WASHINGTON — Internal memos show top Trump administration officials knew extending the recreational fishing season in the Gulf of Mexico from three to 42 days this summer would lead to significant overfishing
But they did it anyway.
In memos released in response to a lawsuit, Commerce Department officials defended the move by saying that keeping the three-day season would be “devastating” to the recreational marine industry and the communities whose economies are tied to it.
And extending the time would also help solve a long-running dispute with states who have much longer seasons and want to wrest control of red snapper management from federal managers, they argued.
“It would result in overfishing of the stock by six million pounds (40%), which will draw criticism from environmental groups and commercial fishermen,” Earl Comstock, director of Policy and Strategic Planning for Commerce, conceded in a June 1 memo to his boss, Secretary Wilbur Ross. “However NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) agrees that this stock could handle this level on a temporary basis.”
And, Comstock noted in the memo, there was little opponents could do about it because the law governing federal fisheries — the Magnuson Stevens Act — prevents a judge from issuing a temporary restraining order “so your action would remain in effect for at least 45 days before a court could act.”
Ross, whose department oversee federal fisheries, announced the extension two weeks later.
Comstock’s memo, as well as one on June 7 he wrote to Ross laying out the rationale for an extension, were filed by the government in response to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., against the Commerce secretary by Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund. A judge could rule by the end of the year.
The environmental groups say the memos prove Commerce officials intentionally violated the Magnuson Steven Act, the law governing federal fish policy, by extending the season in the federal waters off five states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — when they knew it would lead to overfishing.
Specifically, they point to a provision in the law known as National Standard 1 which states that “conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.”
“We now have alarming proof that the Department of Commerce knew their decision was illegal, would result in overfishing, and would hurt fishermen by causing significant reductions in fishing next year,” said Meredith Moore, director of the Fish Conservation Program at the Ocean Conservancy. “We need solutions that keep our oceans healthy for the long-term, not short-term work-arounds that bypass the law and benefit some at the cost of others.”
A spokesman from the Commerce Department declined comment citing the pending lawsuit.
The wrangling over who gets to fish for red snapper and for how long has become one of the nation’s most contentious fights regarding animal management.
Over the past several years, red snapper has pitted federal managers against state regulators, commercial fishing interests against recreational anglers, and sportsmen against environmentalists — all arguing over how much red snapper can be pulled out of the water while still helping the stock rebound to full health.
The decision to extend the season marked another defeat for environmentalists who have watched President Trump pull out of the Paris accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions, propose deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, and move to open more off-shore waters to oil and gas drilling.
Commercial fishing interests and charter boat captains didn’t like the extension either, fearing it could add to overfishing and eat into their quotas.
But recreational anglers view the extended federal season as simply restoring balance following years of what they saw as overly restrictive catch limits imposed by the Obama administration given the abundance of red snapper they have been seeing in the water.
At the time of the announcement, Mike Leonard, conservation director for the American Sportfishing Association called the announcement “a welcome relief for the thousands of tackle shops, marinas, equipment manufacturers and other businesses who have suffered from decreasing public access to Gulf red snapper in recent years.”
States which control the immediate waters off their shorelines, agree with the industry that federal managers have undercounted the red snapper stock in the Gulf.
In his memos to Ross, Comstock noted Gulf states would be making a key concession because they would agree to align their much longer seasons with the federal one. Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi are expected to give up their fall seasons, leaving Texas as the only state allowing recreational fishing through the end of the year.
The memos reveal the political considerations behind Ross’ decision.
In late May, about a dozen Gulf Coast lawmakers led by Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise approached Comstock to pitch a longer season after Commerce had announced a three-day season in federal waters that was the shortest on record. All five states have pushed Congress for legislation that would hand over management of the federal red snapper fishery to them.
Comstock spoke with fishery managers from the states who said they would consider shortening their summer seasons if the federal season was extended. Two extensions were discussed: one for 27 days and one for 39. Both would allow recreational anglers to fish on weekends through Labor Day.
State waters extend out nine miles from shore in Florida and Texas and three miles in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, although it's been extended to nine miles temporarily for all three.
The options would result in the overall catch limit to be exceeded between 30% and 50% and slow down the rebuilding of red snapper in the Gulf, but NMFS "assessed the impact of such an overage and it does not threaten the health of the stock," Comstock wrote in the June 7 memo.
In asking Ross for his approval to continue negotiations, Comstock noted in the June 7 memo that commercial fishermen and charter boat captains are likely to oppose the move for fear that the overfishing being allowed would eat into their quotas for next year.
But he urged Ross to move forward with an extension.
"Approving either option would reset the debate, demonstrate (Commerce) can work with states, address a serious economic harm to business, reduce a major source of constituent frustration and benefit the fishery long term by aligning the state and federal seasons," he wrote.
David Krebs, a commercial fisherman from Destin, Fl., disagrees, saying the decision threatens the livelihood of both the stock and the other stakeholders who depend on red snapper for their livelihood.
"You're going against what the science says is the allowable catch and you will do harm to the resource long-term," he said. "It's just common sense."