Who Gets To Fish For Red Snapper In The Gulf? It's All Politics : The Salt The fish were nearly wiped out from the Gulf 20 or 30 years ago, so the catch is closely regulated. A Trump administration deal to extend the recreational season has prompted cheers – and concerns.
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Who Gets To Fish For Red Snapper In The Gulf? It's All Politics

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Who Gets To Fish For Red Snapper In The Gulf? It's All Politics

Who Gets To Fish For Red Snapper In The Gulf? It's All Politics

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There's a fight going on about who can fish for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and for how long. Here's the backstory. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration set the shortest recreational snapper season ever. People got mad and asked the Trump administration to intervene. The result was a deal between the Commerce Department and Gulf states to extend the season. But people who make their living on fishing snapper say it could cost everyone in the long run. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: At Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach, Ala., the boat docks are laden with the day's catch.

KEITH GREEN: We got six snappers, and we got a bunch of vermilions.

ELLIOTT: Keith Green of Atlanta unloads a cart of a gleaming red fish at the stainless steel cleaning table. His fishing buddy Tony Reaves works a sharp knife through the flesh of a 12-pounder to carve out a fillet.

TONY REAVES: Cut right along the top of the spine there.

ELLIOTT: They're taking advantage of the extended recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico now open every weekend and holidays through Labor Day - much better than the initial three days in June set by the federal government, they say.

REAVES: They crossed a line when they went to a three-day season.

GREEN: I mean it's just ridiculous of them. So I'm glad to see them changing it.

ELLIOTT: They say red snapper are abundant. That wasn't the case 20 or 30 years ago. The fishery was nearly wiped out, so the government has closely regulated the catch with a quota system that splits the resource between the three different groups that want red snapper - private anglers like Reaves and Green who have their own boats, the for-hire sector, charter boat captains who take people out on the Gulf to fish and then commercial fishermen, the boats that catch the red snapper you find on the menu at a seafood restaurant. In recent years, that system has resulted in contentious litigation and fewer and fewer days open to recreational fishers.

BLAKELY ELLIS: We want a fair shake.

ELLIOTT: Blakely Ellis is director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Alabama, a group representing private anglers.

ELLIS: If we can't go, I don't think it's fair that I've got to sit on the dock and somebody can write a check and get to go do the same thing.

ELLIOTT: He's pleased with the 39-day season but calls it a short-term fix. The five Gulf states agreed to limit the open snapper days in state waters roughly nine miles offshore in exchange for the extra days in federal waters further out. Congress members pressured the Trump administration for the deal. Republican Representative Bradley Byrne represents coastal Alabama.

BRADLEY BYRNE: Show me where in the Constitution it gives the federal government the power to tell us we can't fish.

ELLIOTT: Watching boats from the dock at Sportsman Marina, Byrne says the issue has been mounting for years.

BYRNE: It was just electrifying to people all up and down the Gulf Coast because people just had it. They just said, you know, it's ridiculous. We go out there fishing for other fish, and all we can catch is snapper because they're everywhere.

ELLIOTT: Byrne has proposed legislation to turn snapper management to the states, and that's what local officials want. Orange Beach City Councilman Jeff Boyd...

JEFF BOYD: So it only makes fair sense for the state to manage what we've created because we have created the absolute best red snapper reef system in the world.

ELLIOTT: There are more than 10,000 underwater structures that public and private interests have put in the Gulf off Alabama's coast to attract bottom feeders like red snapper. The fishery has become an economic engine for Orange Beach, which bills itself as the red snapper capital of the world. But not everyone here is happy with the new arrangement. The charter boat Fairwater Two is pulling into its slip at Zeke's Marina after a day trip.

TOM ARD: Thanks, guys. Patrick has it from here.

ELLIOTT: Captain Tom Ard's family has run charter boats for 37 years. He's upset that the commerce secretary overruled regulators.

ARD: This decision was not based on science. It was based on politics.

ELLIOTT: Ard is on the board of the national Charter Fishermen's Association, which calls the action a dangerous precedent that could lead to overfishing and stricter quotas for everybody next year under federal law. Ard agrees that stock assessments don't reflect how well red snapper have recovered, but he remembers when the stock was nearly decimated and says you can't just do away with oversight.

ARD: If you're for regulation, you're a damn liberal. I've heard that so many times. It's not funny. I do this for a living, all right? This is my livelihood. I want that fishery in the Gulf of Mexico as strong is I can make it.

ELLIOTT: His boat brought in about two dozen big red snapper to the dock this trip. The question is, will he be making those trips next year? Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZANE JASON JOHNS SONG, "WE DON'T TALK ANYMORE")

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