Reading between the lines of the crazy red snapper saga playing out in the Gulf of Mexico, in state and federal agency offices and, now, in court rooms, one aspect appears obvious.
While the battle is far from over, there has been a shift in power with states gaining quite a bit on federal officials in the last few weeks.
Before we get up to date, let’s get a look at the players.
NOAA — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. agency in charge with managing offshore fisheries in federal waters.
NMFS — National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA’s inner agency that oversees fishing, and for purposes of today’s discussion we’re talking about the NMFS’ Southeast District and Roy Crabtree, the Southeast District’s administrator.
Florida, Texas and Louisiana, states that NMFS considers to be non-compliant with federal regulations because they each established state-specific seasons in their state waters.
Alabama and Mississippi, states that were compliant.
And, now, the blow by blow.
• For the better part of two decades, states have questioned the methodology behind NOAA’s estimates of fish stocks and annual harvests, numbers it uses in setting catch quotas and season lengths.
• Faced with three out of five states on the Gulf of Mexico proclaiming non-compliance with federal regulations this year, Crabtree gets the Gulf Council to grant him emergency powers with which he can exercise reductions in seasons, quotas or limits.
• NMFS establishes a 28-day season for the Gulf of Mexico, opening June 1. The limit is two per day per angler, with a 16-inch minimum length.
• Florida and Texas continue to have state-specific seasons, and Louisiana follows suit. Texas is the most liberal with a year-round season that allows four fish per day in state waters. Louisiana is second, announcing an 88-day weekend season in state waters open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, plus Mondays that fall on holidays. It began in late March and runs through September, and has a three-fish limit. Florida has a 44-day season that opened June 1 and allows two fish per day, 16 inches or more.
• Crabtree uses his emergency powers and shortens the Louisiana season in federal waters to nine total days, reduces Texas to 12 days and gives Florida 21 days. Crabtree’s rationale is that a reduced federal season is needed to offset the catch from the state-specific seasons. Mississippi and Alabama keep their 28-day seasons.
• Texas and Louisiana officials file suit, challenging Crabtree’s emergency powers and claiming the move is more punitive than biological.
• In Mississippi, which has no real red snapper fishery in its established state waters, the 2013 Legislature passes and Gov. Phil Bryant signs into law a bill that extends state waters from three miles south of the Barrier Islands to three marine leagues, giving the state about seven more miles of Gulf, an area that includes many established fishing reefs in water deep enough to attract snapper. Effective July 1, it needs approval from Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court, or it means little. (Louisiana did the same thing two years ago, and has not received federal recognition.)
• Louisiana opens its state season and begins extensive monitoring of fish brought to the dock and finds the actual catch is less than half of what federal estimates were. It submits its findings to the NMFS and to Crabtree, both still facing the lawsuits.
• Crabtree accepts the Louisiana numbers, recognizes the methodology as sound and on May 23 NOAA makes sweeping changes in the Gulf season. Mississippi and Alabama get six extra days for a 34-day season. Louisiana gets 15 days and climbs to 24 days. Texas gets five additional days and a 17-day season, and Florida climbs from 21 to 26 days.
• Mississippi’s Department of Marine Resources says it is pleased to have a 34-day season but doubts it will stick once the lawsuits are settled.
• On May 31, the combined lawsuits of Louisiana and Texas are heard in a U.S. District Court in Brownsville, Texas. Judge Andrew Hanen agrees point-by-point with Texas and Louisiana. He strikes down the emergency powers, scolds NOAA, NMFS and Crabtree for turning punitive, and rules that the season must be the same for all Gulf states.
• On Wednesday, NOAA resets the season to 28 days for all states, and Louisiana and Texas officials claim victory. For Louisiana, following its earlier success at proving federal estimates erroneous, it is the second major victory in two weeks.
• On Thursday, Louisiana’s fisheries secretary, Randy Pausina confirms that Crabtree and the NMFS have promised it would find “another closet of fish,” enough to establish a fall season of at least 20 days. Pausina says he was told it would include a four million pound quota.
That’s where we stand today, and the future is as unclear as ever.
Thursday’s revelation that federal officials have said they will find more fish tells me two things, one obvious and one not-so obvious. They were clearly rocked and left reeling by the results of the court decision, and, whether they meant to or not, they are sending a message that they aren’t so sure of their own numbers or can simply adjust them if they desire. Neither is good for their position.
Seriously, how can you just tell a state official that you are going to suddenly find more fish? Either they exist, or they don’t.
Making that kind of concession is dangerous for federal officials, since, by accepting Louisiana’s numbers from the weekend seasons, they have already admitted to one serious flaw in their methodology.
Basically they flinched in a toe-to-toe battle with states, and then took a serious right cross in court.
But, any weakness that they show now is trumped by the fact that, for the time being, they still hold the power to set seasons in federal waters. Their stance may be weakened, but it remains strong.
It also appears to me that federal officials believe they can maintain that strength by propagating fighting between the states.
“We can’t let them do that, pit us against each other, if that is their intention,” Pausina said. “I don’t want to think Mississippi holds it against us that we won that lawsuit and it shortened its season, any more than I want them to think we hold it against them for not joining us.
“I think the end-game for us, that all the Gulf States would like to see, is for states to gain more control of our own fisheries. We know our fish, we know our waters, and we know our fishermen. Louisiana has already proven that we can monitor our fishing better than they can. All of our states can. Every win we get takes us closer to that, so, no, we have to stick together.”
While the battle is far from over, there does appear to be more than a subtle shift in power.
Next year should be interesting.