Sector Separation – It’s OK to Throw Bad Ideas Away
by Ted Venker
Coastal Conservation Association
Linus Pauling was an American chemist, biochemist, peace activist, author and educator. He was one of the most influential chemists in history and one of only four individuals to have won more than one Nobel Prize.
As far as I know, though, he never worked in fisheries management. He might not have liked to fish and possibly may not have even liked to eat fish. However, given his famous saying about ideas, we could certainly use him on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council today.
“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas,” Pauling once said, “and throw the bad ones away.”
What Linus saw so clearly has apparently proven to be a tough concept for most of the Gulf Council to grasp. It’s good to have ideas. Big problems need lots of ideas to solve. Put them all on the table – poke them, prod them, sift through them. But when they turn out to be bad ideas, throw them out and be done with them, for goodness’ sake.
Someone should have thrown out the idea of sector separation long ago, but instead the idea seems to be a classic case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease.
Sector separation is the proposal to formally split existing and future recreational sector allocations of harvest into separate private boat and charter / for-hire / headboat sector portions. This approach has been pushed by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which is also advocating catch shares for the for-hire and headboat sectors.
Times are tough for charter/for-hire and headboat operators in the Gulf of Mexico. No one disputes that. Times are tough all over. But somehow, a small, vocal minority of operators has convinced the Gulf Council that they need extra help. They figured their lives would be a lot easier if someone would literally give them some of the recreational quota of red snapper and allow them to be one of the very few segments in America today with some stability in their businesses. The Council apparently feels the need to do something to help them.
In reality, every entity from the federal government to your local vegetable stand craves a little stability in their business right now. I bet all of the state wildlife management agencies that are seeing their budgets slashed and burned would love to see some stability and guaranteed revenue streams as well.
It’s a nice gig for the operators, if they can get it. But does the chance to play favorites for a few operators justify the Council striking off on such a radical and wildly unpopular idea that makes no sense at any level?
It makes no economic sense for anyone but a handful of fortunate operators. By catering to a very small segment of the Gulf reef fish fishery, the Council is apparently willing to shortchange the private boat angling sector that is many times larger and far more economically vibrant – see Table 1 below.
NOAA’s own economic studies
show that for the period 2009 to 2032, private boat recreational anglers will contribute $9.1 billion of the value in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp and reef fish fisheries, followed by the commercial shrimp fishery at $1.6 billion, and the recreational for-hire fishery at just $0.83 billion.
It shouldn’t make any sense to state wildlife management agencies. Given the limited recreational allocation, the only way the idea works at all is if managers take fish and fishing days away from private boat anglers and give them to a few private businesses. Private boat anglers supply the vast majority of license fees that support state fisheries programs. Charter/for-hire vessels supply a much smaller percentage of revenues. It is very likely a move to separate the recreational sector will create challenges for state fisheries directors by influencing the growth in the number of licensed anglers and fishing opportunities in their states.
The issue of sector separation and catch shares for the recreational angling sector has drawn opposition from governors, Congress and recreational anglers. And yet, the Gulf Council members continue to toy with the idea like a puzzle they can’t quite fit together.
Linus Pauling, where are you when we need you?
Before the Council lets sector separation whither into existence against the will of everyone but a few operators, it should first heed calls to reallocate fisheries according to modern factors like economic, social and conservation criteria, rather than outdated catch history. There is a very good likelihood that reallocating red snapper would solve many of the problems faced by operators without creating so many new ones.
Today’s Gulf red snapper allocation is 51 percent commercial/49 percent recreational. Before the Gulf Council turns the recreational sector inside out and upside down for the benefit of a few charter/for-hire and headboat operators, it would seem wise to first determine what happens if they changed the allocation to something more reflective of current reality. Maybe something that would encourage growth in the sector that is the greatest economic engine in this fishery.
Now that’s a good idea.
If those same operators are still struggling a few years from now under the new allocation, then perhaps you reallocate again or perhaps you throw some other ideas on the table and sift through those.
But take it from a guy who won two Nobel Prizes – don’t forget to throw the bad ideas away.