A little-known federal program has turned dozens of Gulf of Mexico fishermen into the lords of the sea — able to earn millions annually without even going fishing — and transformed dozens more into modern-day serfs who must pay the lords for the right to harvest red snapper.

A four-month probe by AL.com has found that roughly $60 million has been earned since 2007 by this small number of fishermen whose boats never left port. That money was collected from the labor of fishermen who have no choice but to hand over more than half of the price that their catch brings at the dock.

As it stands today, the right to catch 77 percent of the annual red snapper harvest is controlled by just 55 people, according to an AL.com analysis of hundreds of pages of federal documents, reports and websites.

The lion's share of the commercial harvest was concentrated in the hands of a very few in 2007 when a federal program known as the Individual Fishing Quota system, or IFQ, was established. The National Marine Fisheries Service divided up the Gulf's snapper harvest like a pie, with the largest pieces going to the fishermen who landed the most fish in the preceding years. A handful of snapper fishermen got shares as large as 5 or 6 percent of the Gulf's total harvest, while others received shares as small as a ten thousandth of a percent, which granted the right to catch about a dozen fish a year.

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