This year’s federal red snapper season on the Gulf Coast is scheduled to begin a week from today. And it’s scheduled to end just 72 hours later.
That short season has outraged anglers and business owners on Alabama’s coast – and it has U.S. lawmakers scrambling to do something about it.
U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne represents Alabama’s 1st Congressional District, including the Gulf Coast. He’s been working on the red snapper season for years, and he’s one of five lawmakers currently petitioning Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to intervene and extend the season on an emergency basis.
Alex AuBuchon: Representative Byrne, how are these seasons determined in the first place?
Rep. Bradley Byrne: The waters of the United States are governed by the federal government -- there’s a federal agency called the National Marine Fisheries Service that collects the science, and then it informs these councils around the waters of the United States about the size of the fish stock and how much is being taken out.
In this particular case, the National Marine Fisheries Service is supposed to be providing information to the Gulf States Council on the size of the stock of the red snapper, and how many red snapper we’re catching every year.
The problem is the red snapper is a reef fish, and the National Marine Fisheries Service does not sample on reefs. So they’re dramatically undercounting the size of the stock. And we know from data that’s being collected from the Alabama Department of Conservation that they’re dramatically overstating the number of fish that are being caught. If you dramatically understate the size of the stock and dramatically overstate the number of fish that are being caught, you’re going to dramatically and unnecessarily limit the season to a very short period of time. And that’s what’s happened this year.
AA: What have you heard from your constituents about this year’s red snapper season?
BB: They are outraged. And they have every reason to be outraged, because they have a right to fish in the waters of the United States, and they’re being deprived of that right by junk science. Put junk science in, you’re going to get a bad result out, and that’s exactly what we’ve got here.
AA: You and other congressmen are petitioning the Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, to intervene. What power exactly does Secretary Ross have in this situation?
BB: Well, the National Marine Fisheries Service is under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is under the Commerce Department. So ultimately, [Ross] has the authority to say, on an emergency basis, that he’s going to grant some relief from one of these agencies’ orders.
Now, we know that would just be for one summer. I’m not asking him to unilaterally fix this thing on his own, because we do need to have a legislative fix. But it would certainly give us time to get that put together, if we could get him to give us a regular season this summer. At least give us a three-day weekend for each of the weekends between now and Labor Day.
AA: Speaking of a legislative fix, what exactly are you working on in Congress to find a more permanent solution for this issue?
BB: Well, in the last Congress, the House passed a bill with my language in it that would take the science away from the National Marine Fisheries Service and give more leeway to the Gulf States Council. It passed the House, and was never taken up in the Senate. So we had a problem in the Senate.
That bill has been reintroduced this year, again with my language. I anticipate it will pass the House. If we can get it to pass the Senate, where the problem is, then this will get appropriate science back in the hands of regional people, people on the upper Gulf Coast, who know that we have plenty of red snapper out there, and that there’s plenty of fish to go around to all the three sectors that are out there fishing, the commercial, the charter boat, and the recreational anglers.
AA: Something else that’s occurred is extending Alabama’s state water boundary further offshore. Can you talk about that process?
BB: Up until a year ago, different states on the Gulf Coast had different miles out that were their state waters. Alabama had a 2 mile limit, and other states had a 9 mile limit. What Sen. Shelby and I did was make it a uniform 9 miles up and down the coast. Now, we did that through an appropriations bill, so it was only good for that one year. What we did recently is make it permanent. So it’s permanent now that Alabama has control of its nine mile waters. And that’s given people that fish for snapper in those 9 mile Alabama waters a much longer season.
The problem is, most of these reefs that these snapper are on are outside that 9 mile limit. So we’ve got to do something about this at the federal level to give us a real red snapper season.
AA: More generally, why is the red snapper season such a major priority for you in Congress?
BB: For me, legislatively, it’s one of the top three issues that I work on. And we work on it day in and day out. There’s almost not a day that I’m here in Congress that we’re not working on it.
And the reason I do that is twofold. First, there is a constitutional right for individuals to fish in the waters of the United States, and the federal government does not have a right to stop people from doing that by using bad science.
But number two, this has an enormous economic impact. Not just in Orange Beach, where we have most of these charter boats, but all across the Gulf Coast, and I know people all over Alabama that fish for red snapper. So this has an enormous economic impact on the state, and I just don’t find it acceptable that a federal agency is keeping us from being able to generate that sort of economic growth for the whole state, using bad science.