Feds lengthen red snap­per sea­son de­spite risk of harm

Move traced in memos set­tles dis­putes with states, angers en­vi­ron­men­tal groups

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Led­yard King

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

AN­THONY WAL­LACE,

Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross

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