A prediction by U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne that extending the recreational red snapper season would likely prompt a legal challenge from environmentalists has proven true, as two advocacy groups prepare to take legal action in Washington D.C.
On Monday, the environmental groups Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) filed a lawsuit aimed at preventing extensions to the federal snapper season like the one approved in June in a long-sought compromise between the Gulf states and the Department of Commerce.
Federal officials extended the recreational snapper season to allow fishing in federal waters on the weekends through Sept. 4 in exchange for reduced fishing in state waters. The agreement followed the setting of a historically low three-day season, prompting outrage from fishermen and public officials on the Gulf Coast.However, the increased access to the Gulf’s snapper fisheries appears to have concerned some in the environmental community, who contend the once-depleted stock of the popular sport fish needs more time to rebound despite improvements in its population in recent years.
According to Chris Dorsett, vice president of conservation policy and programs at Ocean Conservancy, the fishery is only “halfway through” a rebuilding plan intended to replenish a population that, at one point, was down to just three percent of its normal levels.
On Monday, Dorsett compared the federal government’s decision to extend the 2017 season to a patient who “stops taking antibiotics” in the middle of a prescription.
“Ocean Conservancy made the very difficult decision to sue because ultimately, this is not just about rebuilding red snapper,” Dorsett said. “[This is] about protecting America’s fisheries, which are the backbone of so many coastal communities and the heart of deep cultural traditions rooted in a love for fishing and our ocean.”
It is worth noting that representatives of Ocean Conservancy, Earthjustice and the Environmental Defense fund have all said their lawsuit isn’t aiming to cancel or shorten the current season. Instead, it seeks to prevent similar action in the future.
Based on early statements, one of the opponents’ main points of contention with extending the season is that it would prolong efforts to rebuild the snapper population in the Gulf.
A notice in the Federal Register announcing the extension of the season in June stated that despite the snapper stock being ahead of its rebuilding target, the extended 2017 season “may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as six years.”
“Nevertheless, [the National Marine Fisheries Service] calculates the stock will continue to grow, although at a substantially more modest pace if this approach is adopted for one year,” the notice reads.Despite those concerns, the notice concluded that because of the growth in the stock and the “increasing harm to the coastal economies of Gulf States,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross determined “a more modest rebuilding pace for the stock is a risk worth taking.”
Andrea A. Treece, a staff attorney for Earthjustice’s Oceans Program, disagrees.
“The [department’s] decision to extend the federal recreational season violates the most basic, common sense requirements of federal law to prevent overfishing and to ensure long-term, healthy fisheries,” Treece said Monday. “You wouldn’t tell a person who’s almost out of bankruptcy to go on a spending spree. It’s equally irresponsible — and illegal — for the department to ignore the very conservation measures that are bringing red snapper back.”
Acting Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources Chris Blankenship was instrumental in negotiating the state’s interests in the agreement with the Department of Commerce. However, while Blankenship is aware of the planned lawsuit, he told Lagniappe Monday he couldn’t comment until he had more time to evaluate it.
Likewise, a representative from Bryne’s office, which had an equal hand in negotiating the season extension, said the office was “concerned” about the news and “would be following closely” is it develops.