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Statement: Court closes door on repeat of illegal Gulf red snapper season

 Agreement to keep court oversight is reached in lawsuit against Department of Commerce

The following statements were issued by Ocean Conservancy’s Chris Dorsett, Environmental Defense Fund’s Robert E. Jones, and Earthjustice’s Andrea A. Treece in response to Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s decision to issue a stay in their lawsuit against the Department of Commerce. Ocean Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund filed a lawsuit in the District Court of D.C. against the Department of Commerce for its decision to illegally extend the 2017 private recreational red snapper fishing season in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chris Dorsett, Vice President of Conservation Policy and Programs, Ocean Conservancy

“America’s fisheries need to stay on the path to recovery – benefitting fishermen and coastal communities across the country.  Ocean Conservancy filed this lawsuit to ensure we stay on this path, and that we don’t slide back into the bad old days of allowing overfishing on important stocks like red snapper. The decision by the judge to maintain jurisdiction over the recreational red snapper season for 2018 is an important step in ensuring that future management decisions are focused on sustainability and accountability, for the benefit of both the fish and fishermen.

“Hard work, sacrifice and good decisions have helped restore red snapper and bring stability to fishing-dependent businesses, but we’re only halfway through the rebuilding plan. The Department of Commerce must commit to managing fairly and accountably for all fishermen, and return to making science-based decisions that deliver healthy fisheries for the benefit of fishermen and coastal communities. Commerce needs to focus on rebuilding trust with stakeholders after this short-sighted decision. Under this stay, we will continue working with fishermen and other stakeholders to explore innovative management and data collection solutions while ensuring that Gulf red snapper is rebuilt on time and kept healthy for generations of fishermen to come.”

Robert E. Jones, Director, Gulf of Mexico Oceans Program, Environmental Defense Fund 

“This is an important outcome for the future of the Gulf’s red snapper fishery and the coastal communities that depend on it. The federal government has asserted before the Court that it will not illegally extend the season again, so now we can get back to work fixing the issues that cause short and inconsistent seasons for recreational anglers.  At the same time, the stay leaves the Court as a guardian to watch for any further illegal actions so the case can be reinvigorated to prevent overfishing and ensure rebuilding stays on track.

“We want to see broken recreational management fixed in a way that promotes flexible access for anglers while protecting the balance amongst all user groups. Solutions must include safeguards that adhere to the best available science and prevent overfishing because I do not want to return to the days of my childhood in Corpus Christi when we could barely find red snapper to catch. We have come too far to throw all of this progress out the window.”

Andrea A. Treece, Staff Attorney, Oceans Programs, Earthjustice

“The Department of Commerce essentially conceded the illegality of its actions by failing to defend the case on the merits. With judicial oversight, this action won’t be repeated next year – Commerce is now on notice that it cannot play fast and loose with the future of our fisheries. We will be watching Commerce’s actions carefully to make sure they respect the law and make fishery management decisions based on science—in this fishery and others around the country.”

NOTES TO EDITORS (sources for all facts and figures available on request):

  • In June, the Department of Commerce added 39 additional fishing days to this year’s private recreational angling season for the Gulf of Mexico red snapper. In its announcement, Commerce acknowledged that fishing at these levels for just one year could extend the rebuilding period for this vulnerable stock by as much as six years. This action was contrary to our nation’s fishing law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
  • The 2017 illegally-extended season concluded on September 4. With only partial data available (due to reporting delays), the private recreational sector has already caught at least 156% of its annual catch limit. [Landings data here] The combined red snapper fishery, which includes commercial, for-hire, and private recreational anglers, has not experienced overfishing since 2011; we anticipate this year’s private recreational overages will drive the fishery back over that brink.
  • The Gulf of Mexico red snapper stock is in a rebuilding plan, after overfishing drove it to just 3% of its historic levels. Red snapper is just under halfway through a 27-year rebuilding plan and it is critical for Gulf fishermen and Gulf communities that we meet the deadline of having a healthy stock by 2032.

BACKGROUND:

  • Ocean Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund filed the complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on July 17, 2017. Earthjustice is representing Ocean Conservancy.
  • On June 19, 2017, political appointees at the Department of Commerce re-opened the private angler red snapper recreational fishing season in the Gulf of Mexico. This action added an additional 39 days of fishing on to the already completed 3-day season. In the Federal Register announcement of the decision, the Department of Commerce stated, “the approach will necessarily mean that the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit, which was designed to prevent overfishing the stock.” The notice further states that, “this approach may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as six years.”
  • The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the law that manages our nation’s fisheries, requires science-based annual catch limits, set at levels that prevent overfishing, and that vulnerable fish populations be rebuilt to healthy levels in as short a time as possible.
  • The red snapper fishery is targeted by both commercial and recreational fishermen. Each year, based on scientific advice from an expert panel, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council sets an annual catch limit for the total amount of catch that can be sustainably caught while preventing overfishing and achieving the rebuilding target. Commercial fishermen are allocated 51 percent of that limit, and have successfully stayed within their quota for the last decade. Recreational fishermen are allocated 49 percent of the quota, and have exceeded their quota 7 out of the last 10 years.
  • Recent management decisions have allowed the for-hire component of the recreational fishery (captains who take individual, paying anglers out on a fishing trip) to develop separate management that is keeping them in their limit. The private recreational component of the fishery continues to struggle to fish within its sustainable limit.

Ocean Conservancy is working to protect the ocean from today’s greatest global challenges. Together with our partners, we create science-based solutions for a healthy ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on it. For more information, visit oceanconservancy.org, or follow us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships. Connect with us on EDF VoicesTwitter and Facebook.

Earthjustice, the nation’s premier nonprofit environmental law organization, wields the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. Because the earth needs a good lawyer. Earthjustice.org