By Congressman Jo Bonner
If there’s one thing that the federal government has told Gulf fishermen for more than a decade, it’s that our most popular fish is in danger of overfishing. The government has even gone so far as to impose extreme catch restrictions that border on the absurd. That’s what makes a recent video showing the destruction of Red Snapper at the direction of the federal government all the more bizarre and infuriating.
An undercover video released by Mobile television station WPMI on February 7, showed what appeared to be a series of underwater explosions of an abandoned oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. After the explosions, dead Red Snapper were seen littering the surface of the water. The television report estimated ten thousand pounds of fish – mostly snapper – were killed by the explosions.
For a number of years, the U.S. Department of the Interior has overseen the removal of unused oil and gas rigs in the Gulf. However, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, DOI ramped up their efforts to remove these old rigs, requiring oil companies to submit plans for removal and begin securing platforms immediately. The policy known as “Idle Iron” was intended to ensure the abandoned platforms pose no danger to boats or the environment. Hundreds of these rigs have been removed under Idle Iron, with hundreds more scheduled through 2015.
Over the last few years, there has been a growing movement to retain these rigs due to their importance as artificial reefs. Many species of marine life have taken to these man-made habitats, including Red Snapper. I have cosponsored legislation in the House along with Mississippi Congressman Steven Palazzo to protect these artificial reefs, which both marine scientists and fishermen know to be important habitat. Recently, however, the impact of the rigs’ removal on local fishing was shown to be even more dramatic than many realized.
As the video revealed, the government’s practice of using explosives to remove the old rigs is not only destroying valuable marine habitat, but is also directly at odds with other government policy aimed at protecting Gulf Red Snapper. Anyone who has ever eaten at a local seafood restaurant or gone fishing in the Gulf – and that includes just about everyone reading this column – knows just how good Red Snapper can be. It has been described as the crown jewel of the Gulf fishing industry from Texas to the big bend of Florida.
Unfortunately, the government has been overzealous in managing Red Snapper fishing to the point of effectively shutting it down.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, through the regional fisheries management council in the Gulf, recently approved the shortest Red Snapper season to date – just 27 days. I have opposed the ever increasing limits on Gulf Red Snapper because there is substantial evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, that the fish stock is healthier now than it has been in many years. Red Snapper are so plentiful that they crowd out other fish. They are also growing larger, further evidence they are not being overfished.
Given the unjustified, draconian limits placed upon Gulf Red Snapper by Washington in recent years, it is bordering on insanity for the federal government to pursue a parallel course that is literally destroying thousands of pounds of Red Snapper with each rig they remove. Idle Iron is a stark example of how two different federal departments can work against one another in the absence of oversight.
Hours after seeing the video I contacted Mississippi Congressman Steven Palazzo and together we wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar demanding a hiatus in the removal of rigs in the Gulf.
To quote from our letter: “At the same time one federal agency is restricting fishing for the preeminent target fish species in the Gulf, another – yours – is literally killing thousands of pounds of fish and destroying the habitat on which they rely. Certainly, Mr. Secretary, you see the hypocrisy here. These fish are the economic life-blood for thousands of our constituents along the Gulf of Mexico, and this insanity must stop – immediately… Mr. Secretary, for these reasons, and in the strongest possible terms, we request an immediate cessation to any planned removals in the Gulf of Mexico under the auspices of ‘Idle Iron.’ We appreciate your attention and look forward to your quick response.”
Making sure that our letter was received, I personally presented a copy to Secretary Salazar while on the House floor during the State of the Union speech. I have also met with other Department of Interior officials to convey a strong message that Alabama and other Gulf coast states will not stand idly by and watch the government endanger one of our most precious resources.