Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishermen expect to face off in court against the National Marine Fisheries Service later this summer. They’re challenging the agency’s recent reallocation of some of their red grouper Individual Fishing Quota to the recreational sector.

Fishermen have more at stake than the cut in their grouper quota: NMFS and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council are already forging ahead with serial reallocations of other fisheries. The lawsuit may be their best, if not only, chance to stop them.

“We’re 2 and 0 against the NMFS in the courts,” said Eric Brazer, deputy director of the Galveston, Texas-based Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance. Other plaintiffs in the suit include A.P. Bell Fish Company, of Cortez, Florida, and the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, a longliner group based in Madeira Beach, Florida.

The courts sided with commercial fishermen in 2014 and 2017 when they challenged the council and NMFS over actions to extend the recreational red snapper season and reallocate more quota to the sector.

“The council took action that harmed the commercial fishermen and rewarded the recreational fishermen. We told them it was not legal, they didn’t believe us. They approved the document, we took them to court, and we won,” said Brazer.

Environmental groups Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund likewise sued NMFS in 2017 for allowing private red snapper anglers to exceed their catch limits, even after the agency stated in the Federal Register that it would lead to overfishing. That case didn’t proceed to trial after NMFS convinced the judge that its temporary rule was a one-time event.

Unlike these court cases, which challenged measures that were overtly taken to benefit the recreational sector, the red grouper reallocation is billed as a technical fix.

The change stems from the 2018 revamp of NMFS’s recreational survey, stressed American Sportfishing Association’s Kellie Ralston while speaking to the gulf council at its June 2021 meeting.

“As a reminder, the recreational sector did not bring this amendment to the council,” said Ralston. “The amendment is simply a result of the recalibration from the MRIP Coastal Household Telephone Survey to MRIP-FES and the subsequent corrections of historical recreational landings.”

The Marine Recreational Information Program, and its associated Fishing Effort Survey, is called MRIP-FES in fish management jargon.

NMFS adopted its current recreational Fishing Effort Survey in 2018. A 2006 review by the National Research Council found the agency’s longtime telephone survey was deficient, in part because of a decline in household landlines.

After years of development, the new MRIP-FES was operating in 2018. To maintain a consistent series of recreational catch statistics, NMFS converted the historical estimates back as far as 1981 to the “currency” of the 2018 methodology.

The current recalibration increases virtually all the recreational sector’s historical catch estimates. NMFS argues that if recreational catches were higher, overall quotas should have been higher and the recreational sector should have had a larger allocation percentage. Red grouper allocations are based on landings from 1986-2005.

The agency urged the gulf council to increase the recreational share of the 3 million-pound grouper quota from 24 percent to 40.7 percent and reduce the commercial share from 76 percent to 59.3 percent. Roy Crabtree, then the NMFS southeast regional administrator, formally introduced the call for amending the reef fish plan at a council meeting in October 2019.

“If the FES data found the historical recreational landings to be higher than previously thought, the number of dead discards by that sector was also greater than previously thought,” says Brazer of the Reef Fish Alliance.

By that argument, reallocating more fish to recreational anglers therefore violates the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s National Standard Nine which requires bycatch to be minimized.

The reallocation violates several of the Act’s National Standards, as well as other laws, according to the fishermen’s suit, which Brazer expects to be heard by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia around August.

Meanwhile, the gulf council is applying the same technical fix to the amberjack and gag grouper fisheries.

The amberjack’s 484,280-pound quota is currently allocated 73 percent recreational and 27 percent commercial. Proposed reallocation alternatives would reduce the commercial quota to 22, 20 or 16 percent.

The council expects to hold hearings on the amberjack amendment in August. Rebuilding deadlines for the overfished species must be implemented by April 2023.

The gag grouper’s 385,055-pound quota is allocated 61 percent recreational and 39 percent commercial. The gulf council’s rebuilding plan for that overfished species includes a possible reallocation that would increase the recreational share to 79 percent and reduce the commercial share to 21 percent. The council plans to have those new regulations in place for the 2024 fishing year.

(Robert Fritchey is a longtime National Fisherman contributor and author of several books on fisheries management conflicts in the Gulf of Mexico. His latest, “A Different Breed of Cat,” was published by New Moon Press in 2020.)

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