Snapper Regulations Spiral Down Again
As I write this, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is wrapping up its April meeting. And while details on dates of opening and closing of the recreational red snapper season are yet to be announced, the recommendation from the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) Science Center in Miami is for a season of six to nine days in federal waters, with eight the closest to the mean. In all likelihood that is what we face this year.
And while it’s easy to cast aspersions on the Council or the NMFS, it’s really pretty much out of their hands. It’s true they have the power to change allocation of recreational and commercial quotas, but no matter what they did in that arena it would make little difference. And the reason is the word in the last sentence: “quota.” As long as we are operating with a quota system, and as long as the stocks are as incredibly healthy as they are now, a quota will lead to a derby, and derbies become ever more intense. Even if the recreational quota were doubled, not likely in our lifetime, we would see a season of only a couple of weeks.
Just a decade ago we had a six-month season, with a two fish bag limit, and the stocks were expanding even then. The stocks are even stronger now, so why is the season so shortened? Here is the paradox. The stronger and healthier the stocks are, the more quickly the quota is caught. The more quickly it’s caught, the more intense the derby.
And with red snapper, there are other confounding factors. Of prime importance is the action of the Gulf states. In their frustration with the federal regulations, the states have approved lengthened seasons. In Texas, the season is year round. And recently state boundaries for the interior Gulf states were extended to nine nautical miles, making them equivalent to Florida and Texas. This has increased red snapper harvest in state waters, further cutting into the federal quota.
So what’s on the tab for 2016 in the Gulf? Well, nothing significant is going to change without action by Congress. The way the law is interpreted now, we must be managed on a quota system. Congress must make alternative management regimes allowable, or we’re stuck with this ludicrous system for the foreseeable future.
But what could be done with more flexibility? I’ve alluded to two solutions in the past: one, total state management authority or, two, management by closed areas rather than by quota. I’ve recently discussed the benefits of state management, but haven’t detailed the alternative system recently so I will here.
Red snappers inhabit the continental shelf to about 100 fathoms. They are most abundant in 20 to 50 fathoms. If we only allowed harvest to the first 20-25 fathoms (120-180 feet), the major portion of the stocks would not be subject to fishing mortality.
Let’s spell out the benefits. First and foremost, the stocks would be adequately protected. This is in the best interest of all concerned. And since red snappers are not migratory, there would be no fear of intensive harvest during an annual movement into shallower water. Because harvest would be in the relatively shallow water, by-catch mortality would be reduced. Commercial harvesters could continue with their present system, less worried about future reallocation. Environmental groups would realize one of their most treasured goals, a partial Marine Protected Area (MPA) even if it were for but a single (but most controversial) species. The rancor and ill will generated by the sector separation of charter and private recreational fishermen would disappear. There could be an 180-day season with a two-fish bag limit, allowing the return of stability to the fishery. And we wouldn’t be bound by a quota, minimizing the need for intensive, expensive and highly controversial stock assessments.
Are there downsides? Yes, but I think they are minimal. Enforcement would be more difficult, but with today’s GPS technology it would be doable. Possession restrictions would be needed. And stocks in shallower waters would be subject to more intense fishing pressure. But the shallower stocks would be constantly replenished from larvae dispersed from their deeper water siblings, as well as a spillover of larger snapper from the deep water. Who wouldn’t trade a slightly more difficult fishing challenge (but of six months duration) to a six- or eight-day season?
There are several very influential groups grappling with alternative strategies for red snapper management. And Congress is listening, as evidenced by the introduction of bills recently, even though they are focused on greater state management. But every time the screws are tightened, the pressure increases and action becomes more likely.
If you wonder why I feel so passionately about this issue, I invite you to go to the “video” link, and view the first video on our Artificial Reef research. I am confident that after viewing this six-minute segment, you too will share my sentiments, (and you can also order an autographed copy of my “Guide.”)
This article was originally published in Coastal Angler Magazine on May 11, 2016.