:

  • We want to make sure that political pressure doesn’t override good, science-based policy in this or any other fishery.
  • We want to make sure red snapper rebuilding efforts stay on track and meet the deadline of having a fully healthy stock by 2032.
  • We want to uphold the key components of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that have led to the record success we’ve seen in ending overfishing, rebuilding vulnerable stocks and restoring prosperity to coastal communities.

We are passionate supporters of sustainable use of our fish. We know the deep connection that Gulf coastal communities have to fish, both as an economic driver and a cultural tradition. The requirement to manage our fisheries according to science-based sustainable limits is our best tool to ensure that fishermen can fish today–and their kids can fish in the future. We just can’t let it be thrown away.

We recognize there are challenges in the red snapper fishery.

When this year’s federal recreational season was originally announced to be just three days long, we shared the disappointment felt by anglers around the Gulf. We are acutely aware of the challenges that managers of the fishery are facing–a recovering fish population in high demand that is targeted by three different sectors (private, for-hire and commercial) that all approach fishing in different ways. Seasons for private recreational anglers in federal waters have been getting shorter and shorter over the last few years because of these complicated issues, and regional managers have failed to find answers.

If red snapper rebuilding is to be successful in the Gulf, management decisions must be based on sound science. Taking this approach is the very bedrock of our nation’s fisheries management law. Fishermen must be part of the solution by working together with the government to find ways to fish within science-based limits and improve catch data and monitoring.

There is too much at stake to mess this up.

We’ve seen this kind of decision-making before. In the 1980s and 1990s, fishery after fishery collapsed as managers failed to make the necessary decisions to keep fishing within sustainable limits. Congress responded by strengthening the Magnuson-Stevens Act twice, putting in requirements for science-based annual catch limits and requiring that stocks be rebuilt to healthy levels. Despite decades of proven and record success under those rules, we are now seeing a slide back to the days where short-sighted political decisions jeopardized our valuable natural resources.

This is why Ocean Conservancy has made the difficult decision to sue. We need to stop this type of decision-making in its tracks as red snapper isn’t the only fishery where tough decisions have to be made to ensure long-term stability.

Everyone benefits when there are enough fish.

Recreational fishermen have a chance to reel in the Big One. Commercial fishermen can rely on a stable income source. Chefs can feature fish as a reliable and readily available item. And consumers can enjoy fresh and sustainable American seafood.

At Ocean Conservancy, we are committed to working within the law to find solutions that support sustainable fisheries, coastal economies and the deep-rooted cultural traditions of fishing today and for the future.

We are standing up for fish and fishing, for people and our ocean. It’s the right thing to do.

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