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Rules would restrict fishing around Gulf coral reefs

Some commercial anglers are worried that proposed new federal rules restricting harvesting methods near designated coral reefs will cut their catches.

The restrictions are necessary, however, to prevent bad practices and generally protect reef habitats essential to having any fish to catch, one supporter of the new rules argues.

The proposed rules, five years in the making and in the final stages of public comment, would apply to reefs designated as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern by the National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The fisheries service drafted the guidelines in cooperation with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, made up of recreational and commercial fishermen and others from five Gulf Coast states, including Texas.

Three of the areas designated for new regulations are in northwestern Gulf waters, where Texas commercial fishermen ply for deep-sea fish.

In those areas, fishermen would be prohibited from using bottom-tending gear and from anchoring vessels on the Gulf’s bottom.

Such gear, which includes otter trawls and dredges, are used on or near the ocean bottom to capture fish or other marine species.

The rules would undermine commercial yields, said Buddy Guindon, a Galveston-based commercial fisherman who works closely with the council.

“We want protected areas,” Guindon said. “But they draw a square box around these areas rather than try to protect coral caps and that area can be huge, many miles of area.

“By making these big boxes around the area, it allows us no access to the point where the mud and hard bottom meet, where we fish. It will be damaging to our businesses.”

G.P. Schmahl, director of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and a consultant on the coral studies that went into the proposal, sees it differently, including how the areas in question have been mapped.

The mapmakers tried to follow contours of reef bottoms, outlining a safety zone beyond the edges to prevent bottom-line fishing practices from “weed-whacking” parts of reefs, he said.

“In some cases, we identified areas threatened by inappropriate fishing techniques,” Schmahl said. “In others, the deep-water reefs we designated, there’s no real fishing there.”

These very deep reefs, that can only be seen by submersibles or remotely-operated vehicles, are extremely important fishery habitat but are different than what people typically think of as a coral reef and important to fish populations in the Gulf, Schmahl said.

Advisors initially identified 47 of the most important coral reef areas in the Gulf of Mexico, then focused down to 15 priority areas designated as areas of particular concern where new regulations will apply and eight deep-water areas without fishing regulations assigned.

“Obviously, I’m very much in favor of seeing this go forward,” Schmahl said. “I think it would take a pretty substantial public comment to derail it at this point.”

Guindon serves on the Flower Garden Banks advisory board and is concerned about the health of the marine sanctuary, a large protected reef about 100 miles offshore from Galveston, as well as other coral reefs that serve as essential fish habitat necessary for spawning, breeding, feeding and growing large salt water species, he said.

But earlier discussions of the new regulations, referred to as Coral Amendment No. 9, would have allowed historical access to commercial fishing around these designated reefs, then switched toward more restrictive regulations allowing no bottom-tending, he said.

“There was a change in opinion of the council, and that’s something we’re kind of taken by,” Guindon said. “It’s gonna change the way we have to fish and decrease the productivity of our fisheries.”

Bottom anchoring will ultimately be eliminated as a restriction when commercial fleets all turn to newer electronic systems of staying in position without anchoring, a cost commercial fleets will have to bear, he said.

“The bottom-tending part will limit access to fisheries that aren’t being fully caught, like grouper and others that are available to catch,” he said.

“That means there will be less fish on the market.”

Concerns about the productivity of the fishery and protection of their essential habitat, coral reefs, are pretty much inseparable, Schmahl said.

“There’s always a give and take between industry and efforts to protect future fish populations and habitat,” he said.

Guindon agreed with the sentiment but not with the method.

“Everybody wants to protect corals, and everybody wants to eat fish,” he said. “We’d just like them to use more common sense in their approach to protecting reefs.”

CCISD keeps start times steady for next year


The start of classes will stay the same for all Clear Creek Independent School District students next year, the district’s board of trustees decided late Monday.

The board in a 4-3 vote sided with Superintendent Greg Smith’s recommendation to keep the same class schedule for the next school year, ending a discussion that began months ago when some parents asked whether students, those in high school in particular, would be better off if their days began later.

“I view this recommendation not as standing still, but as moving forward,” board President Laura DuPont said.

As part of Smith’s recommendation, the district will also conduct an internal review of how homework is assigned, offer high school students more schedule personalization when possible and explore longer lunches in high school, among other changes.

“As trustees, we have the privilege and responsibility of making decisions that are for everyone,” Trustee Arturo Sanchez said. “I would ask that everyone continue to stay engaged, and that we continue to consider alternative options.”

A contingent of parents had petitioned district administrators to push back the start of high school days, arguing that studies show student perform better at that age when they begin the day later because of their sleep and circadian rhythms.

The National Sleep Foundation, for instance, cites research showing adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation caused, in part, by the fact that high school classes tend to start too early in the morning. Researchers argue later sleep and wake patterns among adolescents are biologically determined.

Some of those recommending later start times were not pleased with Monday’s decision.

“I do not envy your position,” said David Brady, a parent, to trustees. “But I cannot support keeping the status quo.”

A district committee had been weighing several different proposals on what to do about campus schedules next school year — begin the day about 20 minutes later than it does now, keep the start times the same, or begin high schools at 8:30 a.m. Ultimately, the committee ended up thoroughly divided and couldn’t reach a consensus during a final meeting in October.

Administrators have been open to the possibility of changing the start times, but asked committee members to consider the different options in light of logistical concerns, such as bus schedules.

About 11 committee members favored keeping the current schedule, another eight favored the version that would push back start times by 20 minutes and seven wished for the one that would start high school classes at 8:30 a.m., according to the report presented to the trustees.

With the committee ultimately deferring on a recommendation, the choice, instead, fell to trustees.

Trustees were divided, with some saying it’s hard to pin student achievement on just one issue. Still, others said change comes slowly, and advocated for the conversation to continue.

Trustees Jennifer Broddle and Scott Bowen, however, voted against the measure, voicing disapproval beforehand.

“I was convinced fairly early on of the science saying it will improve students’ mental health,” Bowen said. “And I’m not aware of studies showing the opposite.

“So, what I was hoping is that the side against the change would bring some sort of data or information showing the cost of making such a move,” Bowen said. “But with all the comments, I never really saw that. Which left me wondering, is the case against it that strong?”

Elementary schools in the county’s largest school district begin each class day at 7:55 a.m. and finish at 3:15 p.m. High schools begin at 7:10 a.m. and end at 2:30 p.m., and intermediate schools start the latest, at 8:40 a.m., and end at 4 p.m.

Each possibility had a minimum of 45 minutes between school start times and adhered to the state law that a school year must be 75,600 minutes.

Coming Wednesday

A League City oil company supplier is suing two former employees, among others. Find out why in The Docket.

County to back out of opioid negotiating group


Galveston County will not join a group of city and county governments negotiating a settlement to a nationwide lawsuit against makers and distributors of prescription opioid drugs.

Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to opt out of attempts to settle the National Prescription Opiates Litigation lawsuit, an effort to hold drug manufacturers and distributors responsible for the national drug epidemic that plagued the country over the past 10 years.

Hundreds of local governments and other entities, such as hospitals, have accused pharmaceutical companies of downplaying the addictive nature of opioids and prescription painkillers largely blamed for one of the deadliest drug crises in U.S. history. Opioids include prescription and illicit drugs.

The decision doesn’t mean the county is abandoning its lawsuit, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said. Rather, the county will work with the Texas Attorney General’s Office to reach a different settlement with the drug companies, Henry said.

“We decided that we didn’t want to be part of this group any more, because this group could have a binding effect on other entities, and we had a window to get out of it,” Henry said.

Commissioners thought the county’s interests would be better served by bowing out of the large litigation, Henry said.

“We’re going to take a seat with the state of Texas and let them do the heavy lifting,” he said.

The county had until Nov. 22 to decide to stay in or leave the negotiation effort.

It was still unclear Monday how near the negotiating group was to a final settlement, which the group had estimated might be for $1 billion.

It wasn’t the amount of settlement money, but control of the settlement details that was the issue, Henry said.

The group estimated Galveston County would be in line to receive $500,000 from the settlement of that amount, Henry said.

“We think somewhere between $200,000 and $500,000 is what we would expect to get, we think that’s a reasonable settlement,” Henry said.

The county might use any future settlement money for drug treatment programs, Henry said. There also was a case to be made, however, for reimbursing the county for expenses incurred because of the opioid epidemic.

“We’ve already spent all this money hauling these people to the hospital,” Henry said. “Hauling these people to jail, keeping them in jail. We already spent the funds up front.”

The number of drug prescriptions in Galveston County appeared to peak in the late 2000s, according to data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

In 2008, there there 99.8 retail opioid prescriptions for every 100 people in Galveston County, according to the CDC. By 2017, that rate had declined to 70.5 prescriptions per 100 people, according to the CDC.

Nationally, the number of opioid prescription per 100 people peaked in 2012, at a rate of 81.3 prescriptions, though in some places the rates were much higher. In Alabama in 2012, for instance, there were 143.8 prescriptions for every 100 people.

The county’s decision to exclude itself falls in line with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who, along with a group of other state attorneys general, earlier this year objected to the creation of a negotiating class.

U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster created the class to consolidate cases against opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers accused of fueling the nationwide opioid crisis.

Paxton and the other state attorneys argued that a negotiating class made up of local governments violates state sovereignty laws.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan confirmed Monday to Bloomberg news service that Texas’ most populated county also was opting out of the negotiating class.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.