Angers Op-Ed: Gulf Scandal Looms for South Atlantic

February 23, 2017

Chaos reigns in marine fisheries management thanks to a federal agency that advocates for private ownership of America’s public resources.

The alarming investigative series “Hooked Up” (Fox8/New Orleans) dug deep into the muck of the controversial giveaway of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. Now the stage is being set to export this swamp to the South Atlantic for at least six species – blueline tilefish, gag grouper, gray triggerfish, greater amberjack, the jacks complex and vermilion snapper.

A group calling itself the South Atlantic Commercial Fishing Collaborative is using the oft-abused federal Exempted Fishing Permit process to request a two-year pilot program to assign private ownership privileges for those six species to up to 25 commercial vessels.

In a brazen display, the South Atlantic Commercial Fishing Collaborative currently consists of four individuals, including two sitting South Atlantic Fishery Management Council members and one former member. The very people charged with managing these public marine resources for all Americans are using the system to position themselves to own those resources.

The language in the EFP submitted by the Collaborative is careful not to use the phrase “Individual Fishing Quota” or “catch shares,” but anglers in the region should be fully aware that that is exactly what is meant by opaque terms like “output-based systems” and “allocation-based system.” Don’t be fooled by the code words. Additionally, the EFP application contains significant omissions. It does not address how shares will be assigned, how they will be traded or ownership limits. And certainly there is not a word on resource rents or any sort of payment for the right to harvest these fish — this public resource — for their personal financial benefit.

In short, this EFP is like others that have been rubber-stamped through the federal system — it ignores all the thorny issues and presents a bully pulpit for these lucky 25 commercial vessels to tout how wonderful catch shares work for them so that it will eventually be accepted as a fait accompli. If it is anything like previous EFPs, we will eventually find out that those lucky 25 vessels all happen to be owned by just a handful of people.

Exempted Fishing Permits are now routinely used by the commercial and for-hire sectors to launch controversial privatization programs outside of the federal fishery management process. There is no outside oversight or criteria for EFPs. They are approved or denied at the sole discretion of NOAA Fisheries, which in recent years has fully embraced privatizing public marine resources for commercial use by a few select individuals. For that reason, they are extraordinarily difficult to stop which is why they are a favorite tool of commercial operators and their partners in the federal government and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Without a course correction by the Trump Administration, the chaos that has characterized federal fisheries management in the Gulf of Mexico (see “The Great Gulf Red Snapper Train Wreck“) is coming to the South Atlantic and to every fishery managed by NOAA Fisheries. Winners and losers are going to be chosen, and there will be far more losers than winners. The race to grab personal riches from our public waters will overwhelm federal management bodies that were never designed to handle this level of greed and manipulation.

The investigative series “Hooked Up” showed how the system is manipulated for the benefit of a select few. This EFP shows that others took careful notes and are prepared to follow right in their footsteps if we fail to drain this swamp.

The public will have the opportunity to provide comment on this EFP on March 8, 2017 at 4:30 p.m. during the South Atlantic Council’s meeting at the Westin Jekyll Island Hotel, on Jekyll Island, Georgia. Comments may also be submitted online before March 9.

About the Author

Jeff Angers is the President for the Center for Sportfishing Policy, an organization representing recreational fishermen and the recreational-fishing industry.