NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council manages the fishery resources in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It's one of eight regional fishery management councils in the United States. The Gulf Council essentially manages the fishery from the nine-mile mark out to the 200-mile limit.
The council has 17 voting members. Eleven of those members are nominated by governors of the five gulf states.
"Before the IFQ, we tried a variety of ways to address the race for fish that was taking place," says Dr. Roy Crabtree, regional administrator for NOAA's Marine Fisheries Service and a federal representative on the Gulf Council. "We had a limited commercial quota for red snapper. The fishermen were catching it up as quick as they could. They were flooding the market with fish Fishery was closed most of the year, so we didn't have year-round production. And we had safety-at-sea issues. Because fishermen were fishing in unsafe sea conditions. And we were having overruns of quota.
Crabtree says the IFQ program was designed largely to address these problems.
"Since it's gone into place we've had year-round production of red snapper," he says. "The fishery's never gone over their quota since it went in place. Fisherman could choose what day to go fishing, so I don't think we have safety-at-sea issues. We tried combinations of trip limits, limited entry quotas, spring and fall quotas and, finally, it was where they could only fish the first 10 days of the month. None of that worked. So, the program has proven to be an effective way to allow fishermen to catch the fish and get them to the marketplace and provide fish all year round.
Another big reason for starting the IFQ was to have better control on the red snapper stock.
"The scientists tell us that the stock's not fully rebuilt," Crabtree tells us. "Now the quotas are the highest they've ever been. The stock's probably in the best shape it's been in 40 years. But the scientists are still looking for a greater abundance of older fish in the population, before it's determine it's been rebuilt fully."
Crabtree says, when the program was started, whether quotas could be transferred became a huge debate.
"Most of the commercial fishermen at that time wanted to maintain a requirement that, in order to acquire quota, you had to have a reef fish permit, which meant you had to have a boat. But there were a number of interests, some of the recreational interests on the council, who wanted unlimited transferability. And they had a difficult time."
Compromise was needed, and finally reached. "For the first five years of the program, in order to acquire shares, you had to have a reef fish permit," Crabtree tells us. "And then that requirement went away. You can acquire shares now without having to have a permit or a boat. Now the council is looking at modifications to the program. And one of the modifications they're considering is reinstating that reef fish permit requirement."
The federal government collects no money from these fishermen for the right to catch and sell red snapper. The Gulf Council says there is a cost recovery fee attached to this program that collects 3 percent of the overall money each year.
Federal records show in 2015, the fishermen sold the red snapper allocation for $29,767,325. $893,021 went back to the Gulf Council. The council says the money is used for administration of the program, maintenance and upkeep of the online system and software, enforcement of the IFQ program, and scientific resource.
But the fishermen aren't the ones paying this fee. Instead, the dealer who purchased the fish is responsible for collecting and submitting the fee.
While the Gulf Council and similar regional councils fall under the organizational umbrella of the U.S. Department of Commerce, they work in partnership with NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency directly responsible for overseeing the nation's ocean resources.