A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

― Mark Twain

Online encyclopedia Wikipedia says, “In the early 1980s, the chef Paul Prudhomme made his dish of Cajun-style blackened redfish (red drum) popular. His seasoning was then sold commercially and the dish became so popular that redfish were overfished to the point of near extinction.” The statement is footnoted, “citation needed.”

Don’t hold your breath. 

No one but Wikipedia ever implied that the Gulf of Mexico’s redfish were “overfished to the point of near extinction” because Chef Paul sold a lot of his seasoning “commercially.” Over the years, a whole lot of people, in a whole lot of different publications, have repeated some variation of the claim that, “Chef Paul blackened a redfish and commercial fishermen fished the species to the brink of extinction.” 

None of them cited a credible source either. 

The book “Missing Redfish” is a history of the red drum’s management in the Gulf of Mexico. Obviously, a good work of history should detail the actual events that occurred during a particular period, and “Missing Redfish” does cover the management highlights of this contested species from the late 1970s into the 21st century. 

But history’s not a closed book, there’s always more to learn, and the lessons from history can not only teach us more about the past but the present and maybe even the future as well.

What Happened?

Inshore commercial fishermen traditionally supplied markets and restaurants with juvenile redfish. Commercial landings in each state were recorded annually since the late 1880s. (Photo by Brian Gauvin.)
The number of inshore recreational fishermen increased steadily after World War II, then skyrocketed as Baby Boomers began to hit the water. The anglers’ cumulative annual haul dwarfed that of the commercial net fishermen. (Photo by Brian Gauvin.)
A few purse seiners were already catching some adult redfish offshore when Chef Paul created his blackened redfish dish. Demand for red drum soared and the offshore fishery rapidly expanded which prompted the feds to investigate the entire fishery in both state and federal waters. They found that three year-classes of older redfish—those spawned in 1975, 1976, and 1977—were smaller than expected. (Karen Mitchell photos, courtesy of National Marine Fisheries Service.)

According to the LSU AgCenter’s Research and Cooperative Extension Service, “If the fish in these year-classes were overharvested, it occurred in inshore waters by inshore recreational and commercial fishermen. This meant that the damage was done by 1981. The ‘blackened redfish craze,’ also commonly believed to have caused the problem, didn’t really take off until 1983. During the 1980 to 1988 period, commercial fishermen took an average of 28% of the redfish and recreational fishermen harvested 72%.”

In short, the offshore purse seine fishery took off in response to the demand created by “blackened redfish.” Research triggered by that new federal fishery uncovered a void in the offshore population—the “missing fish.” The fish had begun to go missing years before “blackened redfish,” largely because management in the states hadn’t kept up with the gradual increase of local commercial fishermen and the tsunami of sport-fishing Baby Boomers.

Still, egg production by the brood stock never fell to a level that jeopardized the recruitment of young fish, as evidenced by the rapid recovery that was observed inshore as soon as the states restricted their fisheries. The species was never “endangered,” on the “brink of extinction,” or even close. Yet every pop account of the fishery entails some variation of, “Chef Paul blackened a redfish and commercial fishermen fished the species into oblivion.”

What happened to the recreational fishermen?

The repetition of false claims or beliefs is how myth arises, and beliefs and myths are all that many people want or need. The problem is that when your actions are based on myth instead of truth you can end up just going around in circles. 

“All we want are the facts, ma’am,” Sgt. Joe Friday used to say, and it’s the consideration of new facts that advances knowledge.

“Missing Redfish” thus offers plenty of lessons, some specific to the fishery, some more far ranging: 

LESSONS

  • The population of offshore “bull” redfish should be sampled or, better yet, monitored.

Before commercial fishermen began to fish the bulls in the 1980s, each state blindly fished its own slice of the overall population. Research prompted by the new offshore fishery provided the overview that found overfishing to be occurring within the states.

Managers responded by initiating cutbacks before the population was seriously depleted.

That fact alone seems ample reason to track the offshore population. Yet, as we’ve seen in “Missing Redfish,” federal managers are dragging their feet and indeed may never conduct another stock assessment. They’re apparently confident that the states will manage their fisheries conservatively enough to sustain the population forever. 

However, in Louisiana alone, the number of saltwater recreational fishing trips doubled between 1981 and 2013, from 5.4 million to more than 10.7 million. During the same period, the recreational harvest of red drum quadrupled, from 6.8 million pounds in 1981 to nearly 25 million pounds in 2013. During the same period, commercial fishermen were prohibited from landing any redfish. 

Also in Louisiana, a 2019 stock assessment of the popular spotted seatrout found that the species had been overfished since 2014. In the five years from 2014 through 2018 recreational fishermen landed an average of 4.5 million pounds of trout per year while commercial fishermen—limited to rods and reels—brought to market an annual average of less than 2,500 pounds. 

  • The brood stock isn’t sacred.

The best stock assessments of the red drum in the Gulf utilized data collected from the commercial fishery. Because the offshore breeders are discrete from the immature inshore fish, many folks think of them as sacred. They’re not. In fact, say biologists, the fishery could be managed sustainably by harvesting a surplus of the brood stock only and leaving the small inshore fish alone. 

  • The 1976 Magnuson Act, which guides how federal fisheries are to be managed, was a remarkable piece of legislation. 

Like the framers of the Constitution, Magnuson’s authors seemingly anticipated every possible problem that could arise.

As the offshore commercial fishery expanded, the regional management council set to work on a management plan. Since it typically takes a few years to collect enough data on a new fishery to design a plan, the House of Representatives called for President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Commerce, Malcolm Baldrige, to invoke a never-before-used provision of the Magnuson Act; it empowered him to put an interim management plan in place if the appropriate fishery management council didn’t have a plan. 

In the meantime, “in order to safeguard the red drum resource from possible over-exploitation,” the act enabled Baldrige to issue emergency rules that soon brought the fishery to a halt. 

  • Once they’re in and you’re out, it’s hard to get back in. When a fishery declines to the point that cutbacks are needed, they should be applied equitably to all user groups. 

Federal fishery law says as much, and in federal waters managers did shut down red drum fishing by both sport and commercial fishermen. 

Other examples of equitable federal management include the striped bass on the Atlantic Coast and the red snapper in the Gulf: When stripers were depleted in the 1970s and 1980s, federal managers shut down all fishing; when the population rebuilt to where it could again withstand a harvest, most of the states reopened their fisheries to all of the users. The popular red snapper was also found to have been overfished in the 1980s. (Yes, another fishery with a major recreational component overfished in the 1970s and 1980s.) Federal managers severely reduced the harvest of all three sectors—seafood producers, private recreational anglers, and tourist-dependent charter boat captains—who all shared in the pain and, later, the gain as the population rebuilt.  

State-level management is more capricious. When a timeout in inshore redfishing was called for, recreational anglers—led by the special interest Coastal Conservation Association—convinced legislators in Louisiana and Florida to banish the food producers from the fishery and allow themselves to continue fishing.  

(By the late 1980s, “conservationists” in Texas and Alabama had already won exclusive access to the species, leaving Mississippi as the only American state on the Gulf of Mexico with management equitable enough to maintain both a sport and commercial red drum fishery.) 

  • Sharing is the best way to sustain a fishery: The two-party system is all about checks and balances.

Like the Republicans and Democrats, the sport and commercial interests keep a check on each other. 

Sharing also keeps the redfish relevant to everyone rather than just recreational participants. Maximizing a fish’s value to society naturally maximizes not only the incentive to sustain its abundance but the resources that are available to do so. 

  • Scapegoating of commercial users by recreational users isn’t unique to the red drum, or even fisheries in general—it’s a distinctly American tradition of wildlife management which, unfortunately, hasn’t always resulted in long-term abundance.

Ask most any recreational fisherman on the Gulf Coast what happened to the redfish, and he’ll recite, “Paul Prudhomme invented blacked redfish, commercial fishermen nearly wiped out the reds, and we saved them. Just look how they came back after we banned the sale of redfish and took away the commercial fishermen’s nets.”

We know, of course, that at the same time commercial fishermen were excluded from the fishery, managers also severely restricted the multitude of recreational anglers, which left millions more fish in the water.  

“Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us,” wrote blue-collar author Eric Hoffer in his dissection of mass movements, “The True Believer.” That’s not going to change. 

But for those who are interested in truthful management histories of North America’s contested species—whether scaled, feathered or furred—consider this quote by Nehru: “History is almost always written by the victors and conquerors and gives their view.”

When histories are written by the “victors and conquerors” they may not include all the facts and views that add up to the truth. That’s why readers are so surprised by “Missing Redfish” and the rest of the books by New Moon Press.

LESSONS FROM “MISSING REDFISH”