A federal judge last week tossed out federal rules that increased the annual quota for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, siding with commercial fishermen who said the federal government hasn’t been vigilant in enforcing limits on the amount of red snapper caught by recreational fishermen.
Judge Barbara Rothstein of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that three regulations increasing the red snapper quota were “arbitrary, capricious and in violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Act.”
The action was sought by a group of commercial fishermen and related businesses along the Gulf Coast. Included among the plaintiffs were 10 Galveston County residents and companies.
The plaintiffs argued that the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council passed rules increasing the red snapper quota three times in 2013, despite data that showed that recreational fishermen exceeded their quota consistently.
The plaintiffs also argued that the fisheries service failed to put in required measures to hold the recreational fishery sector accountable for the overages.
“Litigation was not our first choice, but the agency’s mismanagement posed a real threat to the entire red snapper fishery, and to the businesses dependent on it,” said Buddy Guindon, a commercial red snapper fisherman from Galveston.
“We look forward to working with NMFS and the Gulf Council to solve a long-standing issue in this fishery, the need for accountability measures in the recreational sector.”
It was unclear whether the fisheries service would appeal the decision. A message left for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, was not returned Friday.
Under the summary judgment, the fisheries service must have regulations and accountability measures in place to keep the recreational fishery from exceeding its allotment of red snapper by June.
After years of overfishing had put the future of the Gulf’s red snapper fishery in jeopardy, the fisheries service in 2004 approved plan to rebuild fish stocks by 2032.
Commercial fishermen participate in an Individual Fishing Quota system, in which individual fishermen are allotted a portion of the total allowed catch and cease fishing after catching that allotment. Recreational fishermen are allowed to keep two fish each day, as long as the fish is at least 16 inches long. Captains and hired boat crew cannot keep any fish.
Federal regulations require that the annual quota for red snapper, known as the total allowable catch, is divided in a 51/49 percent split between the commercial and recreational sectors. Commercial fishermen include those who sell fish to seafood markets and restaurants. Recreational fishermen include charter services, party boats and individual fishermen.
But by the federal government’s own calculations, the recreational fishery sector caught more than its allotment in 2012 and 2013.
The fisheries service each year determines how long the red snapper season will be. It has the option of reopening the fishery later in the year if it determines that not enough red snapper have been caught to fill the quota.
In her opinion, Rothstein ruled that the fisheries service proposed reopening the fishery late in 2013 if the quota was not filled. In August, the fisheries service received data that said the quota had been met and exceeded, but reopened the season anyway.
“The agency’s decision doesn’t make sense,” she wrote.