The slap in the face that accompanies this closure is that NOAA has already admitted the data upon which the closure based is from flawed research.
On Dec. 3, NOAA Fisheries announced a six-month ban on both the recreational and commercial harvest of red snapper in South Atlantic federal waters off Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina beginning Jan. 4. The provisions of the closure also extend to state waters if fishermen are aboard a vessel holding a federal commercial or charter/headboat permit.
While this announcement has been expected for several months, it was still met with fierce opposition. Fishermen say they are seeing more red snapper in the South Atlantic than at any other time in the past 20-plus years. Adding to the opposition is the fact that the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are using improper data for the basis of their decision, and that the government has already acknowledged that the data collection methodology used to make the closure determination was never intended to be used for such purposes. Much of the data driving the decision was collected by the Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey (MRFSS), which has been proclaimed as erroneous and inappropriate for such applications.
John L. Mica, a Florida congressman, called the administration's decision to impose the ban on red snapper fishing along the Southeast United States coast an economic disaster for the region.
"During this time of economic downturn this ban will be a significant job killer and an economic blow to nearly every coastal community from North Carolina to South Florida," Mica said. "This ban will put thousands of marginal sport fishing tourist enterprises out of business. The timing couldn't be worse for Florida with its tourism and fishing seasons set to begin at the start of the New Year, and with the economy at its worst in years.
"They're imposing a ban with flawed data, and they've refused to sit down with the industry and come up with a better management solution."
Representative Mica in July introduced legislation that requested additional data collection before any ban was imposed. Although the legislation had bipartisan support, environmental groups like Pew Environment Group and Pew-funded allies within the Marine Fish Conservation Network blocked consideration of the bill, and it never received a hearing.
Dave Heil, a Florida-based attorney for the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Jacksonville seeking an emergency injunction to prevent the ban from taking effect and asking a judge to throw out the rule that created the ban. The red snapper complaint filed on behalf of the RFA charges NMFS with ignoring mandates from the federal fisheries law (Magnuson-Stevens Act) to address inconsistencies within the data collection process.
"We have today filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in Jacksonville, Fla., and we feel confident that once a federal judge reviews the arbitrary and capricious methods used by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the closure will be overturned," Heil said on Dec. 3. "It is apparent that the SAFMC and the NMFS have ignored Magnuson-Stevens in passing the Interim Rule using the obviously flawed data from MRFSS."
At a NOAA-sponsored tackle trade show summit held in San Diego, Calif., in late October, Under-Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told tackle industry leaders that NOAA was actively responding to the concerns expressed by recreational fishing leaders "that we don't pay enough attention to recreational fishing." At the end of the address she proclaimed, "We will be your champions."
However, in her first nine months as NOAA Administrator, the former Pew Fellowship Award winner has led actions for the complete recreational closure of black sea bass, amberjack and, most recently, red snapper.
"If this is what Ms. Lubchenco means by being our champion, I'd hate to think about what NOAA will do when they decide to really go after us," said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the RFA. "NOAA continues to put nails into the coffin of the beleaguered recreational marine industry, while the preservationists over at Pew Environment Group are already dancing on our graves."
Donofrio said the RFA had already filed an action in the Mid-Atlantic regarding NOAA's decision to close the sea bass fishery, and he's hoping that the RFA Florida membership base will rally around Heil's legal challenge on behalf of red snapper.
Soon after NOAA's announcement about the red snapper closure, Holly Binns, manager of the Pew Environment Group's Campaign to End Overfishing in the Southeast lauded the move.
"Today's decision symbolizes an important first step towards saving the severely overfished red snapper," Binns said.
Many southeast fishermen dispute Pew's claims that the snapper are overfished and say the science being used is flawed and misleading.
In addition to the latest legal challenge submitted in Jacksonville, Fla., RFA continues to seek support from Florida Senator Bill Nelson for the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2009 (S-1255).
"Recent amendments to the Magnuson Stevens Act have led to these arbitrary and unprecedented restrictions on many of our most important recreational fisheries in the Gulf (of Mexico) and South Atlantic," Donofrio said. "We believe that Magnuson can be amended to allow a balance of conservation and access at the same time."
More than 150 groups, organizations and businesses, including the Marine Retailers Association of America, National Association of Charterboat Operators and National Marine Manufacturers Association have signed on with the RFA to support S-1255.
For more information on these issues and about the RFA, visit www.joinrfa.org.