Feds lengthen red snapper season despite risk of harm
Move traced in memos settles disputes with states, angers environmental groups
WASHINGTON Internal memos show top Trump administration officials knew extending the recreational fishing season in the Gulf of Mexico from three days to 42 this summer would lead to significant overfishing. But they did it anyway. In memos released in response to a lawsuit, Commerce Department officials defended the move by saying that keeping the threeday season would be “devastating” to the recreational marine industry and the communities whose economies are tied to it.
And extending the time would also help solve a long-running dispute with states that have much longer seasons and want to wrest control of red snapper management from federal managers, they argued.
“It would result in overfishing of the stock by six million pounds (40%), which will draw criticism from environmental groups and commercial fishermen,” Earl Comstock, director of Policy and Strategic Planning for Commerce, conceded in a June 1 memo to his boss, Secretary Wilbur Ross. “However NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) agrees that this stock could handle this level on a temporary basis.”
And, Comstock said in the memo, there was little opponents could do because the law governing federal fisheries — the Magnuson-Stevens Act — prevents a judge from issuing a temporary restraining order, “so your action would remain in effect for at least 45 days before a court could act.”
Ross, whose department oversee federal fisheries, announced the extension two weeks later.
Comstock’s memo, as well as one that he wrote to Ross on June 7 laying out the rationale for an extension, was filed by the government in response to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against the Commerce secretary by Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund. A judge could rule by the end of the year.
The environmental groups say the memos prove Commerce officials intentionally violated the Magnuson-Stevens Act by extending the season in the federal waters off five states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — when they knew it would lead to overfishing.
“We now have alarming proof that the Department of Commerce knew their decision was illegal, would result in overfishing, and would hurt fishermen by causing significant reductions in fishing next year,” said Meredith Moore, director of the Fish Conservation Program at the Ocean Conservancy. “We need solutions that keep our oceans healthy for the long term, not short-term work-arounds that bypass the law and benefit some at the cost of others.”
A Commerce Department spokesman declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.
For several years, wrangling over who gets to fish for red snapper has pitted federal managers against state regulators, commercial fishing interests against recreational anglers, and sportsmen against environmentalists — all arguing over how much can be pulled out of the water while still helping the stock rebound to full health.
The decision to extend the season marked another defeat for environmentalists who have watched President Trump pull out of the Paris accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions, propose deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, and move to open more offshore waters to oil and gas drilling.
Commercial fishing interests and charter boat captains didn’t like the extension, fearing it could add to overfishing and eat into their quotas.
But recreational anglers view the extended federal season as simply restoring balance after years of what they saw as overly restrictive catch limits imposed by the Obama administration, given the abundance of red snapper they have been seeing in the water.
“We need solutions that keep our oceans healthy for the long term.”
Meredith Moore, director of the Fish Conservation Program at the Ocean Conservancy
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross