A fish worth fighting for

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The near demise of Texas redfish and the rise of a conservation ethic.

It has often been said that any fish that has white, sweet fillets and can be targeted with any fishing equipment this side of dynamite (at times dynamite is probably included in the mix)  is eventually going to be in  danger of being caught and consumed to the point of no return.

There is a long list of these species – cod, red snapper, grouper, winter flounder, swordfish, sea bass – that have fallen into this predicament.  Most of them are over-fished today and are in some degree of crisis.  Interestingly, redfish is not on that list. Not because they are not a highly desired sport and food fish, but because they are one of that rare group of fish that inspired someone to fight for it tooth and nail. There are species that have been hooked, snagged, netted, trapped and trawled to the point of disappearing yet have conjured only a fraction of the attention and passion as the red drum’s swoon in Texas.

The movement to save the redfish and the ensuing fight that became known as the “Redfish Wars” is still unique in the annals of fisheries management and coastal advocacy. With monofilament gillnets now virtually unheard of in the state, prolific coastal hatcheries and a thriving 90,000-member conservation organization on watch, the result is a greatly rebuilt redfish stock. The redfish wars and the men and women who fought them created a legacy that beats the best fishing story.

The fish heard around the world

Most Texans today do not really know what a large scale (or any scale) commercial net fishing operation even looks like. But that was not always the case. Texas’ rich estuaries and bays had produced robust coastal fish stocks that had, in turn, encouraged a growing number of commercial gill netters and trot liners. For the most part, they targeted redfish and speckled trout, and with the skyrocketing popularity of a New Orleans-based blackened redfish recipe, demand soared and eventually tested the limits of the redfish stock in Texas and beyond.

By the late 1970s, the once prolific bay and nearshore redfish populations were being decimated. With wholesale fish prices doubling and tripling in some cases, a growing number of people were scrambling to cash in on commercial fishing in some capacity.

“There were so many trotlines in that period that we literally would put sharp blades on our boats to cut through if we would run over them in low visibility,” said Paul Wimberly, an early solider of the Corpus Christi redfish wars.  “The guys that were setting all of these lines were real serious about their equipment and saw us as a growing threat.”

From hard-core, full-time netters to the rod-and-reel anglers who sold their catch for gas money, consumer desire for redfish fillets created an unprecedented enthusiasm for killing redfish; and like any good economically driven market craze, the bubble was about to burst.

In early 1977, the turning point arrived. As a coastal species of timeless value was being pushed to destruction, a meeting was about to take place 50-plus miles inland that would eventually lay the battle plans to change the fate of Texas redfish, the commercial fishermen who pursed them and the future of fisheries management.

Fourteen recreational anglers met at Rudy Grigar's sporting goods store in Houston to discuss a solution to widespread commercial over-fishing, and they started a revolution in conservation. There was no Boston tea party or shot heard around the world, but in reflection, it is easy to see that this historic date and the now-fabled meeting of concerned anglers that marked the beginning of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA) was the first volley of the Redfish Wars.

The path less traveled

What sets this conservation movement apart from so many other well-meaning, but short-lived, uprisings is the men who attended these strategy sessions understood the basic principles of getting things done. They knew they needed money, had to unify an unorganized recreational angling constituency, and needed political influence.

This was no idealistic dream. No one was going to chain themselves to the local seafood house to make change happen. These conservationists understood business and the political system, and they were determined to turn the tide back in the favor of the coastal redfish population.

One of the early architects of the political strategy utilized in the redfish wars, the late Dick Ingram, summed it up, “We knew we needed money, science and to touch the right politicians. The good thing was that we also knew how to do it.”

Indeed, with the vision and support of such Texas philanthropic greats as Perry Bass and Walter Fondren, clout and political acumen were not in short supply, and soon, money was not either.

At one of the early gatherings of the GCCA framers, an often-quiet Bud Moore slammed his fist and exclaimed, “If we have to raise $20,000, we are going to fix this problem.”

Moore’s words came to life many times over as John Cowan’s now famous Memories painting alone drew $20,000 from a passionate crowd of early GCCA banquet attendees. Later, another of Cowan’s originals drew more than $50,000 from a committed bidder. With the fundraising machine taking form, the next piece of the puzzle was to acquire sound science to anchor the fight for conservation.

Enter the venerable Bob Kemp. Against the internal state politics of the time, Kemp, Director of Fisheries at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, set up the detailed bay surveys that provided the first empirical data that redfish and speckled trout were in serious trouble.

That information was the first scientific bullet to counter the anecdotal tales that falsely portrayed the state of the fishery in public hearings. The commercial fishermen of the day contended that the perception of redfish and trout as over-fished was merely the result of environmental conditions and an unqualified recreational fishing public. Clearly, they contended, the miles of strike nets and trotlines were not having a significant impact.

Kemp’s findings were vital and revolutionary in more than one way. He helped change the culture of state fisheries management from one of speak-no-evil to a vision for conservation. Also, the scientific bullet he gave conservationists was soon answered in kind as the wrath of the commercial industry came literally to his doorstep. Many of the early spokesmen and organizers of the redfish conservation movement received threats, but one of the most vivid was Kemp’s discovery of a pair of shotgun shells in his home mailbox. The netters wanted him to know they knew where he and his family lived. It was serious business, but these early conservationists never slowed down.

In the ensuing fights of the ‘70s and ‘80s, death threats were not uncommon, GCCA supporters’ boats were sunk, cabins vandalized, and in the heat of the legislative battles, a number of key players, including Dick Ingram, had to employ bodyguards for protection. In Change of Tides, the narrative history of CCA, outdoor columnist Bob Brister recounts Kemp’s assertion that nothing in his life had taken so much out of him as the redfish wars. It is this kind of passion and courage that dominated the redfish wars and guided them to victory for the resource.

With public awareness rising, financial support increasing, and better scientific findings being gathered, real change began to happen. In 1979, recreational anglers embraced a GCCA-supported bill that limiting recreational catches in both trout and redfish to help recover the stocks, an ethic that has become a hallmark of conservation battles ever since.

Shortly after that, the conservation momentum gained speed and rolled over netters. The first single-strand gillnet ban was put in place. The legislative victories reached a pinnacle as the now legendary HB 1000 (The Redfish Bill) was passed in 1981. This historic piece of fisheries management legislation declared redfish and speckled trout as game fish and outlawed the commercial harvest of these species in Texas waters. 

Even with these victories, the redfish wars continued for years. The game wardens were outnumbered, and the netters influence in the courts often overcame the penalties of law. As nationally renown CCA federal lobbyist Bob Hayes recalls, “We had to stop the purse-seining harvest in federal waters. It was not until 1988 that we finally had all nets removed from Texas waters.”

New role for anglers

The redfish wars did more than restore coastal redfish populations. The people and events of that period created a conservation ethic that is now woven into the fishing culture of all coastal states of the U.S. That incredible fisheries management fight forever changed recreational anglers’ role in fishery management and in turn created a better system to ensure the proper conservation of our coastal resources.

Due to the diligence of the early participants in the redfish wars, GCCA became CCA and spread the word of conservation through an additional fourteen states all the way to Maine, engaging fisheries battles on everything from blue crabs to blue marlin.

The drama of the redfish wars has faded but there are still skirmishes and all-out brawls still on the horizon. CCA Louisiana recently fought off attempts to repeal its hard-fought redfish game fish status, and runs at reopening the harvest of spawning redfish in the Gulf come every year.

“This is why CCA is bigger than ever,” said CCA National President David Cummins. “The volunteer ethic that started the save the redfish movement is as important as ever and many of the state and federal fisheries management battles are much more complicated and grinding now, but no less important than the fight that started it all.”