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If this is success, what does failure look like?

As hard as it might be to believe, management of the Gulf red snapper fishery reached a new level of frustration this week. At its meeting in Mobile, the Gulf Council announced that the overall quota of red snapper harvest will be increased, but the 2012 season will likely be the shortest ever, perhaps no more than 40 days.

Why?

Well, the fishery is rebounding beyond all hopes and expectations. It’s a smashing success story by almost any definition…. except the one used by NOAA Fisheries. There are more red snapper out there than anyone can explain, and the fish are much bigger than anyone thought they would be at this point in the rebuilding plan. Anglers are catching big, fat red snapper so fast we are reaching our quota even before the meager allotment of days set for our season elapses. The only answer NOAA Fisheries has to offer is to keep cutting days off our season so that anglers stay within their limits.

You would think that someone would stop to question if this is what they ought to be doing and, admirably, some Gulf Council members are doing just that. It is more than past time to ponder the lunacy of closing a highly prized fishery for at least 325 days – one that appears to have more fish in it than at any time in recent memory. Especially since Council staffers are looking for “something radical” to exert even more control in the future – something like tags or one-fish bag limits, according to Roy Crabtree, NOAA regional administrator. And, that is not what we need.

Rather than searching for the next level of control, there are better questions to ask here: Is this really how we want to manage our fisheries? What does success look like? What exactly is the goal here?

Somewhere along the way, the idea of managing the oceans like ordered aquariums came into the equation. Federal law currently compels managers to act in ways that seem designed to drive recreational anglers right off the water, and managers seems defiantly content to do so. That kind of rote pursuit of a goal, regardless of the consequences, is what is driving anglers into the streets to protest.

There is nothing wrong with stepping back and asking if this is the right path – if this is what anyone could possibly have had in mind when Magnuson-Stevens was reauthorized in 2006. That is not what’s happening. To the contrary, managers are thinking up even more ways to gain greater and greater control to count every fish and cap every fishery, without ever stopping to wonder if it is feasible or even if it is the right thing to do.

As evidenced by yet another unbelievable Gulf Council meeting, federal fisheries management doesn’t need a Band-Aid or even “radical” surgery.

It needs a completely new vision.

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