It is not unusual for veterans of federal fishery management to marvel at the vastly different personalities of the various fishery management councils across the nation. Each region has its own distinct style of operation, and the New England Fishery Management Council has arguably held the title of most contentious arena given that region’s repeated groundfish disasters. However, an argument can be made of late that nothing compares to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.
In recent times, the Gulf Council has devolved to become the undisputed champion of dysfunction and acrimony. Packs of people roam the halls at Gulf Council meetings, plotting and scheming to influence proceedings. Public comment sessions at Gulf Council meetings routinely run for hours, as various factions try to convey the righteousness of their arguments by busing in overwhelming numbers to make three-minute statements. This happens occasionally at other fishery management bodies, but has become a regular feature in the Gulf. The August 2014 comment session in Biloxi ran from roughly 5 o’clock in the afternoon to 11 o’clock that night, a test of endurance for everyone involved, including the three peace officers brought in to keep things under control. This, despite the proclamation from a Louisiana Council member that public comments don’t matter because “we all know how we’re going to vote anyway.”
The drama of even a “normal” public comment session at the Gulf Council is always heightened by regular outbreaks of boos, cheers, groans, jeers and assorted other noises from the crowd.
The Council itself often resembles our dysfunctional, partisan, gridlocked Congress, particularly in its handling of the chaotic red snapper fishery. After years of inaction and ever-more draconian regulations, the Council lurched into a final vote over the controversial Amendment 40, which splits charter/for-hire businesses into their own sector and assigns them an allocation. It sets the stage for a catch share program for the charter/for-hire industry in which individual businesses will almost certainly end up owning a share of the fishery, much like the commercial sector in which roughly 380 people already own 51 percent of the entire fishery.
Before tackling a series of motions on Amendment 40 at the October 2014 meeting, NOAA Regional Administrator Roy Crabtree made an appeal to Council members for consensus and compromise. They then went on to decide various aspects of the most controversial and questionable amendment in recent times by votes of 9-8, 9-8, 12-5, 9-8, 9-8 and 10-7.
Council and NOAA staffers often lament the challenges and shortcomings of the Gulf Council and wonder aloud why it has devolved into such a mess. By comparison at this point, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council runs like a church service, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission like a military unit.
So what’s the difference? It’s not a mystery. The same motivation that pulled the New England Council into chaos is at work here – greed.
No council that manages fisheries with significant recreational participation is putting the amount of emphasis on catch shares and privatization as the Gulf Council. Since the creation of the commercial red snapper catch share program in 2007, the Gulf Council has become the place people come to grab their piece of the pie. The term “snapper baron” was coined to describe the massive transfer of wealth that occurred in the Gulf when that public resource was gifted and acquired by a select few commercial fishermen.
It isn’t so much about managing fisheries anymore in the Gulf; it’s about manipulating the system and positioning yourself to reap a windfall. It’s ugly because it’s about money, and when people see an opportunity to take ownership of a prized resource like red snapper or amberjack or grouper, the long knives come out.
Gulf Council and NOAA staff moan about the chaos, but their shepherding of this fishery and overt promotion of catch shares helped create it. If you choose to manage valuable public resources like a king dispensing favors, then you shouldn’t be surprised when respect and thoughtful discussion go right out the window. Everyone wants to be a winner and they’ll do anything to be the next millionaire.
If nothing derails Amendment 40, which until the Secretary of Commerce signs it is only a recommendation, the Gulf charter/for-hire industry is in for a tumultuous time. There is still no mechanism for how to allocate this pile of gold they’ve been given. Somehow, 1,300 boats from different regions are going to have to figure out how to divvy up millions of pounds of red snapper. If the Gulf Council is any indication, that won’t be a pretty process. Contrary to what many in that industry were led to believe, not everyone is going to be a winner.
NOAA staff can cluck and shake their heads over the chaos in the Gulf, but their own misguided management philosophy is at the root of it. Unfortunately, now we all have to live with it.