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Out of Balance

Out of Balance
Out of Balance

Out of Balance

The first in a two-part expose uncovering what we see as the unfairness and financial irresponsibility of the federal Gulf and Atlantic federal fishery management systems.

It's an inequity that should gag any true constitutionalist.

Your federal fisheries management system clearly favors a tiny minority, the commercial fishermen. That's despite an outrageous disparity in the ratio of private anglers to commercial fishermen and with recreational angling delivering vastly greater benefits to the economy.

The federal councils affecting Florida are the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC). The Gulf Council, which oversees waters in the Gulf nine nautical miles from shore to 200 miles, consists of 17 voting members from five states (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas), of which five—less than a third—are identified as representing recreational fishing. Meanwhile, commercial fishers have four votes and indirectly a majority of the remaining eight votes most of the time—but more on that later.

The South Atlantic Council jurisdiction extends from three nautical miles offshore to 200 miles into the Atlantic off Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina. Its voting members total 13, with few voting members identifiable as recreational supporters.

In the first place, a goal of achieving an “equal balance” on the councils between commercial and recreational interests, even if achieved, is without merit. It's like saying a congressional district composed of 90 percent one party must still have a delegation with an equal number of a second party. Florida's recreational saltwater license sales annually run close to a million, but taking into account huge numbers of those exempt, the actual number is closer to seven million (a 2006 government estimate was 6.6 million). A recent tally of Florida commercial licenses is 12,674 with most holding multiple licenses, bringing the likely actual number of commercial fishermen to about 6,000.

The “one-man, one-vote” proposition that's the backbone of the U.S. Constitution simply isn't reflected on our federal fishery councils. It's very difficult for recreational interests to garner a majority to pass or block measures with the needed nine votes on the Gulf Council and seven on the South Atlantic.

Besides the lack of sufficient voice on the councils for the angling public, there's the historic “tilt” in federal council votes that favor commercial fishing.

“The pro-commercial slant comes from NMFS itself,” said Ted Forsgren, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Florida. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is part of the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“We did get a law passed in Florida years back that prevented paid lobbyists from serving on the councils,” Forsgren said. “Governors provide nominations for any openings of voting members on the councils, and the final selection is made by the Secretary of Commerce.”

Many voting members—particularly on the South Atlantic Council—are present or former representatives of state fishery departments. That at times presents a potential conflict, says Curtis Bostick of Marco Island, Florida, a former SAFMC voting member representing our state.

“Many states are heavily funded by grants,” Bostick pointed out, referring to millions offered annually by NMFS to states via dollar-for-dollar matching funds and outright research grants.

Alex Jernigan of Sebastian, Florida, served on the Gulf Council off and on for 12 years. “I couldn't get support for many things I wanted to do because of the block of votes on behalf of the commercial industry,” said Jernigan. “The commercials vote against anything that doesn't enhance their use of the fishery.”

“Prior to passage of the original Magnuson Act in 1976, just about everything related to fishing fell under a Bureauof Commercial Fisheries or a similar title, and I think a lot of those attitudes from way back then still carry over with NMFS.”

Ed Sapp of Gainesville, who this summer is ending a term on the Gulf Council, said, “In my three years on the council I've seen the commercial bias, but I think it's being minimized.”

However, if what Sapp says is true, it could be fueled not only by the irate cries of “unfair” from recreational interests but also by a commercial sector that's becoming more and more disenchanted with NMFS' penchant for outright species and area closures.

Others such as David Nelson of Ponce Inlet, Florida,who holds commercial and charter licenses, are less concerned about council balance than the science utilized. “I think the South Atlantic Council is tied up by a lack of quality data,” said Nelson. “If you don't have good data, the science will be of poor quality and cause poor decision-making as is now the case with red snapper.”

Besides the commercial fishing industry, some “greenie” groups like the Environmental Defense Fund—for which Jane Lubchenco served as a key executive before being named NOAA chief are using their considerable bankrolls to direct the councils and affect fishery issues in general.

With all these concerns and outside influences, it's no wonder that the federal stewardship of our marine resources is in grave trouble.

Contrast the federal imbalance and bias with Florida's state oversight of our fisheries. Formed as an independent body, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) functions largely on the funding of fishing license fees—the overwhelming majority of which comes from recreational angling. Florida's seven-member FWC commission is appointed by the governor and generally does a sound job of overseeing state waters. Likewise, legal changes must be made so the federal fishery councils are truly independent and free from financial conflict.

In an upcoming Part 2 of this analysis, we'll examine the voting members (including Florida's), how much each council member received in 2010 in pay, expenses and other perks, staff costs, council votes on key issues, Southeast NMFS Director Roy Crabtree (who has the key vote on both councils), and an answer to the ultimate question: Is the general public as well as the fisheries getting fair treatment?

Ed. Note: The second part of Doug Kelly's story will be published in the September, 2011 issue of Florida Sportsman.

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