Chris Macaluso

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posted in: General

June 21, 2016

A Taste of the Nine-Day Gulf Red Snapper Season

With the abundance of fish these anglers experienced, why can’t we fix the access issues?

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

My apologies to Charles Dickens.

It is the best of times because there are so many snapper out there. Oil rigs, reefs, sunken shrimp boats, lost shipping containers, pipeline stems, concrete rubble, natural drop-offs, humps, and buoy chains all hold fish. As long as a structure is in 50 feet of water, it’s going to be covered in snapper, and this holds true across most of the Gulf.

From my favorite port of Grand Isle, La., the options for catching snapper start at a set of oil rigs named the Grand Isle 20 Block, which is clearly visible from the beach. If, by some strange chance, the snapper on the 20 Block aren’t interested, a quick three-mile jump to the 30 block and then the West Delta 70 block gives snapper anglers additional options in waters up to 140 feet deep.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

The fishing can be remarkable. Throw a handful of chum over one of these wrecks or reefs and prepare for action. Anglers can  slow-crank a snapper up from 50 feet and sometimes the entire school will follow, quickly turning the green water red. Without fail fish on the surface will aggressively attack anything that moves or looks like food.

Short of catching speckled trout all day on topwater baits or watching a billfish tail walk, it’s as good as fishing gets.

Anglers should be celebrating this abundance.

Instead, they find themselves embroiled in the most contentious battle in federal fisheries management, a chaotic approach often driven by lawsuits against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shouting matches among user groups.

Abundance usually means more access to the resource, or at least consistent regulations, in any other fish and game management scenario. In red snapper management, abundance combined with error-prone data collection on harvest levels and stock sizes has translated to less access for sportsmen.

More fish means they are easier to catch, but the larger population also brings more regulations. Bigger fish means the poundage-based quota required by federal law is being reached much quicker. Inability to accurately account for the harvest of bigger fish from a larger population has led to, in part, this year’s nine-day red snapper season in the Gulf’s federal waters. Ironically, 10 years ago, when the snapper population was estimated to be much smaller, the federal-water snapper season was 194 days.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

Gulf states have stepped in to provide more consistent access to waters they control, up to nine miles from shore. But, for most Gulf ports, the 50-foot depths generally needed to find red snapper lie beyond that nine-mile boundary. State officials are also working with anglers to improve access and data collection. But, as long as current federal law and management apply, 95 percent of the Gulf will remain off-limits to recreational snapper harvest for at least 11 months of the year.

TRCP and its sportfishing partners—the Coastal Conservation Association, American Sportfishing Association, Center for Coastal Conservation, and others—have been working with policy-makers to find a better way.

The constant battle at the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council and the political debate over snapper management often overshadow how much fun it is to catch these fish. It dampens the appetite of anglers who love snapper, especially when it’s cooked over a charcoal pit, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

This year, rough seas and thunderstorms prevented most anglers from getting to snapper waters during the June 1-9 federal season. NOAA gave anglers two additional days to compensate for Tropical Storm Colin, but the other lost days were victims of the fickle derby system that federal management has created.

Keep America Fishing leaders Gary Jennings and Glenn Hughes joined me and Captain Frank Dreher on Grand Isle on June 8 for two days of snapper fishing. The trip was set up to give us a chance to forget about snapper politics and focus on fishing. The plan was to take Dreher’s 24-foot bay boat out of Grand Isle on day one then slide west to Terrebonne Parish on day two for a ride on a 33 Contender with Tony Fontenot and the crew from Castin’ Cajun, a popular regional TV show.

Flat seas and sharks greeted us early June 8. A couple of short stops at rigs in 50 to 70 feet of water showed schools of snapper on the sounder, but blacktips and jack crevalle were quicker to the baits. At our third spot, we found a school of 5- to 10-pound snapper and the action was non-stop for more than an hour while the placid surface was quickly slopped up by a sneaky 10- to 15-knot northeast wind.

A 3-foot chop turned a half-hour joy ride on the way out into a 90-minute, spray-soaked pounding on the ride home. We quickly forgot about it that evening over grilled snapper filets and Abita Amber beer.

On day two, the seas were sloppier, but the 33-foot vessel cut down on the pounding and the soaking—a little. But the 20-mile ride out of Cocodrie to a wrecked boat in 55 feet of water was worth it: We enjoyed snapper fishing unparalleled by any I have experienced in more than three decades of venturing off Louisiana’s coast. The emerald-green waters were spotted with red all morning, as snapper schools ascended to the surface and ferociously attacked any bait.

Even before boat owner David Prevost positioned us over the wreck, I reeled in an 8-pound snapper that crushed a chunky, soft-plastic grub intended for an aggressive cobia cruising above the structure. Thirty or more snapper followed that first fish and soon multiple hook-ups marked the morning. More than once, I picked out a fish I wanted to catch, pitched my bait, and watched it eat. Fishing does not get better.

Our two days on the Gulf during the brief window provided by federal managers reinforced two things I already knew: Red snapper are abundant, and a federal system fraught with incessant political battles, insufficient data, and misguided management approaches keep anglers from that abundance.

There’s no reason to believe we can’t fix the access and enjoy the abundance.

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June 20, 2016

Glassing the Hill: June 20 – 24

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress.

The Senate and House are both in session this week. In about three weeks, lawmakers leave town for an extended 6-week recess that spans both party conventions in Cleveland (RNC) and Philadelphia (DNC).

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Last week saw the first House vote on public land transfers—and the bill passed through committee. in the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) bill, “The State National Forest Management Act,” which would sell national forest land to states, passed with a 23-15 vote. Congressman Zinke (R-Mont.) was the only Republican member who opposed this legislation. You can find the vote record here.

“The Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act,” from Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) also passed on party lines. The legislation would transfer forest management authority to a state-appointed “Advisory Committee,” which does not require a person with professional experience in managing forests.

The bills aren’t law yet, and you can show lawmakers that you are opposed to transfer and sale of public land by signing the petition for sportsmen’s access.

The House and Senate Department of the Interior and environmental agencies spending bills include “poison pill riders.” The House “Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” passed in full committee on a party-line vote last week with riders that may interfere with the bill’s passage, including Rep. Simpson’s (R-Idaho) amendment to delay the BLM’s Planning 2.0 Rule, Rep. Mark Amodei’s (R-Nev.) provision that would halt the federal government’s collaborative work with states to conserve greater sage-grouse habitat, and a rider that would block the administration’s Clean Water Rule that defines the jurisdiction of wetlands.

The Senate version of “The Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” also included language that would block the administration’s Clean Water Rule. The $32.034-billion Senate spending bill would cut funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund by $50 million. The bill passed with a 16-14 vote.

On the Senate floor last week, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) held a 14-hour filibuster demanding gun-related amendments, fueled by the violent events in Orlando a little more than a week ago. The proposed amendments to the “The Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” would prevent individuals on the terrorism watch list from purchasing firearms and expand background checks for gun purchases.

However, this is tying up Senators who need to crank out 12 individual appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year. Lawmakers only have three legislative weeks until they leave for a six-week recess, and the longer they work on other legislation, the more likely it is that a continuing resolution or an omnibus spending package will be considered before September 30. This typically last-minute process locks in spending levels from previous years and isn’t considered to be regular order.

The House is in a similar predicament, with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) continuing to push for floor time on his anti-discriminatory amendment.

On Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on wildfire and forest management legislation. The bill, “The Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act,” is a discussion draft that aimed at addressing wildfire suppression cost and improving forest management. It would provide a budget cap adjustment for wildfire suppression should the funding exceed the 10-year average cost. However, the legislation does not address the U.S. Forest Service’s long-term priorities to reduce wildfire costs, such as forest rehabilitation efforts. The hearing will take place Thursday morning.

The BLM Director will discuss Planning 2.0, legislation that would give the public more say in local and landscape-scale planning, at a Senate hearing on Tuesday afternoon. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze will testify at a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining, showing his support for the new rule. Planning 2.0 would have BLM better incorporate public feedback into their plans while the addressing energy and wildlife concerns in a timelier manner. Language offered by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) would delay the BLM’s Planning 2.0 Rule by 90-days has also been added in the House version of the U.S. Department of the Interior and environmental agencies spending bill. The amendment passed with a voice vote.

The House is expected to consider three additional bills this week: The Internal Revenue Service and related agencies spending bill that would cut the agency’s budget by $236 million; legislation that would replace “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act;” a bill that would give courts more authority on interpreting laws.

Also happening on Capitol Hill this week:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The National Environmental Policy Act’s (NEPA) role in the permitting process will be investigated in a House Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) justification for regulation will be discussed in a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing

The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Management program is up for debate in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing

Legislation that addresses air quality standards is on the docket for a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety hearing

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Unethical conduct occurring within the U.S. Department of the Interior will be examined in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing

Several water-related bills will be the subject of a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Ocean hearing

Service corps legislation will be examined in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing

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June 14, 2016

Glassing The Hill: June 13 – 17

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress.

The Senate and House are both in session this week.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

The first vote on two bills that would threaten public lands is set for this week. The House Natural Resources Committee will mark up Rep. Young’s (R-Alaska) “The State National Forest Management Act” and Rep. Labrador’s (R-Idaho) “The Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act,” both of which we strongly oppose.

Rep. Young’s (R-Alaska) legislation would allow each state to buy up to two million acres of national forest land and manage it primarily for timber production. Rep. Labrador’s (R-Idaho) bill would allow up to four million acres to be transferred to state-appointed “advisory committees” that would be solely responsible for managing demonstration forests with little public oversight. Both bills are a major threat to sportsmen’s access to quality hunting and fishing habitat.

Let your Congressional representative know that you oppose legislation that jeopardizes public land—use our Twitter Action Tool!

A red snapper bill is also in the lineup for this week’s markup. Rep. Graves’ (R-La.) “The Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act,” which we support, would allow flexible management of red snapper by the states, in an attempt to address widespread concerns from recreational anglers over ongoing federal management of the fishery. This year, the federal red snapper season for rec anglers in the Gulf was a scant nine days.

With only four legislative weeks left before lawmakers take an extended recess, Congress is running out of time to pass all 12 individual appropriations bills. The likeliness of a continuing resolution in the waning days of September continues to increase, as both chambers struggle to get through appropriations bills.

Before the Memorial Day recess, the House failed to pass the energy and water spending bill due to a controversial provision involving discrimination. Because of this surprise defeat, Republican House leaders have made a departure from their usual “open rule” policy on spending bills and intend to move future funding bills by restricting amendments. Because of this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando, many expect the gun control debate to once again roil consideration of funding bills.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up “The Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” this week. The bill would cut funding for key conservation agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) by $17 million, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by $10 million, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by $162 million. Poison pill riders are also included in the base bill. One would block the Obama administration from implementing the Clean Power Plan to decrease carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants.

Once the Senate takes a final vote on the NDAA, they will move on to consider “The Commerce and Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” this week on the floor. The commerce bill would include a $33.5 million increase in funds for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There are rumors that “The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” will be considered on the Senate floor, too. The agriculture funding levels would provide $147.7 billion in discretionary and mandatory funds, which is $7.1 billion above fiscal year 2016 enacted levels.

On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies will mark up their version of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and environmental agencies spending bill. On Thursday, the full Appropriations Committee will begin marking up the legislation. The language has not been released, but committee leaders are confident that no poison riders will be included in the base bill. It could mean this legislation will see the Senate floor for the first time in years.

Both chambers are gearing up to tackle WRDA. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Boxer (D-Calif.) are aggressively trying to persuade lawmakers behind closed doors to push leadership to bring “The Water Resource Development Act” (WRDA) to the Senate floor. Inhofe and Boxer want to pass WRDA before July 15, the last day before Congress leaves for an extended August recess. For now, Senate leadership believes that appropriation bills take precedence over WRDA.

The House version of WRDA has passed full Committee, and is similarly waiting for floor time. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Shuster (R-Pa.) and Congressman Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) are reportedly going to meet in the near future to discuss incorporating additional natural infrastructure language into the underlying bill. Ribble would like the bill to include additional language that would encourage the use of natural infrastructure, such as wetlands and natural floodplains, in water resources projects.

Senate Democrats are reluctant to move forward to a conference on the Energy Bill. The four main players in the energy conference, Sen. Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Cantwell (D-Wash.), Rep. Upton (R-Mich.), and Rep. Pallone (D-N.J.), are expected to meet this week to discuss the path forward for conferencing Senate and House energy bills. Cantwell and several other Democrats publically expressed their concerns with some House provisions.

While firefighters battle wildfires in the field, lawmakers are hashing out suppression and management on Capitol Hill. Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee introduced a discussion draft of legislation that addresses concerns with forest management and funding for wildfires. Today is the deadline to submit comments on the draft to the committee. We anticipate a hearing will be scheduled on the discussion draft in the near future.

What Else We’re Tracking

Wednesday, June 15

Department of Interior spending bill, on the table with the House Appropriations Committee at a mark-up of the Department of Interior and environmental agencies appropriations bill

Coastal zone conservation, to be deliberated in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee mark-up on the reauthorization of the Coastal Zone Management Act

National parks legislation will be the subject of a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks hearing

Thursday, June 16

DOI spending levels for fiscal year 2017 to be discussed at the Senate Appropriations Committee mark-up

Ed Arnett

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June 9, 2016

Why the Western Governors Are Leading an Effort to Improve the Endangered Species Act

Governors will soon reveal results of a year-long initiative to improve proactive conservation of our country’s most at-risk species

In the hunting community, the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken have recently become the face of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). When these game birds were petitioned for listing several years ago, because their populations had declined dramatically due to habitat loss, it was arguably the first time in recent memory that popular game species required this kind of action.

Greater sage grouse were determined to be not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act in September 2015, based on the strength of proactive collaborative conservation efforts. Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

Sportsmen understood what was at stake—losing the opportunity to pursue sage grouse and lesser prairie chickens would come with a full-blown listing. Industries and ranchers feared for their bottom lines, and livelihoods, too. Some pointed to the listing of the northern spotted owl, which brought a region and an industry to its knees in the 1990s. All sorts of political posturing and litigation ensued—in fact, it continues today, even after final decisions were made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in March 2014 and to forgo a listing of the greater sage grouse last September, based on the strength of collaborative conservation efforts from sportsmen groups, state and federal agencies, and private landowners promising to take widespread protective action.

There are wide-ranging opinions on the ESA, and it’s easy to get swept up in all the controversy and ignore the original intent of this critical legislation, which is to protect ecosystems and imperiled species from human development and other threats. The finger-pointing and contentiousness could make us forget that careful management by fish and wildlife agencies and the $1.6 billion dollars that hunters contribute annually to conservation is meant to keep us from the precipice of listing species in the first place.

Many decision-makers have called for reforms to the ESA. Congress has long suggested opening the Act, and some lawmakers would certainly use Paul Bunyan’s axe rather than a scalpel on certain provisions. So, it may surprise you that the Western Governors’ Association (WGA), a group of lawmakers who definitely have a vested interest in the ESA and its influence on the states, are not answering the call of some in Congress who want to tear down the legislation entirely.

The WGA, under leadership from Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and his staff, has spent the last year exploring ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Endangered Species Act, while elevating the role of the states in species conservation. The group held several workshops across the West to bring diverse stakeholders to the table, where they shared their opinions and ideas on the ESA’s use, misuse, effects on the economy, and actual impact on the ground. The results of these workshops will be unveiled next week at the annual WGA summer meeting in Jackson, Wyo.

The author presents his views on species conservation and the Endangered Species Act at the first of four Western Governors’ Association workshops on the subject. Image courtesy of Western Governors Association.

This should be encouraging to sportsmen, because whether or not the ESA should exist is not the right question. We need legislative checks and balances to conserve wildlife and habitat while allowing for other uses of the land to continue—history has proven that. Using the expertise of the people who rely on these lands, the Western governors are exploring not only how to improve the ESA, but also this: How do we shift from reacting to conservation crises requiring need for the ESA to launching proactive conservation measures that ensure we never get to crisis mode?

I generally agree that some reasonable reforms could likely improve the effectiveness of the ESA, but I also strongly believe that the very best solution for improving the Act is to avoid having to use it in the first place. This is where sportsmen are a very real part of the process and need to engage. And conservation efforts to benefit the greater sage grouse should be the model we celebrate. The future of species conservation has to focus on proactive, collaborative conservation efforts similar to what was recently accomplished for the sage grouse.

But until sportsmen, industry, private landowners, wildlife advocates and other non-consumptive users can take the proactive initiative to prevent these threats from happening in the first place, the regulatory hammer of the ESA remains necessary to force conservation into action. Until we make conservation a long-term investment, and no longer a nice thing to do only when discretionary funds are available, we can’t give into reforms that would weaken the ESA.

Shifting from reactive to proactive action will require change. The WGA has kickstarted the conversation, and now we need to incentivize a new way of doing business for all stakeholders. A key challenge will be securing investments in conservation and engaging stakeholders early in the process, so we’re pointed toward a common goal. Sportsmen can and should help move this revolution forward. Let’s start using an ounce of prevention, rather than paying for a pound of cure.

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June 8, 2016

Get Your Kids Out On the Water for National Fishing and Boating Week

Our conservation policy intern has a message for parents of young anglers—the tangled reels are worth it

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

I learned to fish about the same time that I learned to walk. I’d grab my tiny fishing rod and waddle down to the dock, while my dad dutifully trailed behind me with the tackle box, net, bait, and snacks—which were arguably as important as the bait. All fishing requires patience, but teaching a particularly young child to fish is on a completely different level, so I’m thankful that my father stuck it out through all the tangled reels, the constant need for re-baiting, and the rescue missions when I managed to knock our gear into the water.

I guess it’s easier to find the patience when fishing is a family tradition. It was something my dad used to do with his father. I never got to meet him, but the lures my grandfather made by hand are still in the family tackle box. They serve as a powerful reminder that fishing is more than just a sport—it’s a means of connecting with the ones we love.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

That’s what I hope kids across the U.S. will experience during National Fishing and Boating Week (June 4-12), which wraps up this weekend. Learn more about this national celebration of the importance of fishing and boating, not only to our families and culture but also to the American economy and our bedrock conservation funding initiatives, by visiting our friends over at takemefishing.org.

Now that I go to college out of state, I miss the time spent outdoors and appreciate all the memories I have with my family. I can’t think of a more beautiful place to be. These experiences have also fueled my appreciation for and my interest in conservation policy, which led me to an internship at the TRCP.

Image courtesy of Shannon Fagan.

I’ve always been appreciative of our country’s fish and wildlife resources—never tired of noticing all the shades of green you can find in the woods, always dazzled when the sun reflects just right off a fish. In this country, we have incredible access to these riches. But my time in Washington is starting to make me recognize more than ever that this is a privilege, and these places require our active care. And everyone who loves to hunt and fish needs to stay informed on the issues that impact our fish and wildlife, so we can actively advocate for conservation.

I hope that, when the day comes, our generation will have put in the tough work on conservation so that my father can go fishing with my children. I hope they’ll be able to lift the lid on our family tackle box and wonder at my grandfather’s lures, before counting all the greens in the trees and tossing a worm off the dock, bound for undetermined depths—or a snag on a tree branch. Either way, it’s worth it.

Shannon Fagan is the TRCP summer intern through the Demmer Scholar Program. She is going into her senior year at Michigan State University where she is majoring in Social Relations and Policy and minoring in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy. 

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