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From the Pen of Carter Smith

The work of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department engenders many sentiments among many people. Pick your activity, species, place or issue, and bar none, there is a constituency or, more likely, multiple constituencies, all informed, engaged, vocal and loaded with feedback.

Sportsmen, as a group, tend to be anything but dispassionate when it comes to sharing their considerable opinions and advice on any and all things fish and game, fishing and hunting. In jest, I sometimes refer to the department as the land of 1,000 hills to die on.

At times and to some observers, like my wife, some of those hills may appear bigger than others. But, then again, her obviously misplaced priorities in life don’t include a near-religious zeal about when the second split of duck, dove and goose season should open and close, whether a five- or 10-trout limit on the coast is too many or too few, or whether a 13-inch antler rule should or should not be enforced, much less enacted in the first place.

But, as I’ll tell anyone who will listen, I’ll take that passion over complacency any day of the week.

One of those proverbial hills is the red snapper fishery. A reef fish found among the rocks and the rigs of Gulf waters, red snapper are a favorite quarry of offshore anglers. They’re delectable table fare and an economic driver for Gulf communities from Brownsville to Pensacola.

They are also the subject of a longstanding, contentious and seemingly intractable battle about how best to manage them. Much of the challenge rests in the question of jurisdictions, state versus federal authorities, and who and what influences them.

Texas, in keeping with our authority to manage fish and game within our borders, sets the seasons and bag limits for snapper within our territorial seas, a designation that extends from our coastline out to 9 nautical miles in the Gulf. The ultimate responsibility lies with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, which bases its decisions on the biological recommendations of departmental scientists and input from affected recreational, commercial and conservation interests. The process is transparent and eminently comprehensible to anyone with a stake in the fishery.

The process for managing red snapper in federal waters, not quite so much.

The feds’ oversight occurs from the end of the Gulf states’ territorial seas out to 200 miles. The regulations across the Gulf are governed by a mishmash of federal fisheries law through the Magnuson-Stevens Act, litigation-driven court decisions, a multi-state and multi-stakeholder advisory council, competing and divergently aligned (commercial, environmental and recreational) interests, catch quotas for commercial anglers, federally permitted charter and head boats, private recreational anglers, and ultimately an algorithmic-based fisheries model that attempts to predict management actions necessary to recover snapper stocks across the Gulf by 2032.

The result is a kind of zero-sum game approach that seemingly pits everybody against everybody. In recent years, recreational anglers have been the ones left at the dock. Imagine this: Just over 20 years ago, anglers enjoyed a full 365-day season in federal waters. Ten years ago, it was down to two and half months. This year (as described on Page 11 in the magazine), it started out as a whopping three-day season. It ultimately was extended on a one-year basis for an additional 39 days.

In short, it is a real mess, which is the only thing everyone agrees on. That is too bad, because at least in our part of the Gulf, snapper stocks have soared, reproduction and recruitment are strong, and catching them off the Texas coast is easier than ever.

So, what is the fix? Population differences between the eastern and western Gulf red snapper stocks must be recognized and delimited. Additional data across all sectors needs continued monitoring. Recovery models, and hence sector allocations, need to be adjusted accordingly for regional variations. And, ultimately, authority for establishing seasons and bag limits across both state and federal waters needs to rest under clearer and closer jurisdictions, namely state fish and wildlife commissions. The TPW Commission’s successful history with trout, redfish, flounder and other marine species would offer, I believe, a pretty good harbinger of what could come.

The ultimate authority for this fix? Our U.S. Congress.

Thanks for caring about our wild things and wild places. They need you now more than ever.

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