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Zurik: Fed quotas, overcounting spell trouble for recreational snapper fishers

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -

For most of the year, federal waters - waters owned by taxpayers - are off limits for fisherman looking to catch red snapper. Recreational and charter fisherman across the Gulf Coast feel commercial fishermen have an unfair allotment of a public resource, as we explore in our "Hooked Up" investigation.

The numbers help tell the story of the haves and the have-nots in the red snapper business. 

For instance, in the nine-day 2014 federal season for recreational red snapper fishing, the feds say recreational fishermen caught 1,227,469 pounds of fish in federal waters off Alabama's coast.

The state of Alabama also monitors catch numbers for the federal season, but officials there have a much different total: 455,522 pounds, about 271 percent less.

"We here in Louisiana know exactly who is fishing for these fish," says David Cresson, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association. "The federal government really has no idea. It's kind of a wild guess for them."

Cresson says the numbers from Louisiana raise even more questions.

The states along the Gulf Coast control the waters out to nine miles. And the states can set their own red snapper seasons.

In the 223-day Louisiana red snapper season of 2015, the state estimates, recreational fishermen caught 751,580 pounds of red snapper.

The federal government had a 10-day red snapper season in 2015. And the feds estimate the recreational fishermen from the state of Louisiana caught 444,227 pounds.

To look at it another way, the state of Louisiana says, each day in the 2015 season, recreational fishermen in state waters caught 3,370 pounds per day. But the federal government says recreational fishermen in its waters, its season, caught 44,422 pounds each day.

"To imagine that we could catch... almost two-thirds of that amount during those nine days - It's just nonsense," Cresson says. "That's the simplest way to say it."

Cresson is a staunch critic of the federal program exposed in our "Hooked Up" series. The program is unknown to most taxpayers, but it allows a handful of businesses and fishermen to make millions from a government resource swimming in federal waters, red snapper. The government gets nothing in return for the right to fish.

While this small group of commercial fisherman profit, Cresson says, recreational fishermen along the coast suffer.

"And that's the first thing to know, is that it's not fair, it hasn't been fair," he tells us.

Here's why these numbers matter.

In 2014, the federal government set the recreational quota for the federal season at 5,390,000 pounds. That's how many pounds of red snapper recreational fishermen could catch. The season lasted nine days.

But remember those numbers we showed you earlier, the discrepancy between the states of Louisiana and Alabama and federal government's numbers. If the federal government is overestimating the recreational catch, they could be shortchanging private anglers on their season.

"Red snapper is the choicest fish in the Gulf of Mexico, without a doubt," says Bob Shipp, who served 18 years on the Gulf Council, the public body that manages the gulf's fishery.

Shipp has been called the authority on Gulf of Mexico red snapper. He says there's no comparison: the state's snapper count is more accurate than the feds numbers.

"The states are much better," Shipp says, at getting accurate counts. "In Alabama, we have cameras mounted at the launch site. We count the number of boats that go out and the rest. All the feds do is, some guy walks up with a pad of paper and talks to a few fishermen. They extrapolate the data from that."

Shipp says the methods used by state officials are far more extensive than the methods the feds use.

Mitchell Rogers says he's been fishing since he was three or four years old. But last year Rogers barely made it out into the federal waters to fish red snapper.

"It really makes it difficult for guys like me, you know, my friends and stuff to even make it out there," Rogers says. "With a nine-day season... it starts on June 1st, and you get one weekend. And with that one weekend, if the weather's bad - you get a bad blow through here, we get a low-pressure system, you know - it's rough the whole time. Nobody can fish. Next thing you know, we're able to fish two days, you know, a day."

Here's the reason why questionable federal estimates matter. Every year, the feds come up with a number, the total amount of red snapper that can be caught that year. They allot 51.5 percent of that number to recreational and charter fisherman, 48.5 percent to commercial.

"It really isn't fair, the amount of weight the commercial side gets compared to what the recreational side gets," Rogers remarks.

If the federal government is overestimating the amount caught in the recreational piece of that pie, that 51 percent they promised may actually be a lot lower.

Pam Anderson runs a marina in Panama City, Florida. She says she's no stranger to people who have gone out of business because of the federal catch share program.

"It's an impact to every marina on the coast," she tells us.

The shortened recreational and charter red snapper season has forced charter fishermen to go out of business, marinas to close. A shorter season means fewer people on the water, less money being spent.

"Our fuel sales dropped by 35 percent," Anderson says. "If boats are not going fishing, they're not buying fuel either."

In 2016, the federal government allowed recreational fisherman to catch 4,150,000 pounds of red snapper. According to government data, the average red snapper weighs around 8 pounds. That means fishermen can catch 518,750 fish.

The feds set a two-fish limit per day. That means, in a 10-day season, about 25,937 fishermen would hit the federal waters each day to catch their quota. If, on average, four people ride on a boat, that means each day 6,484 boats would have to leave docks along the Gulf Coast, every day.

For those numbers to make sense, you would literally have to have hundreds or thousands of boats leaving all of those Gulf Coast docks, every day.

Cresson says that's highly improbable. "It's just not the case here in Louisiana," he says. "The numbers, they don't add up. There's no doubt about that."

Much of this fight pits commercial and recreational red snapper fishermen against each other. But Cresson insists that recreational fishermen are not trying to take fish or money from commercial fishermen.

"We all love to eat wild, caught seafood," he says. "Here in Louisiana, it's part of our culture. We all want to see our restaurants, our commercial fishermen do well and make a great living. But the bottom line is we have privatized a public resource here at the expense of the public. So, you've got hundreds of thousands of people, families, my kids, your kids that would like access to these fish. And, because of a system that chooses a select few to benefit, the rest of us are left at the dock."

One of the commercial fisherman who profits most from this program, Buddy Guindon of Texas, says the short recreational season is overblown. Each state has a red snapper season that extends nine miles from the coast; that's where the federal waters start. In Louisiana, the state season now runs 272 days.

"I think it's [expletive] if they say it because, in Texas, we have a year-round fishery for red snapper in state waters," Guindon tells us. "And in Louisiana, you've expanded your state waters and they're getting more and more days. But they only have nine days in federal waters, because their fish are being caught in state waters and they're managed as one entity. So, if you take the fish out in state waters, they're not available for the federal season. Otherwise, they'd have a 40- or 50-day season."

But the numbers do raise questions. Since 2007, when this federal program started, the number of fish commercial fisherman can catch, the quota, has grown from 2.9 million pounds to 6 million pounds. During the same time period, the number of days recreational fisherman can fish in federal waters has dwindled, from 194 all the way down to 12 days.

"What they should take from it is that the federal system is failing," Cresson says. "It's based on faulty numbers, it's based on bad allocations, it's based on a system that allows for a very select few to profit at the expense of hundreds of thousands of people that would like access to this public resource."

NOAA told us their experts don't agree that the state's numbers are more accurate. They are working with Alabama, and actually funded their program. NOAA says it's collaborating with the Gulf states to explore new survey designs.

Meantime, some of the commercial fishermen benefiting from the current quota system released this written statement, sent under the group name Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders' Alliance:

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Some images used in this report come from NOAA Fisheries.

You can find earlier reports in our Hooked Up series online at http://FOX8Live.com/HookedUp. You’ll also find web-exclusive stories, including:

Click here to go to the HOOKED UP investigation page at FOX8Live.com.

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