By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, June 03 U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R) from Alabama announced that the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies passed the Fiscal Year 2015 CJS appropriations bill, which contains critical provisions affecting fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.
According to Sen. Shelby’s office among the other important provisions, the legislation includes language directing that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) take into account the benefits of artificial reefs and offshore energy exploration infrastructure when conducting stock assessments for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico, including red snapper. The legislation also requires that NOAA take into consideration any imbalance occurring in the ecosystem due to larger and more red snapper prior to making any changes to red snapper quotas for the Gulf of Mexico.
Sen. Shelby said in a written statement, “The bill provides sufficient resources and direction to improve the management of our Nation’s fisheries, including new approaches to manage red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. These new approaches should provide a more equitable system for commercial fishermen and increase the number of fishing days for recreational anglers.”
Recreational fishing is a huge tourist attraction in Alabama. One of the most popular saltwater fish species is red snapper. The Federal government regulates how many red snapper that can be legally be put on a boat. Commercial fisherman successfully argued to Federal fisheries officials that recreational fisherman have exceeded their collective quota.
The Federal government punished recreational fishermen by limiting the amount of days that a recreational fisherman can fish for and keep a red snapper to just 9 days this year. Outside of that nine day season any red snapper caught by a recreational fisherman must be released back to the ocean.
U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R) from Montrose has been a staunch credit of Federal red snapper policy. Congressman Byrne said recently that, “Local experts like Dr. Bob Shipp at the University of South Alabama have long argued that the federal government’s data collection practices are flawed and do not accurately reflect the Red Snapper stocks in the Gulf…This fight is not over, but we are making progress. We are forcing the Federal government to give back power to those who know what they are doing and have a vested interested in caring for these stocks. I’m glad to restore common sense into the regulatory process and provide relief to our fishermen who are in dire need, and I’ll keep working to make steps forward on this issue.”
Shelby’s office said that the legislation passed on Tuesday also includes other provisions affecting the Alabama Gulf Coast.·
The report includes language providing $2.5 million for operations of the Disaster Response Center (DRC) in Mobile, of which up to $500,000 can be used for activities of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council established under the RESTORE Act.
The report includes language directing NOAA to work with the National Science Foundation to conduct a Vortex SE study focusing on the unique climate and topography of the southeast region. The Vortex I and Vortex II studies had focused solely on the Midwest region.
Language is included in the report encouraging NOAA to participate in cooperative research with other relevant federal agencies and Sea Grant universities to pursue research in aquatic animal health.
The report included language directing NOAA to leverage existing resources to better understand the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, including through a sentinel species program.
The report also included language encouraging NOAA to study the effects of offshore oil platforms on highly migratory pelagic species, including yellow fin tuna. Shelby’s office said that the report also included language encouraging NOAA to support off-bottom oyster aquaculture and research related to disease and reproduction that could be beneficial to commercial operations.
Sen. Shelby said that the report included language expressing the Committee’s disappointment in the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) and the mismanagement of the recreational reef fish fishery in the Gulf of Mexico that has resulted in shorter seasons for recreational anglers. The language directs NOAA to augment or replace MRIP data with data collected from electronic monitoring or reporting when feasible.
The report also acknowledged the threat posed by invasive lionfish and encouraged NOAA to partner with interested state, local, non-profit, and private entities to research ways to mitigate the negative impacts caused by this invasive species, including in the Gulf of Mexico where there are numerous artificial reefs.
Senator Shelby is the Vice Chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
Byrne was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 after a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Prior to that Sen. Shelby served in the Alabama legislature.