A two-year pilot program announced last week by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries that would award 150 randomly-selected offshore anglers unlimited access to 25,000 pounds annually of Gulf red snapper — which has been roundly criticized by fishing-rights advocates — is not an attempt to ultimately impose individual fishing quotas on the statewide recreational angling community.

Instead, Patrick Banks, LDWF’s assistant secretary for fisheries, told LouisianaSportsman.com in an interview earlier this week that the main goal of the Exempted Fishing Permit Application (EFP) is to bolster the data provided by LA Creel — the department’s ‘real-time' harvest tracking system — in preparation for state-based red snapper management out to 200 miles.

The pilot program would track the 150 participants — who would record the fish they catch and throw back on a smartphone app in near real time, and also be subject to dockside checks by department biologists — with the hope that the existing 20 percent buffer currently applied to the Annual Catch Limit by the federal government would be removed.

In 2014, Louisiana withdrew from the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) — the fed's flawed data-gathering system — in favor of LA Creel because of the government program’s history of poor data and its inability to monitor landings in real time. 

“That's the main goal of it. It's not that LA Creel is a failure, because it’s certainly not — it's the example for everybody to live by. But as you also well know, any kind of harvest estimate is going to have error associated with that estimate. Basically there’s a level of uncertainty with the number you get in terms of the harvest numbers,” Banks said. “ So all we’re trying to do is reduce that level of uncertainty, reduce those margins of error. 

“In the federal system, because of the uncertainly surrounding MRIP, we've been forced at the Council level to institute a 20 percent buffer. So even though our catch limit may be way up at 4 million pounds or whatever, we can only allow anglers to harvest 4 million minus 20 percent — and that 20 percent is based on that margin of error. Now certainly LA Creel has less of a margin of error, but it still has a pretty good margin of error around its estimate. If we can reduce that even farther, that means more fish are released out of that buffer to be caught, which means more days of fishing.”

Banks said the controversy surrounding the pilot project — which has been panned by officials with the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and others because of fears that it will become a permanent IFQ program — has overshadowed the state’s larger management plan. 

It hinges on the ‘Louisiana-Only Amendment' that was presented to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council earlier this year, and will be debated again next week when the Council meets in Naples, Fla. June 5-8. 

If ultimately granted by the Council, the state would be allowed to manage red snapper out to 200 miles for three years to demonstrate how regional management could work for the Gulf states.

“The EFP is another piece that helps us gather the right data that helps us prove to the Council one day — if they’re saying, 'I'm not so sure Louisiana is responsible enough to do this,’ — we can say, ‘Yes we are, and here’s how we’re able to better manage it. We get real time data from every single angler, we have low margins of error, we have accountability measures that trigger a payback if we over-harvest, we can add fish to the quota if we under-harvest and we can do that because we’re gathering the absolute best data we can gather,' Banks said. 

“If it works, and if we prove that we get better data, it's not the end program. It’s another test we’re trying to do to gather the data we need.”

Banks said if the EFP pilot program were to fail for whatever reason, he wouldn’t hesitate to abandon it and try something different.

“If we get halfway through this and see it's not working, we scrap it and we go back to the drawing board and we move on to another approach,” he said. "So it certainly doesn’t have be the end-all, be-all — just like any other scientific experiment.”

The 150 participants — who would likely be awarded 20 snapper each year to be caught whenever they want in federal waters without a daily bag limit — would have to agree to give the Department 24-hour advance notice of their offshore trips under the plan.

“We do have to know who’s going out so we can have adequate time to plan our dockside intercepts, because we want to try to sample these boats when they come back in as much as we can,” said Banks, who noted that each angler selected for the program also would have to register their vessel information with the Department. “We’re certainly hoping we’re going to be able to do that all of the time. I don’t know if that's going to be the case or not, but we want to try to have some lead time so we can know who’s going out and we can plan our biologists to go out and intercept the boats when they get back to the dock so that we can make sure the reporting is accurate, and we can also get some biological data.” 

Some of the criticism the program received when it was unveiled last Thursday centered around a meeting held at LDWF headquarters in Baton Rouge the day before with representatives of the recreational angling community, at least some of whom understood they were there to discuss red snapper management ideas that could be presented to the Gulf Council. 

But Banks, who attended a portion of that meeting, decided not to bring up the 150-angler pilot program that would ultimately be unveiled to the general public just 24 hours later. 

“The EFP had been developed prior to that meeting, and I felt pretty sure that we would submit it, but I wasn’t completely sure. But the EFP was not the purpose of the meeting anyway …. The main part of the management approach is our Louisiana-Only Amendment to the Gulf Council,” Banks said. “And that was the purpose of that meeting. The Gulf Council is coming up this coming week, and so we needed some guidance from that group to make sure we were on the right path with that Louisiana-Only Amendment, which is really the backbone of the overall management approach. 

“I was really concerned, and I thought about bringing it up at the meeting … but I was afraid if I brought it up — just like what’s been going on the last several days — the EFP would become the focus, and that was not the important part of the meeting, and in my opinion, not the most important part of the management approach. So I really needed that group to focus and give us good guidance on that Louisiana-Only Amendment because that's really the crux of the whole approach - getting that management authority.  The EFP is only a data-gathering part to help us get better information — ultimately to our Commission —once we get state control.”

His understanding is that the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission — which meets next week in Baton Rouge — doesn't have to approve the 150-angler red snapper pilot program if it’s ultimately given a thumbs-up by the Gulf Council.

“They’re the regulatory body, we’re the administrative body. We’re gathering data so that we can present information to them to make regulations. And that’s their role under the Constitution and under the law. And we just try to make sure we bring them all the information that they would need to make a good decision," Banks said. “Certainly if we were to obtain management authority for regulating harvest out to 200 nautical miles, it would be the Commission that would be required to set those seasons. And so at that point, we’d want to have all the information we could to help them set the season — which would also mean how many fish we felt like could be caught during that season, and things like that. This will help us bring a better management recommendation to them for them to make the ultimate decision. 

“So they do have a role to play — but not necessarily in the various tests that we run. We run tests and do scientific experiments all the time, and that’s so we can bring them the best information so they can make the best decision.”