What is Sector Separation; why should you care?

It is called Amendment 39; Sector Separation. It is an amendment to the Gulf of Mexico's reef fish fishery management plan. In the amendment Sector Separation is defined as: "the partition of a sector into distinct components." The private recreational anglers and the for-hire sector (Charter boat and head boat operators)

It all sounds innocuous enough; so why all the impassioned rhetoric? What is it about sector separation that would move normal recreational fishermen to take time from their busy lives, work and families to send emails or attend what are very boring meetings of the Gulf Of Mexico Fishery Management Council to make passionate pleas either in support or against something that sounds so harmless.

I mean really what could be so bad about it and how might it impact you, a private recreational angler? Looking further into the amendment; it begins to surface; not directly, but it is there. In order to know how this might affect you it is important to know why it is even being considered.

Why this issue has surfaced

Well it seems that many in the for-hire sector fear a shift from anglers hiring vessels to take fishing trips to using their own vessels to go fishing. I mean really who in their right mind would want to fish on their own privately owned vessel or that of a friend.

So in reading through Amendment 39 the issues are this. To paraphrase: recreational anglers are now catching more fish than the pros and it is impacting their business. Many private recreational anglers have always owned boat, but now they can fish where only the pros could go just a few years ago. So now instead of hiring a boat they take out their own boats.

That is the basis of this amendment. It is not an amendment to actually improve the fishery to serve all of us, nor is it a plan to improve the data collection for the recreational sector as a whole, it is a plan designed to serve a very few federal reef fish permit holders who are seeing their industry in decline.

sector separation-noaa photo

With NOAA and the National Marine Fishery Service cutting our American Red Snapper season to a mere 40 days this year -- and somehow determining that that short season allowed us to catch more than our "fair share" of the fish (according to computer software designed for, and operated by, vegans), how long do we think there is going to be a sport fishing industry? Certainly the offshore factor of our sport is being cut off at the knees. You think it's gonna be long before they're counting your snook? Really? Vote. It's the only way to garner change we can believe in.

At what point did the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council get into the jobs and business model game?...Seems to me they have a hard enough time managing fisheries without taking on the responsibility for other people's jobs and businesses. Is it the private recreational angler's fault? No! The federal government (at the urging of a few in the industry) placed a moratorium on issuing new permits in 2004? Since the moratorium has been in place the cost of a federal permit has gone from $22 issued from the federal government to $6,000 or $9,000 to purchase an existing one; it is no wonder the industry is in decline, who could afford to enter the industry after getting a Captain's license, purchasing a boat, purchasing gear and all of the other start up cost plus a $6,000 permit ($9,000 if you want a reef and migratory species permit). The industry is in decline, because of its own actions, it drastically limits new entrants. So in other words as a captain retires and shutters his businesses there is no one waiting in the wings to take his/her place.

So the for-hire component; mind you this is about 120 or so out of 1322 federal permit holders, wants to separate from the recreational sector, because the private recreational angler is becoming a better fisherman. How might this impact you? Firstly it will mean that any species that falls under the management of sector separation would have their recreational allocation divided between 2 and possible 3 groups. The council says there is no way to know exactly how the allocations will be divided unless and until separation has been implemented (does anyone remember....We have to pass it to know what's in it) again the American people are being asked to accept something without knowing all of the details.

When the for-hire sector separation supporters are asked what they feel is a "fair and equitable" split, they want to point to data of historical landings (much of which is outdated and highly inaccurate). Based on historical data they would think that for example Red Snapper that a 51% for-hire to 49% private angler split is reasonable. I think the most honest answer I got was on a Facebook post; where one for hire advocate said 85%.

So the impacts to you as a private recreational angler will be direct and most likely severe. It could mean that a season might be closed to you and the only way you could go fishing for a species, would be to hire a boat; assuming that they have not fished their quota. The goal of course is to increase days at sea or at least allow the for-hire to pick and choose the days they want to fish; of course it does nothing for the private recreational angler.

The supporters also say that since they are accountable and have permits, it will improve data reporting for the recreational anglers, because they can self report. I wonder; how is improving data collection for what amounts to about 15% of the fishery, going to help the other 85%? This is a question that remains without answer.

Another question is this: why in the amendment has the fact that the for-hire component account for about 15% to 20% of all trips and that recreational anglers are managed by bag limits per person not been addressed? If the for-hire operators provide about 20% of the all angler trips in the Gulf of Mexico, then based on this does it not follow that the sector is really only entitled to about 20% of the catch, to provide appropriate bag limits for their customers on their trips.

Now for the 800 pound gorilla in the room! How likely is it that as a result of splitting the allocation and reporting of catches tied to permit holders, is going to lead to catch shares ("Market Based Management") and Individual Fishing Quotas? I say it is highly likely and while the proponents of the amendment do not talk about it; this is mentioned throughout the amendment. The one piece of the puzzle needed to implement catch shares and IFQ into the recreational sector is a lack of individual catch data.

Well this opens that flood gate and sets the stage for the private recreational anglers having to purchase the fish they already own, from the government or even WALMART. Once they can say that they have proper historical landings data tied to individuals then there is nothing to stop them for instituting a "Market Based Management" approach in the recreational fishery. This is the ultimate end game of the whole sector separation idea; the current for-hire supporters may not realize it, but soon enough it will be a reality. One only has to read the: "Safeguarding Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish through Market-based Management" report April 2010 by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to ascertain the Catch Shares and IFQ are the management goal for all fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a quote directly from the report.

"EDF is working to bring all Gulf reef fish under IFQ management by 2012, and to integrate management for the commercial and recreational sectors. Until all reef fish are managed under IFQs, needless bycatch and economic waste will impede the full conservation and business benefits that catch share management offers."

This is EDF's stated goal and sector separation is the opening in the door to allow this to become a reality. So how might this harmless sounding Amendment 39 impact you as a private recreational angler? In ways we can only imagine and in ways we all need to fear! In my opinion this will result in less access to the public resource by private individuals, and further grants special access to corporate interest.

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