The natural resources in the Gulf of Mexico are plentiful but limited. Because of high commercial and sports fisherman demand, one fish, the red snapper, is hotly contested. Red Snapper is a saltwater fish which thrives in rigs, wrecks, natural shelves and reefs in deep water. Adult red snapper seldom venture more than 20 miles unless caught in currents.

The five Gulf States independently control and manage fishing within nine miles off shore. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oversees management of fishing in federal waters out to the 200-mile limit.

Before 1990, the red snapper population was rapidly depleting and landings were in decline. All fishermen agreed something needed to be done to replenish the fishery. One solution was to limit the number of red snapper permits issued to commercial vessels and to reduce the number of fish that could be caught. Initially NOAA established “catch share” limits on the number of fish landings, splitting it 51 percent to 49 percent between the commercial and recreational sectors.

In 1992, NOAA attempted reducing the size of the commercial fishery by establishing a three-year moratorium on the issuance of new commercial fishing permits. In order to qualify for existing permits, vessels needed to demonstrate they caught 5,000 pounds of red snapper in two of three years. Vessels that didn’t qualify, most of who were part time fishermen were given a 200-pound limit. At the time, 133 (2,000 pound) and 579 (200 pound) commercial permits were issued.

From the late 1990s to 2007, commercial red snapper fishing in the Gulf was brutal. Fish stocks were continuing to decline and the limits on how many could be caught on each trip caused undue stress on the boats, equipment, and crews. Additionally, commercial fishing was only allowed during the first 10 days of the month regardless of weather and fishing conditions.

2007 ushered in the era of Individual Fish Quotas. IFQs were initiated at the urging of many commercial fishermen. In order to participate in the IFQ program owners were required to demonstrate they had been fishing between 1990-2004 and the extent of their allocation was based upon their best ten years during the qualifying period. Because these fishermen paid no fees or royalties for their allocations, we’ve been told some people — including the federal government — have said their shares were “gifted” to them. Others have said it took hard work over many years to qualify and that IFQs are only granting the “opportunity” to fish, not a guarantee of actually catching them.

After the establishment of IFQs, NOAA then cut the allowable catch limits by 50 percent across the board which — although designed to speed the replenishment of the fishery — made it more difficult for those with smaller allocations to remain commercially viable.

According to NOAA, the distribution of landings has remained similar both before and after IFQ’s. The top 25 percent of the landings were caught by 2 percent of the vessels. The bottom 25 percent of the landings was caught by 87 percent of the vessels while 46 percent of the bottom 25 percent landed less than 500 pounds each.

Editor’s note: The Three Musketeers say they have spent the past five weeks interviewing red snapper fishermen from all sectors. This is the first of a five-part series which delves into some of the issues and possible solutions to the management of red snapper on the Gulf Coast.

Bill Sargent, Mark Mansius and John Gay are writing a series of columns on timely issues for today. All three ran in the 14th Congressional District primary.

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