Things were getting tense in the meeting room. The public information officer from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, a dynamic and very smart lady named Emily Muehlstein, was doing a remarkable job of staying calm, friendly and polite even though she was pretty much in the position of the messenger in the old cliche about not shooting the messenger.
She’d been given the unenviable task of telling a group of Southwest Florida fishing guides and offshore charter boat captains the details about a new set of reporting requirements that NOAA is putting in place for vessels that hold Gulf of Mexico Federal Charter Boat fishing permits. The guys were not liking what they were hearing, and Emily was taking the heat.
A bit of background: The Gulf Council manages most of the fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. The Council’s task is not easy, and few individuals who fish in the Gulf are completely happy with the results. One of the biggest challenges faced by the Council is that fisheries data for the recreational fisheries is skimpy at best. If you go fishing in the Gulf today, the Council will not know where you go or what you catch — or even that you went at all.
And you won’t be the only one that they don’t know about. Tomorrow, there will be thousands of recreational anglers fishing all around the Gulf, from Texas to the Florida Keys. The spread-out nature of the recreational fishery makes it very hard to track. There are lots of boats fishing over a wide area. They come and go on an irregular schedule from hundreds or thousands of boat ramps, marinas and private docks. There are no reporting requirements.
Can you imagine how difficult it is for fisheries regulators to determine how many fish are being caught? We complain that they get it wrong so often — but of course they get it wrong because they have so little information to go on.
Most of the data that we do have on recreational fisheries comes from NOAA researchers who make random phone calls to people and ask them to take a phone survey, and others who go to marinas and boat ramps and ask to interview anglers returning from trips. This is very, very, very far from a rigorous way to define our fishing efforts, but it’s about all the Council’s fishery managers have had at their disposal.
On the other hand, the commercial fishing industry is much easier to track. There are fewer boats, permitting and reporting requirements are much stricter, and most of them land and sell their catches at a relatively small number of well-known fish houses. As a result, data on the commercial fisheries is far more complete than is data from recreational fisheries.
Traditionally, these have been two fishing “sectors” in the Gulf: Recreational and commercial. In the last few years, there has been an effort to subdivide the recreational sector into two smaller groups: Private (folks fishing on their own) and for-hire (fishing guides and charter boat captains). In the red snapper fishery, these two sub-sectors have even been given their own separate fish allotments and seasons.
It’s easier to track the for-hire guys than private anglers because there are a limited number of federal permits available for the for-hire fishery. Everyone in the fishery (scratch that — everyone legally in the fishery) is known to the Gulf Council. The new regulations which had raised the ire of many of the skippers in the meeting described above are the result of an attempt by the Council to gather better data from charter boats.
There are approximately 1,200 boats with federal for-hire permits in the Gulf. If you have one of them, you are allowed the privilege of taking people on paid fishing charters in federal waters of the Gulf to target species that are federally managed. In our area this is on waters more than nine nautical miles offshore, out to the 200 mile limit.
But this privilege comes at a cost. NOAA issued the permits, and NOAA has wide-ranging power to enact “permit conditions” — things that permit holders must do to keep those permits. For example, holders of federal for-hire reef fish permits must carry a special set of sea turtle unhooking tools aboard at all times.
And holders of these permits must obey federal fishing laws even when fishing in state waters, if the federal laws are more strict than state laws for a particular reef fish. For example, if grouper season closes in federal waters but remains open in state waters, permit-holding charter boats cannot harvest fish in state waters that are open to all other private recreational anglers.
Here’s another example: A captain with a bay boat might have federal permits because he makes a few trips offshore when the weather is nice. But since the federal minimum size limit on mangrove snapper is 12 inches, no one aboard his federally permitted vessel cannot keep mangrove snapper under 12 inches in length — even if he’s fishing under a bridge in state waters where everybody else can keep 10-inch mangrove snapper.
As you can imagine, these types of regulations and restrictions cause a bit of grumbling and sometimes considerable confusion among both anglers and law enforcement.
Now the grumbling is starting to get much worse, because a brand-new set of permit conditions for the for-hire guys is scheduled to take effect this summer and the skippers are just beginning to hear about it. The Gulf Council has decided to try to collect better fishery data from charter and guide boats about when and where they fish and what is caught on their trips. This will be done by requiring holders of federal for-hire permits to do three things:
• Purchase and install a GPS tracking device on their boat which transmits position data to NOAA. Federal agents will know where the boat is or has been, 24/7/365.
• Before leaving the dock for any reason, contact NOAA to “hail out,” which means to tell NOAA what type of trip is being made and when the trip is estimated to be back at the dock.
• Before offloading at the end of every fishing trip, file a report with NOAA which includes catch data and economic data about that trip.
The finer details as to exactly how all this will be done have not yet been worked out, but each of these three requirements has the potential to raise the ire of the for-hire skippers in our region. Taken all together, the new requirements are going to be a pain to obey. And this is why Emily was getting hammered in that meeting room a couple weeks ago, since many of the captains in attendance were hearing about this stuff for the first time.
Some of the guys became downright combative as they heard more and more about the upcoming regulations. The GPS tracker will be unpopular for obvious reasons. Some people are against any hint that “Big Brother” might be able to track them, and fishermen tend to be especially hyper-protective about their secret fishing spots. Of course, NOAA promises that vessel position data will be confidential.
The hail-out requirement will be a nuisance, even though all it will require will be a few clicks on a yet-to-be-released cell phone app. As they say, the devil is in the details. Any time a permitted vessel leaves it’s home base, whether that’s a slip in a marina or in a garage on a trailer, NOAA must be notified why and for how long. Taking the kids for a boat ride? Make the hail-out. Going to the beach to pick shells? Make the hail-out. Going on a dolphin-watching cruise? Make the hail-out. Test-running after a repair? Make the hail-out. Going to get fuel? Make the hail-out.
And NOAA law enforcement must have 24/7 access to the home base of the vessel so they can check to see whether or not the hail-out and GPS tracking provisions are being met. It’s not clear how this will work if the boat sits on a trailer in a garage.
The trip-end report will be tedious. There will be a list of species (not yet released) that must be reported. The report must include all that were caught, including a breakdown of how many were harvested and how many were released. A typical mixed-bag bottom fishing trip in our Gulf waters involves the landing of many different species, and sometimes the action is pretty fast. Bookkeeping will be a chore.
And while it’s not yet finalized, it appears as though the report will also include info about how many anglers were aboard, how much money was collected as payment for the charter, and how many gallons of fuel were burned. You can imagine how happy some of our skippers will be about having to report this data before they are allowed to unload their boat at day’s end.
These regulations have been working through the federal rulemaking process for at least the last three years. There have been numerous opportunities for anglers to offer comments and objections. But many (probably most) fishermen don’t stay tuned in to the lengthy and uninspiring federal rulemaking process. So there are going to be some disgruntled charter boat operators.
Life will go on and after an adjustment period the grumbling will eventually subside. It’s possible that some for-hire operators who are barely hanging on or that those who don’t fish offshore very often will decide to give up their federal permits.
There is a high demand for these permits, so if this happens, guys who have been waiting to get in the business will probably snatch up any newly available permits. Commercial fishermen have been subject to similar reporting requirements for years and years, and this is pretty much how things went in that industry.
Here are my thoughts (as a disclosure, I do have a charter boat with federal for-hire permits). I have at times been critical of the management of our fisheries by the Gulf Council. The Council’s fishery managers have said over and over again that their biggest problem is a lack of data, especially on the recreational fisheries.
So now it’s time for me to suck it up and do my share to help them collect better data. It will cost some money and will be another set of tasks to add to everything else that goes with running a charter boat. But the end result just might be better-managed fisheries in the Gulf, and maybe — just maybe — there might eventually be better fishing.
And one more thing. If you’re not a charter skipper you may be asking “Why should I care what those guys are doing?” That question has an easy answer: Because federal regulators want data on all the fisheries they manage. You could be next.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.