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Congressmen Snap|Over Red Snapper Law

WASHINGTON (CN) - It's "flat out un-American" to reduce the red snapper fishing season to six weeks for charter boats, and 10 days for recreational anglers, a Republican congressman snapped at a committee hearing Thursday on a bill to transfer federal regulation of the red snapper fishery to Gulf Coast states.

The Republican-supported bill has strong support from recreational fishermen, but has met stiff resistance from commercial and charter fishing industries.

The federal Magnuson-Stevens Act restricts commercial and recreational fishing of some species with quotas, to replenish fish stocks and prevent overfishing. Its proponents say it has worked well, but that conservation should continue.

Recreational fishing for red snapper this year in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico lasted for a whopping 10 days, while the charter season lasted 44 days.

Season length is determined by projections of when quotas will be met, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In previous years, snapper season lasted as long as 194 days, said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., during the hearing in the House Committee on Natural Resources.

"I was one who supported a reduction in the number of [fishing] days, based on the promise that we would get our season back when the fishery was restored," Scott said.

Scott, a fisherman, said the red snapper fish stock has significantly rebounded, and the season should be extended.

The NOAA is working with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to consider more flexibility for states - including recreational fishing - under federal guidelines, Allen Risenhoover, director of the agency's Office of Sustainable Fisheries, told the committee.

Supporters of the new bill - the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act - told the committee that recreational anglers have had no stakeholder voice under the federal guidelines.

Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham told the committee that federal regulations use flawed science to determine the size and location of red snapper populations, and punish recreational fishers with smaller quotas.

"The feds have a cookie-cutter approach in that they're managing the Gulf as a whole," Barham said. "The Gulf is not a whole."

He said the states can do a better job managing fisheries because they have more and better data about local fish stocks. "These are geographically limited populations that need to be managed by the people who are there, who should be managing them," Barham said.

The bill would allow the Gulf states to tailor management of red snapper to meet local needs, said Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He said it will allow local stakeholders to participate in fishery management, and that states can make policy changes more quickly, if necessary, than the cumbersome federal process.

That's one reason many environmentalists want federal control to stay. States with strong traditions of hunting and fishing, such as in the South, would more easily bend to local pressures, regardless of the effect upon natural resources. Critics of the proposed law also say it will remove transparency from fisheries management.

"The language in this bill was hatched from a plan that was developed by the five Gulf state fishery directors in a secret meeting with no fishermen informed or present," a consortium of Charter and Commercial Fishery associations said in a letter to the committee .

Management of red snapper will "be concentrated into the hands of 3 Gulf state fishery directors," the letter said, and will allow 10 percent of the commercial quota to be redirected to the recreational sector.

The law will interfere with sustainable access to red snapper for Americans who do not own boats, and "fails to explain how it will promote conservation and the long-term health of the red snapper resource," said the Oct. 20 letter, under letterhead of four fishing groups: the Charter Fisherman's Association, the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders' Alliance, the Gulf Fishermen's Association, and Seafood Harvesters of America.

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said suggestions that the bill favors the recreational sector over commercial fishing interests is "simply not true." He said he asked for but received no input from the commercial sector during drafting of the bill.

Barham and Wiley said they would consider additions to the bill to safeguard commercial fishing interests. Scott said he had no intention of hurting the commercial sector.

"Look, all I want is my fishing season back," Scott said, complaining that he has not been able to go snapper fishing since the recreational season was reduced to 10 days.

"That's just flat out un-American," Scott said.

Chef Paul Prudhomme, who died on Oct. 8, created a national craze for blackened red snapper in the 1970s. Some have attributed the sharp decline of the species, in part, to Prudhomme's popularization of Cajun cooking, specifically his recipe for blackened red snapper.

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