On July 7th, 2016, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) held a public commission meeting to address current issues that the state is managing. Although they discussed a range of topics, the focus was on blue crabs and red snapper.
Biologist Jeff Marx presented the 2016 Louisiana Blue Crab stock assessment, which has shown signs of a decline in the stock, even approaching the threshold of overfishing. In response, LDWF has talked about ways to reduce the number of traps in the water, if only for a short period of time. Currently, their proposition is to close the commercial crab fishery in Louisiana waters beginning on the third Monday in February and extending for 30 consecutive days. The biggest public opposition heard during the comment period was the fact that not only would crab fisherman be unemployed for 30 days, but the closure would also occur during the local Mardi Gras and early Lenten season, which is a busy time for Louisiana fisherman. Without local crabs available, the fear is that locals will look to other states to buy their crabs, hence losing potential revenue for our state in one of the busiest times for the market. The proposed regulation would reduce harvest in the 30-day period by 3% (1.6 million crabs), but the crabs will theoretically be available for harvest throughout the rest of the year, meaning no loss of potential quantity fisherman can catch in the year.
The other proposition is to limit the harvest of female blue crabs to larger than 5 inches, allowing immature females to grow larger. This would only apply to hard-shell crabs, and not soft shells and ‘busters’. Both of these propositions would allow crabs a break from the currently constant fishing pressure. Fisherman would likely see a better abundance of crabs, as well as increased sizes. Despite opposition from crabbers sitting in on the meeting, the commission approved the notice of intent and will move forward on a later date.
The ‘celebrity’ issue of the day was the red snapper debate, which took up a majority of the 4-hour meeting time. LDWF Assistant Secretary Patrick Banks presented a financial breakdown, should Louisiana be given the task of managing the red snapper fishery, as proposed in House Resolution 3094, which Congress is considering. In its current form, H.R. 3094 details that the fishery would be under complete state control with zero help from the federal government. According to Assistant Secretary Banks, state control of red snapper would come with a price tag of roughly $10 million initially, seeing a decrease of about 50% for a few years before having to conduct a new stock assessment of the popular reef fish after 6 years. With recent budget cuts hitting K-12 schools, universities, and hospitals hard, LDWF Secretary Charlie Melancon believes this would be a slap in the face to these public institutions, all for management of one single fish species.
Sec. Melancon talked to the commission at length, bringing up quite a few strong points. First off, the current LA Creel program, responsible for collecting data on ALL Louisiana marine fish species, costs $1.8 million annually. Asking to spend $10 million on one particular species is just too much in Melancon’s eyes. He continues to reiterate that he wants what everyone else wants- a healthy fishery that can allow us to catch more large fish during longer seasons. But, he says that Louisiana fisherman have to ‘give some to get some’. Taking over the management with hopes for better seasons would be a short satisfaction, followed by a long-term hardship, for the state’s finances as well as the fishery itself. Melancon describes the shift from the Council to the state as ‘fiscally irresponsible’. “Where do I take money from? Shrimpers? Crabbers? Duck or deer people?”.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal law focused on managing our fishery resources, has been extremely successful in bringing back the red snapper population, and no one doubts that. However, there is a lot of mistrust from recreational fisherman of the Gulf Council, who are often referred to as ‘the Federal Government’. However, Melancon reminded the commission that only 1 out of the 17 sitting members of the council holds a federal position. The rest of the members are fisherman from all 5 Gulf States that work to make decisions based on the best-available science, provided by NOAA. Hopefully, this will help some folks to understand that the fishery isn’t being managed by the Federal Government itself, but an appointed council of professionals who have worked with fisheries their whole lives, and have a lot invested in not only their livelihood, but also the health of the fishery for long after they are gone.
In the future, most would agree that we would like to see fisherman catching more fish, with longer seasons. It is important, however, to urge all parties that the time is not now. There may be a lot of young snapper right now, but there is not a healthy number of large, extremely-high breeding adults. We must continue to limit the catch of these fish until there is a mix of large adults and small fish, and only then will the fishery be sustainable enough to allow recreational fisherman to harvest enough to fill their freezers for the year, while continuing to allow the commercial fisherman to provide red snapper to the rest of the country who does not have access to this public resource, outside of their local seafood market.