Could the Redfish Wars Return?

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Did you know there are forces that have been working to make the redfish a commercially harvested species again for many years?

For many years, commercial fishermen targeted redfish heavily with gill nets, purse seines, and other highly effective tools. Fisheries agencies even allowed recreational anglers to use gill nets in Texas to catch reds and other popular fish.

Texas red drum populations have skyrocketed in recent decades.

By the 1970’s, the American public fell in love with redfish, partly because of New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme’s famous “blackened redfish” recipe. The result was that redfish populations were ravaged, and recreational fishermen experienced terrible fishing conditions.

A group of concerned coastal anglers fought to get the redfish classified as a game fish and therefore protected from commercial harvest. Many outdoor writers call those days the “redfish wars,” which spawned the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA), now Coastal Conservation Association (CCA).

The banning of commercial redfish harvest along with aggressive stocking efforts spearheaded by the then Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA-now CCA) and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) gave the redfish population a much-needed boost. At the time of this writing, Texas has stocked more than 100,000,000 redfish fingerlings into coastal bay systems and estuaries. TPWD officials also placed a slot limit on redfish that protected the mature breeding specimens (bull reds) from harvest.

By the early 1990’s, redfish numbers had stabilized and recreational fishermen started catching lots of them. In fact, by 1994 redfish numbers got so high that TPWD biologists decided it was okay for anglers to harvest a couple of bull redfish each year. TPWD initiated a special red drum “trophy tag.”

Fast forward to the 2000s. Now, redfish are super abundant with record numbers reported in bay systems along the Gulf Coast. Anglers are enjoying a redfish renaissance of sorts.

But there are reasons to be concerned.

For example there is a contingent of anglers in Louisiana who say redfish are responsible for causing severe declines in the number and average size of blue crabs in the marshes of Louisiana. I am sure it is not the hundreds of thousands of crab traps in their marshes. 

It must be the redfish, right?

Back in 2001, the Red Drum Advisory Panel (RDAP) of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council (GMFMC) asked federal fisheries managers to consider a “limited commercial season” for redfish. They passed on it the first time, but a similar proposal came up in 2015.

And it has came up in various discussions behind the scenes since then.

Redfish stocks may indeed be able to sustain a commercial harvest, and to be perfectly fair, those fish do not belong to sport fishermen or anyone else for that matter–they are supposed to be a public resource. 

On the other hand, sport anglers are the ones who paid for redfish restoration through saltwater stamp sales, and funded massive stocking programs that increased overall numbers of the fish in Texas and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. Sport fishermen have lived with restrictive redfish limits to help bolster this magnificent fish. The last time the commercial fishermen had a go with redfish, they nearly fished them into oblivion. That is not an opinion, but a documented fact.

These proposals keep popping up every five years or so but never see the light of day. Numerous other issues are taking up the time and resources of NMFS, and support for redfish conservation is still high among conservation groups and state fish and game agencies

I do think it’s worth addressing this topic because if we forget our history, we may be doomed to repeat it.

Chester Moore

President Bush’s Redfish Executive Order

In 2007 President George W. Bush issued an executive order giving redfish and striped bass protections in federal waters.

Here is the actual text.

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, to assist in ensuring faithful execution of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, and the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act (chapters 38, 71, and 71A of title 16, United States Code), and to conserve striped bass and red drum fish, it is hereby ordered as follows: 

Section 1. Policy. It shall be the policy of the United States to conserve striped bass and red drum for the recreational, economic, and environmental benefit of the present and future generations of Americans, based on sound science and in cooperation with State, territorial, local, and tribal governments, the private sector, and others, as appropriate. 

Sec. 2. Implementation. (a) To carry out the policy set forth in section 1, the Secretary of Commerce shall: 

(i) encourage, as appropriate, management under Federal, State, territorial, tribal, and local laws that supports the policy of conserving striped bass and red drum, including State designation as gamefish where the State determines appropriate under applicable law; 

(ii) revise current regulations, as appropriate, to include prohibiting the sale of striped bass and red drum caught within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States off the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico; 

(iii) periodically review the status of the striped bass and red drum populations within waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and: 

(A)          take such actions within the authority of the Secretary of Commerce as may be appropriate to carry out the policy set forth in section 1 of this order; and 
(B)          recommend to the President such actions as the Secretary may deem appropriate to advance the policy set forth in section 1 that are not within the authority of the Secretary. 

(b) Nothing in this order shall preclude or restrict the production, possession, or sale of striped bass or red drum fish that have been produced by aquaculture.

Orders like this can be overturned and it’s not sure how much teeth this has with much of the redfish population being in state waters but it is worth noting that a President from Texas made a stand for redfish.


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