The Times-Picayune Interview

Todd Masson Interviews Dr. Bob Shipp about Red Snapper stocks.

Interview Transcript

Q: In a nutshell, what's going on with red-snapper stocks currently in the Gulf of Mexico?

A: The snapper stocks are stronger than they've ever been in history. Everybody who studies them and gets out on the water knows that. It's primarily because of all the habitat that's been created since the 1940s -- all the oil platforms along the Louisiana and Texas coasts as well as the artificial reefs. In Alabama, for instance, we have 17,000 artificial reefs off our coast that probably hold 20 to 25 million pounds of snapper, so the stocks are stronger than they've ever been in history.

This idea of rebuilding the stocks by the year 2032 is ludicrous. It's probably the worst-managed fishery in the United States, when you have a fishery that's so incredibly healthy, and yet you have a nine-day season for the recreational industry with devastating economic impacts on towns like Orange Beach, Destin and Panama City.

We kill hundreds of thousands of snapper every year because the season's closed and there are so many snapper there that you can't get through them. We took a research cruise this week. We were trying to get some amberjack to do some age analysis, and we couldn't get any amberjack fishing high in the water column with live bait. All we could get were red snapper.

This whole snapper management system is a train wreck. It's nobody's fault. It's just the way the Magnuson Act is worded. The Magnuson Act has got to be changed; otherwise, we're never going to come to a rational solution to this mess.

Q: You give significant credit for the size of red-snapper stocks to the amount of structure now in the Gulf of Mexico. Isn't there debate among scientists whether structure improves fisheries populations or merely attracts them?

A: That's an antiquated argument that's been put to rest a decade ago. The way you need to look at it is you are changing the habitat. You're changing the ecosystem. Off of Alabama, for example, historically we just had flat mud bottoms -- very rich bottom, highly nutritious -- but it was flat with no structure.

When you put those artificial structures down there, you change the ecosystem. Your total biomass may not change. Before you'd have lots of little sea robins and stuff like that. When you put structure down there, the biomass changes from those species to the more-desirable species like red snapper and grouper. This attraction-versus-production argument is an old one that's long since gone away.

Q: LSU's Dr. Jim Cowan has argued snapper stocks appear healthy, but there are some underlying problems with the stocks in regards to very weak year-classes. What do you think of his research?

A: Jim is a dear friend of mine. I hired him. His first job was at the University of South Alabama, and he worked for us for 10 years. Jim and I disagree on this. I think with time, I've been proven a little bit more correct.

You have to realize that snapper live 20, 30 years, and (scientists) talk about strong year-classes in 1997 and 2005. I'm stating the case that we've had one strong year-class after another, if you want to look at it that way. We had a down year-class the year of the oil spill, and whether it was related to that or not, no one really knows for sure, but recruitment is back up again.

When we were out Wednesday (for the research cruise), we videoed some habitat, and it's just teeming with 2- and 3-year-old (red snapper). Yeah, there are year-classes that are stronger than others, but overall, we're having strong year-classes every year.

Q: Does your research indicate red-snapper stocks in the Gulf were ever in peril?

A: There were certain locales where you had localized depletion. Off the coast of Panama City and Orange Beach in the relatively shallow waters that got heavily fished, those areas were certainly overfished. But there were huge amounts of the population in deeper water that were very strong and unfished.

The idea that the stocks were overfished and overfishing was occurring was true in a limited area, but not overall in the population. Even when the population was hardly fished at all, say, 100 years ago, it was not near the size it is now. That's because of the habitat. There was so little habitat in the 1860s and 1880s when the fishery first started. They fished what little habitat there was. They fished it down. They were landing about 2 million pounds a year in those days. But nowadays with all the habitat, the stocks are far larger than they've ever been.

Q: You mentioned that the guidelines in the Magnuson Act relative to red snapper need to be changed. How so?

A: The easiest thing to do would be to remove red snapper from Magnuson and turn it over to the states. We have the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission that operates very successfully. It's a cooperative effort among the five Gulf states. That's the ultimate solution, but if you're going to keep red snapper in Magnuson, you have to get away from this idea of fishing on a quota. As long as you have a quota, you're going to have a derby.

You need to stretch the season out to at least six months like it was about 10 years ago. We didn't land any more fish then than we're landing now with a nine-day season. There's got to be some leeway in Magnuson to allow other ways to manage other than a quota.

One idea that we've put out is to have closed areas -- restrict fishing to within 20 or 25 fathoms (180 to 210 feet) and protect it from there out. That way, you know the stocks are going to be healthy, and yet you'll have an extended fishery. The effort will be spread over a much longer period of time.

Q: Have your 18 years on the Gulf Council left you cynical about whether this fishery can ever be managed properly?

A: I think we've reached the tipping point. I really do. I thought we had reached it three years ago when the season started to collapse down, but now with the nine-day (season), I think we really have.

Let me give you one scenario: In Magnuson (proposals) right now, there is strong language to allow Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to have nine miles (of state waters) like Florida and Texas have. If you did that, with what we have off Alabama and what you have off Louisiana, the entire quota would be caught in state waters. So what do you do then? You've got this huge resource beyond nine miles that you can't touch. Those are the kinds of things that will cause people to wake up and take a look at some common sense. I think that the nine-mile extension is probably going to fly.

Q: There was initially great support for switching red-snapper management to the states, but it eventually died because of disagreements on how the quota would be distributed. What makes you sure red snapper could be managed at the state level?

A: The flaw in regional management was the quota was still the quota, so Florida wanted 32 percent, Alabama wanted 28 percent and Louisiana wanted 20 percent. But 20 percent of what? The quota was still the constraint, so even if the states could have agreed, it wouldn't have made a dime's worth of difference. They still didn't have enough fish that they could legally catch. This whole idea of a quota is what needs to be removed.

Q: What do you think of the sector-separation proposal that would break off the charter fleet from the recreational quota?

A: Unfortunately, this is the byproduct of the whole flaw in the system. You turn brother against brother, charter guys against the recreational guys. Historically, they were always together. I see both sides of this. I think philosophically, it's a bad deal to split up the recreational fishery. On the other hand, I see that the charterboat guys have their backs against the wall. They have no alternative but to try to go off on their own. I don't think it's going to solve their problems; it's a Band-Aid.

I chaired a public hearing about (sector separation) two weeks ago, and fisticuffs broke out. Fortunately, we had enforcement guys there. That's a terrible byproduct of this stupid management. It's the worst-managed fishery in the United States, without a doubt.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: A lot of people will say, "This is a bad situation, but boy, look at the stocks we have. They're so healthy, and that's the result of all these restrictions. We've rebuilt the stock." My comment to that is the old cliche: The operation was a success, but the patient died.

What's the good of having all these stocks if nobody can use them?

The original article "Gulf fishing authority says red snapper fix is easy" and interview were published on August 22, 2014 in the Times Picayune,

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