New Orleans restaurateur Dickie Brennan remembers redfish becoming a nationally sought-after dish this way: A German chef, who was also a fisherman, introduced redfish to Brennan’s famous family of restaurateurs at the late 1970s.
“Back then, everyone in restaurants just wanted to eat trout or pompano,” Brennan recalls. Creole-flavored rockfish cooked on a flat top quickly became a popular dish, Brennan said. His family believed it would help reduce overfishing of other species as well. “We were proud to be pioneers,” he said.
But as the popularity of redfish exploded – aided by recipes from Chef Paul Prudhomme – its population collapsed and the state had to end the commercial redfish fishery. For many chiefs, the near collapse of the redfish helped them realize their role as stewards of the health of the fishery.
It was in this role, they say, that 26 New Orleans chiefs signed a letter opposing legislation to Congress that they say could reverse progress made towards building a sustainable fishery. . The signatories of the letter are James Beard Award nominees and winners Ryan Prewitt, Stephen Stryjewski, Justin Devillier, Nina Compton, Michael Stoltzfus, Kristen Essig, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. The James Beard Award is often referred to as the Oscars of the food industry. The chiefs are asking lawmakers to vote against the bills.
But recreational fishermen say the legislation would create flexibility for hobbyists, who outnumber commercial fishermen. The chiefs have no more interest in sustainable fishing than they did when they contributed to the collapse of the redfish population, the fishermen argue.
At stake is the re-authorization of a 1976 law governing federal fisheries. The law, known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, was amended with reauthorizations in 1996 and 2006, and is credited with rebuilding 41 fish stocks since 2000. A fish stock is defined as a group of fish of the same species who live in the same geographic area. area and mix enough to breed at maturity, according to the National Maritime Fisheries Service.
The proposed legislation, introduced by Representative Don Young, R-Alaska, would weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Act, according to an analysis by the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a coalition of commercial and recreational fishing associations. “Many of the provisions of HR 200 represent a significant setback, which will hamper the ability of federal fisheries managers to rebuild and maintain sustainable fish stocks,” according to the analysis.
Young disagrees. “My bill gives regional councils the flexibility they need to make good science-based fisheries management decisions,” he wrote in a response to the chiefs letter. “Any reauthorization of MSA will keep core tenants in place, but we can make improvements to help local economies and ease the regulatory burden facing the recreational and commercial fishing sectors. “
The bill was passed by the Natural Resources Committee in December. One of the more controversial aspects of Young’s proposal is that it calls for a review by the National Academy of Sciences of how the National Marine Fisheries Service counts and reports the catch and effort of recreational fishing at sea. The review would include a review of catch limits, which establish the maximum amount of fish that can be caught while maintaining a healthy and sustainable fish stock. Under the current red snapper management system, commercial fishers receive 51 percent of the catch limit and recreational fishers receive the remaining 49 percent.
Recreational anglers argue that 49 percent is not enough for 11 million U.S. saltwater recreational anglers. “We think it’s not fair. It was an allocation that was set decades ago,” said David Cresson, executive director of the Louisiana Coastal Conservation Association, a recreational fishing advocacy group. “You have a growing recreational sector and a shrinking commercial fleet. “
The National Academy of Sciences reviewed data collection methods for marine recreational fishing less than a year ago. The review recognized the difficulty of collecting accurate data on the impact of recreational fishermen on fish stocks, but did not go so far as to recommend that the catch limit be divided differently.
The proposed law would also extend the state’s jurisdiction to recreational red snapper fishing further into the Gulf of Mexico. Opponents say this should not be decided at the federal level, but rather through the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Board, one of the country’s eight regional councils that oversee fisheries.
The decision to give individual states more power to regulate fishing in the Gulf is particularly controversial given the high demand for red snapper and the progress that has been made in replenishing the once overfished population. Recreational and commercial catch limits were reduced by almost half between 2006 and 2008, according to the National Maritime Fisheries Service. Since then, catch limits have gradually increased as the stock rebuilds.
Commercial fishermen fear that a change in the management of the recreational red snapper fishery could hamper progress in rebuilding the fish population, said James Bruce, a commercial fisherman who moored his boat in Dulac. “If the state takes over, the responsibility for fish stocks might not be as good,” he said. “We have replenished the stock by being responsible.”
The public debate between recreational and commercial fishermen has been heated, with accusations on both sides of payments by lobbyists. These assertions extended to the leaders who weighed in on the debate.
Watercress said all fishermen – commercial and recreational – want the same thing: to be out on the water to grab something to eat.
“We want all of these people to make a good living from what they do. We want restaurants to have fresh seafood,” he said. “We just want this to be a fair process.”