A letter written late last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates  that if red snapper are ultimately removed from federal oversight to be managed by the five Gulf states, much of the data currently collected on the species by NOAA — including stock assessments — would not be shared with the states.

The letter dated Sept. 22 from Eileen Sobeck to Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Charlie Melancon contradicts what Rep. Garret Graves — the author of H.R. 3094 that would strip red snapper from federal oversight and award it to the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority — has said about how potential costs associated with stock assessments and data collection for snapper will be covered if his legislation becomes law.

Requests for telephone interviews to discuss details of the NOAA letter with Melancon were denied.

But Graves said the letter is just another in a long list of allegations brought by the LDWF in an attempt to derail the bill.

“The reality is this: NOAA is going to go out there and do fish surveys, and they don’t have any idea what type of fish is going to come up in that net or on that long line, so for them to suggest that they’re going to pretend that some fish isn’t there and another fish is there is completely bogus,” Graves said. “And if NOAA is going to jump in and play these political games with Charlie (Melancon), have at it. Y’all enjoy your next two and a half months of playing games because y’all are gone. It’s just continued silliness and obviously has no merit.”

Graves said the presidential election next month — regardless of who wins — will cause shake-ups at all federal agencies.

“Let’s be honest: These folks are all gone in January,” he said. “We’ll have entirely new leadership at NOAA in January, so whatever these people are putting in writing is completely irrelevant because they will have nothing to do with red snapper policy in the future. Nothing.”

In the letter, Sobeck, an assistant administrator for fisheries for NOAA, responded to three questions raised by Melancon in a letter he addressed to her on Sept. 13. 

Sobeck indicated that if red snapper are ultimately not a federally managed species, her agency likely wouldn’t collect the same amount of data on red snapper that it does now.

“If Gulf of Mexico red snapper were no longer federally managed, then it would not likely continue to be identified as a priority species. If that were the case, then we may modify some data collection and/or fishery-independent sampling programs accordingly,” Sobeck wrote. “Our grants program also would likely reflect such a change in priorities, reducing or eliminating funding support for red snapper-specific research. 

“Even were existing data collection and research programs to continue without modification, those programs are not designed to support state-specific red snapper assessments, which appear to be required by H.R. 3094.”

Sobeck also indicated that confidentiality provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Act could prohibit NOAA from sharing red snapper data with the five-state coalition proposed under H.R. 3094.

“If that were the case, then the agency would be prohibited from sharing some red snapper data with the GSRSMA, including confidential catch data and observer data collected on shrimp and reef fish vessels,” Sobeck wrote. “Even if we were able to share such data, compiling, analyzing and preparing those data for red snapper stock assessments would not likely be an agency priority if red snapper were no longer a federally managed species.”

Graves said he’s never been part of legislation that has been so thoroughly attacked without any constructive suggestions to improve the bill. 

“I’ve expressed clearly on the intent (of the bill), and the chairman of the committee has as well. There is no intent whatsoever to suddenly thrust this cost upon the states. Period,” he said. “If there was something in the bill that caused some concern on my part that Charlie may be right or NOAA may really discriminate against this species, we would go in and make sure that wouldn’t be the case. But this is a complete fabrication. 

“The reality is this: The agency (LDWF) has brought up several concerns, all of which have been thoroughly disproved. So now what they’re trying to do is move on and invent additional concerns or obstacles. It’s all just games, and I’m not going to sit over and go point by point on allegations they’re raising.

“They’ don’t have credibility themselves, they don’t have credibility in the issues they’re raising and I’m not gong to respond when Charlie or somebody else sneezes.”

The drama around red snapper management in Louisiana cranked up early this summer, when Melancon — who was appointed secretary of the department by Gov. John Bel Edwards in December — said he wasn’t sure if the LDWF could afford potential expenses associated with oversight of the species at the state level, including stock assessments currently covered by the federal government. 

Federal money was stripped from Graves’ legislation in June, after years of work by the previous LDWF administration to help create the GSRSMA, the five-state group that would manage the fishery in place of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service in Graves’ legislation.

LDWF biologists this summer estimated it could cost the state about $10 million in the first year alone to cover all of the costs associated with a snapper stock assessment in Louisiana waters.

But Graves chalked up the latest NOAA letter to more political games.

“The position they’ve taken is not in the best interest of Louisiana, and it’s not in the best interest of our citizens,” the congressman said. “There’s no possible way in the world that Charlie, the governor or anyone else could stand up at a town hall meeting to try and defend the absurd policy that they’re advocating for, and so I don’t have to do anything.

“I don’t have to fight them. I don’t have to write letters. This thing is going to blow up in their face because they can’t justify what they’re doing. They simply can’t justify this, and there’s no reason for me to engage in their silly games.”

Currently, Graves said he’s looking at several options on how the bill might proceed through Congress by the end of 2016.

“We’re going to have to get through the elections, because after the elections are decided it will kind of dictate what the rest of the year looks like,” he said. “So then we’ll have a better idea of what looks like our best play.”

Last month, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also notified Graves of specific concerns it had regarding H.R. 3094 as it related to that state’s commercial snapper fishery. 

In a letter to Graves dated Sept. 23, Nick Wiley, the executive director of the FWC, said his commission continued to support the bill but that the support was conditional upon changes requested by Florida’s commercial red snapper fishery.

Graves said he would be happy to work through Florida’s concerns, but he stressed the individual states would be able to make decisions on allocations between the commercial and recreational fisheries and the number of fishing days for each.

“One thing that a lot of people seem to be really just missing is the fact that the states are going to be the ones making the decisions on the whole management plan,” he said. “It’s not like there’s something that comes in and shoves something down the states’ throats — that’s what’s happening right now. There have been decisions shoved down the states’ throats like limiting the access to the recreational fishery, so what the bill does is it puts this in the hands of the states. 

“So the rhetoric in Florida has said this is going to be an attack on the commercials. Well, the states are the ones who’ll make the decisions on what allocation goes to commercial and what allocation goes to (recreational anglers), and the number of days that are fished and things like that. So there’s this misconception out there about who’s going to be making the decisions under 3094. It actually gives more control to the states — not less.”