NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A judge has ruled that federal regulators used a false claim of emergency to cut the federal season for red snapper off of Texas and Louisiana, and did so to punish those states for setting seasons and catch limits beyond federal dates and limits.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, of Brownsville, Texas, overturned the emergency rule under which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division set one season for the popular game fish off Mississippi and Alabama and others off Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
The agency "should not be in the business of penalizing states, and their citizens, merely because they exercised the very rights bestowed upon them by Congress" to set a different season in state waters, he wrote.
NOAA Fisheries will set a Gulf-wide season, said a statement emailed Tuesday by spokeswoman Allison Garrett. "The number of fishing days has yet to be determined, but is expected to be announced within the week," it said.
Hanen wrote in a ruling Friday that Texas has had a year-round season since 2008. The agency knew about Louisiana's plans for a long season in plenty of time to go through standard procedures for changing federal season dates, but chose to wait until the last moment, he wrote.
"If the federal defendants had really cared about the fishermen they were about to discriminate against, they would have gone through the normal rule making procedure," he wrote.
"This battle with NOAA has been a long and tedious one, but we are glad to have persevered once again for the people of Louisiana," Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham said in a news release Tuesday.
The red snapper season opened June 1 in federal waters, where red snapper are most likely to be found, with a catch limit of two a day.
NOAA Fisheries originally set seasons ranging from 9 days in Louisiana to 28 days off of Mississippi and Alabama, then re-set them to a range of 17 days off Texas to 34 days off Mississippi and Alabama, both of which had set their state seasons to match the federal season.
Texas waters are open year-round for the popular game fish, with a bag limit of four. Florida's waters are open 44 days. Louisiana set an 88-day weekends-only season with a limit of three; after NOAA Fisheries changed its season from 9 days to 24, added the weekdays between June 1-24.
Regional administrator Roy Crabtree "has admitted that only 1 to 2 percent of the snapper caught in Louisiana come from state water. ... This being the case, the suggestion that a larger state fishing season is an emergency in 2013 when it never has been before is somewhat ludicrous," the judge wrote.
Alabama anglers caught 1.4 million pounds of red snapper last year, compared to 759,000 off Louisiana and 616,500 off Texas, according to NOAA Fisheries, also called the National Marine Fisheries Service. Florida angers caught the most — 2.1 million pounds — and Mississippi sports fishers the least, at less than 190,000 pounds.
Regardless of motives, Hanen wrote, Robin Hood broke the law. He added, "If one takes this admittedly weak literary reference one step further, when comparing at least Louisiana and Texas with Alabama, the NMFS is doing just the opposite — it is robbing from the poor to give to the rich."