Author Archives: Jack Sterne

Time to end the sniping over snapper

red snapper fishing

Photo Credit: GulfWild

The short seasons, decreasing bag limits and failing management of the recreational red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico has everyone that cares about the fishery upset.  States are demanding changes from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), lawsuits have been filed, contentious proposals are before the Gulf Council and Congress has started to look into the matter.

As always, a war of words is underway online and in the press – some of it is outrageous.  Whenever the issue comes up that management is failing for recreational fishing, the Recreational Fishing Alliance tries to change the subject by promoting outlandish conspiracy theories and allegations.  Most of these are aimed at EDF. We’re used to that by now.

They also attack mainstream anglers, because mainstream anglers such as the Coastal Conservation Association talk about the real issues – at least part of the time.  CCA this week followed in the wake of the latest spasm from RFA, suggesting that EDF is backing a lawsuit filed by commercial fishermen.  We are not.

We want recreational fishermen to be successful.  We want the same thing for commercial fishermen and have made great progress working with that sector, including with the commercial fishermen who filed the lawsuit.  While we cannot blame them for suing, it is not of our doing.  We are working towards a management solution that is sustainable for the red snapper fishery and works for all parties involved. Here are the facts about EDF’s position on the recreational red snapper fishery and the recent lawsuit filed by commercial fishermen over NMFS’s mismanagement of it:

  1. EDF is neither a plaintiff in this lawsuit nor are we funding it.
  2. We agree with CCA and RFA that the short seasons and bag limits that are robbing the recreational side of the red snapper fishery stink and punish everyone, and we’re eager to discuss solutions.  Regional management has been offered by CCA and other anglers as an alternative, and we agree that states are well-positioned to manage private anglers.  Yet, the current proposals need significant changes in order to truly improve recreational management. Finding the ways that regional management could work is what we should be talking about.
  3. EDF is proud of its work with commercial fishermen, many of whom are parties to the lawsuit, to implement the red snapper IFQ for the commercial fishery, which has been a major factor in ending commercial overfishing and rebuilding the red snapper stock.
  4. EDF wants to sustain and improve the valuable economic engine of all fishing, commercial and recreational.  The commercial red snapper fishery adds enormous economic value throughout the Gulf, employing workers in fish-processing, trucking, restaurants, retail outlets and numerous other businesses large and small.  Recreational fishing, of which red snapper is a small part, also employs workers and brings revenue to the Gulf, as does all fishing and tourism combined.
  5. Whether you like to eat red snapper in a restaurant, buy it at the store or catch it yourself, you need the entire fishery to be economically successful and sustainable.  The red snapper IFQ program has directly led to both those results on the commercial side.  It’s past time to find a solution for the recreational side.

We think it’s time to talk about new solutions that can actually begin to solve some of the problems facing the fishery.  EDF’s Gulf of Mexico Director, Pam Baker, recently laid out some of those solutions, including delegating authority to the states to implement programs like harvest tags and angler management organizations, in testimony to Congress on the red snapper situation.  You can read Pam’s statement and her testimony here.

EDF is committed to continuing our work with all parties, especially anglers, to find a solution that meets recreational goals, complies with the law and rebuilding targets, and preserves the long-term benefits provided by this shared public resource.

 

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A Big Step Forward for Better Rigs To Reef Management

A large group of chub (Kyphosus sp.) school under the platform. Photo: Schmahl/FGBNMS (From NOAA)

As I’ve written before, the Rigs to Reefs permitting process of the federal and state agencies in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example of “finding ways that work.”  This cooperative process enables the owners of oil and gas platforms to use those structures to support artificial reefs.  In fact, this means the rigs continue serving as artificial reefs because they have already attracted fish, coral, and other marine life as the rigs produced oil or gas.

Over the past few years, the issue of rig removal has become a heated topic among anglers as the federal government undertook more aggressive measures to remove retired rigs.  The officials responsible for safe retirement of end-of-service rigs and the anglers and divers who benefit from the marine life around those rigs have been at odds over the best ways to maintain reef habitats while also providing for other uses of the Gulf. That tension was reduced this week when the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a division of the Department of Interior, issued a new policy addressing several sticking points that arose in recent years.  Most of the log jam has been caused by basic questions of process:  how many rigs would remain as reef habitat, where would they be placed, and how would they be secured?

The pressure built as the number of rigs reaching the end of their productive life and the end of their leases began to rise.  Starting in 2005, the number of applications for removals spiked, and Hurricane Katrina damaged even more platforms and disrupted existing artificial reefs.  These pressures complicated the challenge for the Department of Interior to assure safe disposition of an increasing number of platforms.

In 2010 – after the Deepwater Horizon disaster – the department issued a notice to lease-holders that it was modifying procedures to ensure faster removals in the interest of safety.  Anglers and divers began to see more rigs being removed, and many were removed using explosives that would leave hundreds of dead fish floating in the wake of the project.

The clamor, however, also involved effective coordination among all concerned.  The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, working with the White House National Ocean Council, the other cabinet agencies, scientists, and stakeholders, developed changes to policy that will ease the process.  Sportsmen groups such as the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation played a leading role.  EDF, after stepping forward as an early supporter of revising the 2010 policy, encouraged and supplied data to these discussions.  We are proud to say that we were the only major ENGO to speak out for the interests of anglers in this debate.

The most important features of the new policy are that it drops the requirement for distance between reef sites, adds an allowance for creating a reef where a rig currently stands, and extends deadlines for removal for platform owners seeking approval for a reefing project.

This improved approach is a step in the right direction, and we are hopeful that it will lead to better fish habitat, populations, and recreational opportunities.  It is especially welcome as reef-fish issues and red snapper management in particular are hot topics in the Gulf right now.

Congratulations are due to all those who are dedicated to finding ways that work.

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Moratorium on Rig Removal Necessary While More Research is Done

The United States Senate is likely to pass what has been called by some the most significant sportsmen legislation in a generation.  The Sportsmen’s Act (S. 3525) includes a directive to Departments of Interior and Commerce along with other federal and state agencies to report to Congress on the removing of oil rigs no longer in use but where coral and fish populations have taken over the structure.  The version that is set to pass the Senate does not stop the removal process, which is already destroying coral and fish, while Congress examines this issue.

It’s true we need some better information on how rigs become artificial reefs and which are chosen and how many we need for important fish habitat, but we already know that rigs provide important habitat for fish and sensitive coral populations. That fact will not change with more studies. Government agencies have recently offered some basic information on where the rigs are and which ones become reefs so it’s clear the agencies are starting to get organized, but in the meantime, let’s stop destroying these good fishing spots and coral ecosystems.  These decommissioned rigs are important to anglers in the Gulf of Mexico and it is possible that their existence is not only beneficial to fish populations, but that their removal may cause real harm.

The federal government needs to stop removing rigs while we develop the process.  We will continue to work with the administration, other fishermen and the oil industry to find a way that works.

 

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Update: Policy-Makers Taking Notice on Rigs to Reefs

A large group of chub (Kyphosus sp.) school under the platform. Photo: Schmahl/FGBNMS (From NOAA)

Despite a lot of bad weather and the end of red snapper season, fishing is heating up in the Gulf of Mexico. Fishing isn’t the only thing that’s hot, though, as the debate over removing non-producing oil rigs in the Gulf is also going at a fever pitch.

I wrote back in late April about the current controversy regarding plans by the Department of Interior (DOI) for the expedited removal of these retired rigs.  Lots of recreational fishermen oppose this policy, because the underwater structure creates a reef habitat for fish – nice for the fish – but also a great target for fishermen.

Several actions are underway to ensure that removal is just an option and that artificial reefing is also an option.  As I mentioned in that previous post, Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana have introduced bills in Congress.  Since then, there was a proposal to amend the Farm Bill with a provision on rigs and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is continuing the process to designate the retired rigs as “essential fish habitat.”  Also, other members of Congress, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, state fisheries managers and sportfishing groups have all written letters to Secretary Ken Salazar seeking at least a delay in implementing outright removals and, ideally, a new policy altogether.

EDF is helping call attention to these proposals and requests. In our meetings and conversations with staff at the White House and Department of Interior it has been clear that confusion is a big stumbling block.  We all need better numbers and information about what is going on.  What seems to many to be a deadline for removal is, to the government, only a requirement to file a plan for either reefing or removal.  Boat captains have tallied removals that they have seen, and the agency has different numbers.  Read More »

Posted in EDF Oceans General, Gulf of Mexico, Ocean Energy | Tagged , , | Comments closed

Our National Marine Sanctuaries Are Ready For Anglers

Kids fishing on the seawall as a part of the "Hook Kids On Fishing Event" at the kickoff.

Kids fishing on the seawall as a part of the "Hook Kids On Fishing Event" at the kickoff.

Navigating the rules of recreational fishing can be difficult sometimes; and most anglers strive to be responsible stewards of the ocean’s resource.  That’s why many have avoided fishing our national marine sanctuaries.

As it turns out, fishing is allowed in the majority of our nation’s marine sanctuaries along with diving, surfing and other recreational activities.  In fact, anglers can fish in 98% of the designated sanctuaries along our coastlines.

Environmental Defense Fund believes that the best environmental policies find a way, when possible, to protect important resources while maintaining access for individuals or businesses.  Our National Marine Sanctuaries are great examples of that, and that’s why we are a proud sponsor of the National Marine Sanctuary Classic.

The Classic is a free summer-long fishing and photo contest taking place in four National Marine Sanctuaries: Channel Islands and Monterey Bay, CA on the west coast and the Florida Key, FL and Gray’s Reef, GA on the east coast. Read More »

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