Insults and heated rhetoric fly before red snapper hearing

By Emily Yehle | 10/22/2015 07:16 AM EDT

A charter boat captain from Florida has angered commercial fishermen by comparing them to “old-time” plantation owners and sharecroppers in prepared testimony to Congress.

A charter boat captain from Florida has angered commercial fishermen by comparing them to "old-time" plantation owners and sharecroppers in prepared testimony to Congress.

Bob Zales is scheduled to appear before the House Natural Resources Committee today to testify about a bill that would allow states to manage the Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper fishery. H.R. 3094 is a controversial bill on a controversial issue — one that has pitted commercial fishermen against recreational anglers and some charter boat captains.

Zales supports the bill, which aims to address complaints over a short recreational season for the popular fish. But in describing why he dislikes federal management, Zales turned to history for a metaphor.


Recreational fishermen are allowed to keep red snapper during a traditional season, which in recent years has been a handful of days. But commercial fishermen are regulated under catch shares, in which the National Marine Fisheries Service allocates individual fishing quotas (IFQs) to commercial fishermen that can be used anytime.

Fishermen can then lease out their quotas, meaning another fisherman pays them for the right to catch their fish. Such IFQs are also called individual transferable quotas, or ITQs.

"Today over 15 percent of the red snapper commercial quota is owned by people who do not even own a vessel as they do not fish the IFQs, rather they lease their shares out to other commercial fishermen, much like the old time plantation owner who allowed share croppers to farm the land," Zales writes in his testimony. "Ownership of red snapper quota with the ability to harvest and sell the fish or lease to others provides more financial return than any stock available on the stock market."

In a statement sent out yesterday evening, four commercial fishermen said they were "offended by Mr. Zales’ attempt to smear hardworking fishermen with ugly labels from the past." Catch shares, they said, have helped restore the red snapper population.

"This mischaracterization is an insult not only to the people who have invested wisely and patiently built businesses while helping the red snapper stock to rebound, but also to the many fishermen who make a good living under the ITQ system, and who, unlike sharecroppers, are able to grow their own businesses and purchase quota shares," they wrote. "The debate over Gulf red snapper is highly contentions, but there is absolutely no justification for slurs like this."

The statement was signed by fishermen Bubba Cochrane, Jim Zurbrick, Scott Daggett and Matthew Tevlin. All are members of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, which has joined the Charter Fisherman’s Association, Gulf Fishermen’s Association and Seafood Harvesters of America in opposing H.R. 3094.

At today’s hearing on the bill, the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans will hear from two panels of witnesses, including fishermen and state and federal officials. Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) is the author of the bill, which would allow states to use "flexible management approaches" to take local needs into consideration.