JUSTICE IN THE GULF

A POSITION PAPER ON THE GULF OF MEXICO RED SNAPPER COMMERCIAL FISHERY

By : F. G. Cox , owner / operator

Fishing Vessel "Mattie Grace"

U.S.C.G. official # 609196

February 1997

CONTENTS

PREFACE

SECTION 1: A PERSONAL OVERVIEW

SECTION 2: SYMPTOMS OF A FAILED MANAGEMENT SYSTEM

SECTION 3 : SAFETY CONCERNS

SECTION 4: OUTLAWS, WINDFALL PROFITEERS, AND THE "SUSTAINABLE FISHERIES ACT" OF 1996

SECTION 5 : TO THE COUNCIL AND THE COUNSEL: AMENDMENT 15

SECTION 6: CONCLUSION

EXHIBIT "A": EXCERPTS FROM THE "SUSTAINABLE FISHERIES ACT"

EXHIBIT "B" : PAGES 6 AND 7 OF "SECTIONS DELETED" FROM AMENDMENT 15 OPTIONS PAPER


PREFACE

As a professional fisherman, I have drafted this document to give the American public some insight into the "state of their fisheries." I am sorry to report that it is not all rosey ; however, given the opportunity to relieve itself from some of the corruption and waste, your fisheries could once again become thriving assets to the Nation as a whole.

Sections 1 thru 4 should be enlightening to the general public. Section 5 is addressed specifically to the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council , N.O.A.A. General Counsel , and others and may be of little interest to the general public.

Felix G. Cox

Address:

Felix G. Cox
2211 A-1 Hill Rd.
Aransas Pass, Texas 78336
phone: (512) 758-1378
fax: (512) 758-6411
email: fgcox@intergate.com

disclaimer: The views or positions stated in this paper are private views of F.G.Cox and several other fishermen.


SECTION 1

A PERSONAL OVERVIEW

To The People :

At less than one week into our current red snapper 'season,' the majority of the fishermen have tied their boats to the dock -- no profit on prices that are being offered.

Of course, there will still be a few fishermen to supply the dealers, regardless of the price. Some have smaller vessels or smaller crews or smaller whatever-it-takes to still turn a profit and they will probably continue to fish. Some are indebted to their dealers and must continue regardless. I and many others cannot. We have large investments in time and money in this fishery and at a given point - - - the ink turns red.

We realize that the price will probably start "inching" up in a couple of weeks after the bulk of the quota has been exhausted, and astute dealers can usurp very little more from fishermen without compensation. This is the sixth year with this problem.

The American public will realize very little, if any, benefit from the agony of these fishermen. ----- Quite the contrary:

  1. Fishermen cannot produce fish without a profit for long.
  2. Fishermen cannot provide first-class fish to the markets for " junk fish" prices.
  3. Many fishermen refuse to provide anything less than first-class fish ( just something in our blood or genes ? )
  4. Many "first-class" fishermen are leaving the industry because of asinine govt. regulations that favor mass production over a short period of time (like 1 or 2 mos. per yr.) and no production for the balance of the year (derbies).

I guess I should apologize for my first person singular presentation throughout this essay. It's not that I am trying to attract sympathy for my own miserable predicament, it's just that I am more intimately familiar with my own miserable predicament and can present it more concisely. I know that others share these very same feelings.

My fellow compatriots, when I was in grammar school, we used to stand up and place our right hands over our hearts and recite the pledge of allegiance to our country. Then we would continue to stand and salute the flag as the Star Spangled Banner was played. Every morning, before class, we did this. A big lump would develop in my throat, a lump of pride and patriotism and joy.

I carried this pride, joy, and patriotism with me for almost 50 years; then, something happened! They say it was a necessity. They say we needed to be managed - - - we were running out of fish. I had not personally been aware of this as my harvest and my profit had been increasing almost on an annual basis. It seemed that the older I grew and the wiser I became, the better off my business was and actually with less effort. I didn't know it then but all my years of hard work were starting to jell into the realization of the "American Dream". It was happening the way it was supposed to after years of study, research, investment and hard labor.

Enter a group known as the National Marine Fisheries Service. I had heard of them but had not paid much attention. They hadn't bothered me and, of course, I hadn't bothered them. They intended to manage the stock of fish that I had been harvesting from and cultivating and pampering for many years. I always left plenty of small fish and spawners and "old folks" on my private and semi-private places and "farmed" them much like a farmer. Seldom was there the need to venture onto the better known places the general recreational public frequented.

I was not opposed to government making its presence in the private sector in a positive way (if this is possible). Never, did I mind sacrificing my fair share in the interest of rebuilding the fish stock where the general benefit to the Nation is the goal. However, we now know that our situation has evolved into something ( ugly ) ---- something far removed from the goals and consequences of a legitimate, equitable fish stock rebuilding program. It has evolved into a GOVERNMENT CONSTRUCTED RE-ALLOCATION OF FISH , and has left our industry in shambles!

I suppose the original intent of government intervention into our fishery was to have been for a positive outcome; nevertheless, after five or six years of overall quotas and limited access for commercial red snapper fishermen, I find my once flourishing business on the verge of bankruptcy. Is it my fault? My shortcoming? I don't know! Maybe. Some folks who, apparently, are smarter than I, have said that I should have gotten out of the fishing business the instant the government intervened! That the government would screw it up irreparably in short notice! If this is an inevitable characteristic of any government intervention, then maybe it is my fault for not being able to recognize this phenomenon.

However, (and maybe to my own demise) I still hold out some hope that there are at least a few right-thinking individuals in government that have the power and the inclination to do what is right regardless of the political consequences. We all know that the biological objectives of managers concerned with an overfished stock of fish can be addressed without killing off the fishermen. We also know that equity is possible through government processes because we witnessed it in the implementation of our 'late' Individual Transferable Quota (I.T.Q.) plan.

An I.T.Q. plan is a resource management plan wherein (in our case) a predetermined annual allocation of fish would be issued to each fisherman to harvest at his or her leisure. This type plan has several advantages over other types of resource management plans, mainly in that it was the only option available that had real measurable benefits for commercial fishermen and the seafood loving public to which we cater: Equity, flexibility, a reinstatement of sanity , profit and safety for fishermen------ and a year-round availability of fresh, wild, United States harvested fish for the seafood consuming public. And, no foreseeable negative biological effects.

Then on the other hand, I also witnessed an uncaring Congress snatch this plan and its attendant potential away from us all, so my patriotism suffered yet another blow.

An estimated 200 million citizens in this Country love to eat seafood ; yet, only a handful of these people have the opportunity to partake of our domestic seafood in its fresh, wild state any longer. This is mainly because of failed government constructed management plans and (worse) an ongoing conspiracy, assisted by Federal and several State governments, to divert the bulk of our fisheries to people who are already the most affluent in this country ! I guess this is how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. My own State of Texas is one of the nation's worst in this practice (second only to Florida). Texas reserves a large portion of its fisheries resources to attract tourists------ " to hell with those 200 million other people". As one of Texas' past Governors was purported to have said " let them eat catfish". We understand that he had interest in some catfish farms!

What if the states of Colorado or Idaho said " If you want any of our potatoes, you'll have to come up here and pass through our tourist traps and dig 'em yourself !" ----- Or if Missouri took that position on their chickens ! What an attitude!

These Federal (and State) fisheries are our Nation's storehouse of food, and should be treated as such. This is not to say that recreational opportunities should not be derived from them, But, food being essential to life, we'd best put priorities in their proper perspective in this matter.

It appears, after much analysis, that this same Congress is willing to grab almost anything of value for redistribution amongst their "paying" constituents. By "paying", I refer to the despicable practice of certain such individuals who distribute public resources to their constituents based on the level of "support" they can provide to the Senator or Congressman; e.g., "How much can you contribute to my campaign" or "How many votes can you bring me"? "After your contribution, I will let you dictate a few pages of legislation that will let you take advantage of the fishermen or the consumer for a while".

(see enclosed excerpts from the "Sustainable Fisheries Act")

Sleazy actions like this are turning the stomachs of more and more honest, hard working Americans who can't afford to play the game and wouldn't have a hand in it if they could.

I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that our Good Lord has a special "bag of tricks" to administer to individuals who would lower themselves to the level of "paying" their elected officials for the privilege of taking advantage of his fellow human. By the same token, I believe the official who "plays" shall also receive (his). Though I am not an especially religious individual, I must believe this in the interest of justice.

The Individual Transferable Quota is now in repose. When on the verge of implementation and after millions of dollars of public and private money and thousands of man-hours of work, it was killed for political reasons. There will be yet another study during which time of moratorium, the cheats and the "payers" (now on guard) will devise ample means by which to capitalize on this opportunity provided by their Congress. Documents will be generated and documents will be forged and by October 2000, we will have a whole new team - - - ready to play! As one of my young deck hands quipped one day " Capt., if it's rotten at the top, it will be rotten all the way through to the bottom ! "

SOMEONE HAD BETTER GRAB THIS COUNTRY AND SNATCH IT BACK TO SANITY AND COMMON SENSE! ----Else we lose her! Old ones, young ones, the whole lot!

As an honest man, trying to maintain my integrity and my sanity while dealing one on one with white and blue collar thieves, my resources are limited. I have fought for six years now, for the position of equity and fairness yet I smell politics breathing down the necks of honest men, threatening to destroy any sliver of honesty or integrity remaining in our industry OR OUR COUNTRY!


SECTION 2

SYMPTOMS OF A FAILED

MANAGEMENT SYSTEM

There are probably any number of indicators one could look for to determine whether a management system is "on track".

Likewise, there are several symptoms that are a dead give away that ones system has failed.

Below is a list of several pervasive symptoms that have persisted for several years in many of our Gulf fisheries, and are especially poignant in the commercial red snapper fishery:

  1. When an instinctively divisive management agency has their constituency to where they will hardly speak to one another, and everyone is mad when they do speak. (the "divide & conquer" approach)
  2. When a frequent approach to addressing problems in the industry is more & tougher regulations. (when a patient is sick, you don't kill him to cure his illness)
  3. When your "bottom line" has taken a nose dive and you are living from the equity in your home and business, till it is exhausted.
  4. When a National Standard that promotes the safety of human life at sea contains the codicil : " to the extent practicable."
  5. When one week there are more fish on the market than the market can handle, and the next week there are none.
  6. When fresh fish are held in cold storage { above 32 degrees } for weeks to capitalize on erratic prices that are inherent in derby style fishing.----{note}: Only extremely irresponsible dealers would pull this stunt; nevertheless, the incentive is strong and it happens frequently !
  7. When the American seafood consuming public is forced to eat "doctored up", nearly spoiled, frozen, imported, soy meal fed (pond or penned), or any other type poor quality product as a substitute for prime locally produced fresh product-----for political reasons !
  8. When red snapper are purchased, by United States dealers, from Mexico for circa $3.00 per pound ;and, 2 weeks later (or earlier) United States fishermen are offered around $1.50---$2.00.
  9. When American fishermen are mandated by federal law to sell our fish only to a select pre-approved group of dealers, ironically, many who are in the very same group that adjusts the Mexican / American price !
  10. When our fishing vessels are "buzzed" at sea on an almost daily basis by military surveillance aircraft with surveillance cameras or U.S.C.G. helicopters with video cameras rolling or boarding parties from Coast Guard cutters. It seems paranoia is rampant, or else there is lots of U.S. taxpayer money that must be burned off to prepare for the next infusion.
  11. When a year-round fishery has been reduced to less than 3 months and fishermen who depend on this fishery entirely must work like mules to squeeze a years work into 2-3 mos.
  12. When otherwise legitimate restaurant and seafood market owners must resort to the "black market" for product they are accustomed to having year-round.

This list could continue------but I'm tired and disgusted just from reviewing what I've brought to your attention already.

Ladies and gentlemen, ---- all of the above ills (and more) are prevalent in our fishery today, and have been for several years now. It is your fishery too. And it is teetering on moral and financial bankruptcy !

One little simple painless ( politically incorrect ) move by our management agency would cure about 75% of the symptoms; but, I guess it's too simple for politicians to digest ::: END THE DERBY STYLE OF FISHING-----COMPLETELY !

As a little old lady friend of mine stated to me : " What's so complex about them telling you how many fish you can catch and letting you catch them whenever you want to." I concurred with her; however, we explored how political and bureaucratic minds work different than the minds of common folks. " If the bureaucrats and politicians can convince the American people that some very complex problems exist, then their funding will continue so why in the world would they go for a simple cure for a problem---- when they can generate one that is nice and complex". " No complex problems, no job for them" ! That's simple enough.

This, unfortunately, is a very sad state for our country to be in because it is so prevalent in all levels of government, politics, and bureaucracy .

I don't have an answer for those folks whose only attributes are the ability to generate complex problems from simple ones

------only, maybe if they would just throw them in the wastebasket as they are generated, pay them their paycheck every week or month, generate some more, throw it in the wastebasket, wherever, pick up check----- "Just, whatever else you do, pick up your check and keep your damned complex problems to yourself ;and, stay out of the way of folks who are producing the goods and services that keep this country propped up, including those on welfare (like yourself)." This would probably be the cheapest way in the long run.

I've laid awake nights, worrying about this very complex problem. ( This is a bona fide complex problem ) : What would happen to these nonessential people if this country should ever come to its senses ? After all, they are human beings also !

I guess that must be one good reason for keeping things in a turmoil ?

( This page goes in the waste basket---- Where's my check ? )


SECTION 3

SAFETY CONCERNS

In my professional fishing career, spanning several decades, I have lost two boats to disasters. In 1963, as a young captain, I sunk a 60' vessel while crossing the Straits of Yucatan. A nor'easter overpowered us and we were swamped. Luckily, we had a running partner on a larger and more seaworthy vessel and he saved me and my crew.

In 1985 I lost my second boat. Again, to bad weather. Came within an inch of losing my life and that of my crew !

(As illustrated above), even given all the flexibility and latitude in the world, disaster can occur in industries where danger is inherent.

Much like an airline pilot, the captain of a vessel at sea is entrusted with the lives of all those aboard his vessel, in excess to all others he may encounter while underway. He must be extremely alert to weather conditions and traffic patterns he may encounter. The lives of the 3 or 4 individuals he may have on board are just as sweet and important to them as the lives of any 3 or 4 aboard a commercial airliner!

To compromise the safety of any of these lives for almost any reason is unimaginable. To compromise their safety for political reasons is sick ! SICK ! SICK ! SICK !

And that is what fishing boat captains are asked (no, forced) to do all the time, or starve ! All to accommodate a sick, failed, politically motivated management plan.

Common sense regulations that enhance safety are welcome additions to our fishery. Politically motivated regulations that tear down our safety nets are not !

Derby races for the fish must END !


SECTION 4

OUTLAWS, WINDFALL PROFITEERS AND THE SUSTAINABLE FISHERIES ACT

After 5 or 6 years of honing their skills, the bold and the lawless are reaping a bonanza from our red snapper stock rebuilding program.

Certain select Federally licensed fish dealers have managed to capitalize on the shortcomings of the program to the tune of around 4 or 5 million dollars extra each year, for the last 5 years. You bet, they want to keep it that way ! This is the 4 or 5 million that would normally constitute the profit of about 1,500 fishermen.

Also, illicit fishermen, shrimpers, oil company hands, and sportsmen alike find the urge to tap into a saved up resource irresistible, and they take their bite mainly when the season is closed and there are no legitimate fishermen around to see them and the price is great. I guess it's just human nature; however, legal operators should not be reduced to harvesting the dregs for half-price.

-------Through certain provisions of the "Sustainable Fisheries Act", Congress has managed to cement in these activities for their buddies for at least the next 4 years. These outlaws must be a very politically astute bunch !

(see Exhibit "A" "excerpts from the "Sustainable Fisheries Act")

TO WIT: