On Friday, a U.S. District Judge overturned an emergency rule cutting the red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) season in Federal waters off Louisiana and Texas, saying “the emergency rule was unlawfully promulgated under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.” The Magnusun-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is the primary piece of legislation informing marine fisheries management in the United States. The season for red snapper, a species severely overfished in the past but which is shown to be recovering well under fisheries management, opened yesterday in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
The emergency rule had been challenged in court when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries filed suit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in federal court. The objective of the suit was to block the regional administrator’s ability to reduce–through an emergency rule–the recreational red snapper season in federal waters off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
A Punitive End Run or Real Emergency?
In essence, Judge Andrew S. Hanen, of Brownsville, Texas overturned the emergency rule because it was 1) “not enacted in compliance with the required criteria for emergecy measures” and 2) “impermissibly discriminates against citizens of different states.” Toward the second point, Hanen made it clear that, in his opinion, the emergency rule was intended as a punitive measure aimed at punishing Texas and Louisiana for adopting regulations in state waters that were far less restrictive than proposed federal regulations. In his ruling, he wrote:
The only rationale, regardless as how one characterizes the underlying motive, behind the Emergency Rule is that NMFS is going to penalize the anglers living in states that enact fishing seasons that do not match the federal season and reward those that do. The NMFS (and the Secretary of Commerce) should not be in the business of penalizing states, and their citizens, merely because they exercised the very rights bestowed upon them by Congress.
Purpose of the Emergency Rule
Last year the recreational red snapper season in federal waters off the Gulf States was set at 46 days. This contrasted with a year-round season in Texas waters and an 88-day season in Louisiana waters. In February of this year, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council implemented (by a vote) an emergency rule that would allow the NMFS regional administrator to reduce the recreational red snapper season in federal waters off Texas to as few as 12 days and to nine days off Louisiana. The purpose of the reduction in fishing days was to reduce fishing pressure in federal waters off states that set less restrictive regulations than federal fisheries managers in order to continue to achieve longterm stock recovery goals.
Those in favor of more stringent regulations on the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery argue that at issue here is overall stock health. While many anglers are anecdotally reporting more snapper than they have seen in years, and therefore believe the regulations that have allowed the stock to recover should be loosened instead of tightened, some fisheries biologists believe a recreational season commensurate with recreational anglers’ desires is not in the best interests of the species.
Adult red snapper do not reach sexual maturity until they are more than a decade old, and as such, stock sustainability relies heavily not just on the number of fish present in the fishery but also on the age of those fish. While fisheries biologists generally agree with anglers that red snapper stock are recovering nicely, they worry many of the individual fish in the fishery are, in fact, immature fish. As Louisiana State University fisheries professor James Cowan puts it:
We’ve had this issue every single time in my experience, and I’ve been looking at this for 20-something years. I’ve seen this happen three or four times where we get a strong year-class and the biomass appears to ramp up quickly, as it has done recently, and we start seeing these fish in the fishery, and we increase the pressure on them. If the [Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management] Council would agree just one time when we have this sort of situation–when we have these strong year-classes produced–to protect those year-classes, we’d be much better off.
Under the emergency rule, the state-specific 2013 federal recreational red snapper fishing seasons were set as follows:
- Alabama and Mississippi: 28 days
- Florida: 21 days
- Texas: 12 days
- Louisiana: 9 days
The state-specific fishing seasons were, according to NOAA, meant to account for the additional fishing opportunities “afforded by the less restrictive red snapper regulations Texas, Louisiana and Florida implemented in state waters.”
Regardless of the ongoing debate, which has largely pitted the feds and fisheries biologists against state fisheries managers and anglers, the emergency rule is now void and “of no force and effect and shall not be enforced.”
UPDATE: (5 June) A uniform 2013 recreational red snapper season is now set for 28 days in the Gulf of Mexico. This increases the number of days federal fisheries managers were going to allow in federal waters off Texas, Louisiana and Florida and reduces the number of days (by six) that were going to be allowed in federal waters off Alabama and Mississippi.