What’s up with the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery?

The Texas red snapper season for private recreational anglers in federal waters began this week.

The length of the season will likely be on par with what anglers have experienced in recent years, despite hopes that the Great Red Snapper Count results would open up more access. Texas’ private recreational season in federal waters was 63 days in 2020 and 62 in 2019.

The Great Red Snapper Count was a groundbreaking three-year study that brought together some of the best fisheries scientists to identify absolute red snapper abundance in the Gulf of Mexico. This research established a population of 110 million red snappers aged two years and over in the Gulf, which is more than three times the previous estimate of 36 million. About two-thirds of these fish were found on what is called an “uncharacterized bottom,” which includes small rock formations, sunken containers, undiscovered banks and wrecks.

Anglers will likely have to wait, however, to gain access to these previously undocumented fish, as the results of the Great Red Snapper Count were only partially incorporated by the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) of the Gulf of Fisheries Management Board. Mexico.

The SSC used the Great Red Snapper Count to set an overfishing limit (OFL) of 25.6 million pounds. The new OFL is a huge leap from the previous £ 15.5million. However, the Biological Acceptable Catch (ABC) was established without using the number of snappers and only increased slightly from 15.1 to 15.4 million pounds. The gap between the ABC of £ 15.4million and the OFL of £ 25.6million created an unprecedented buffer of around 40%. Spread across the commercial, rental and private sectors, ABC’s £ 300,000 increase is barely noticeable. The Gulf Council has recommended a private fishing allowance for Texas of 270,386 pounds for this season, up slightly from 265,105 last year. However, the National Marine Fisheries Service has not yet established the official allocation.

The recommended allocation for Texas is just over six percent of the total for all Gulf states. Added to Louisiana’s 19 percent, the western Gulf accounts for a quarter of the allocation, although the Great Red Snapper Count has determined that the biomass of the red snapper population is more evenly distributed. The western Gulf is home to 52 million of the 110 million red snappers; 48 million of the 58 million eastern Gulf red snappers reside off the coast of Florida, which holds nearly 45 percent of the allocation.

“The western gulf subsidizes the eastern gulf,” said Tom Hilton, founder of Hilton’s Fishing Charts.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will use a myriad of data, including iSnapper, to determine when to close the season in federal waters while still allowing year-round access to fishing in state waters. Anglers can keep two fish with a minimum of 16 inches in federal waters and four fish with a minimum of 15 inches in state waters. Fish caught in federal waters count towards the state’s catch limit. The federal rental / charter season began on June 1 and will end on August 3. The rental sector accounts for 42.3 percent of the Gulf’s total recreational quota. The commercial sector uses an individual fishing quota program.

Anglers who wish to see more access to the great red snapper count results will likely have to wait until the next reference stock assessment is completed, possibly in 2023. The snapper count will go through a rigorous review process before proceeding. be fully implemented in the management of the red snapper fishery.

“We don’t expect the seasons to change now for two years. (The SSC) added fish from the snapper count, except these were washed away by a buffer zone which is being reassessed, ”said Greg Stunz, Great Red Snapper Count project leader and Council member of the Gulf, who is also president of the Harte Research Institute for Fisheries and Oceans Health and director of the Sportfish Center at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

“When we have the stock assessment, these fish will be fully integrated and you will see a lot more quota released. The problem is, it doesn’t happen in the short term.

In the short term, the recreational fisherman wonders why more fish cannot be landed when millions of previously extinct fish have been identified in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Let’s not forget that 22 of the best Gulf scientists led the Snapper Count, over 80 scientists participated and 11 Gulf institutions supported it. The earl found at least 800 million pounds of red snapper that we didn’t know existed, ”Coastal Conservation Association director of conservation Ted Venker said during the public comment portion of recent Council meetings. Gulf.

“The point is, we are far from overfishing this stock, but we are handling it like it is a Prius when we have a Ferrari.”

One point of contention that prevented the SSC from a larger increase in ABC was the lower longline survey of the NMFS.

“The NMFS lower longline index tells us how the abundance of the red snapper stock is changing over time, and that’s very valuable. Right now he’s telling us that the stock is no longer increasing and that it may in fact be decreasing a bit. It also tells us that if we increase the catches above the current level, the abundance of the stock is likely to decrease, ”said Kai Lorenzen, professor of fisheries at the University of Florida and acting president of the SSC. .

“I think we all agree that the stock is currently quite healthy. This is largely the result of holding back over many years, allowing the stock to rebuild from a very depleted state to the current level of abundance. Current disagreements relate to the amount of catch that the stock can withstand without compromising its health. Bearing in mind that the SSC’s ABC recommendation of 15.4 million pounds is the highest quota ever set for Gulf red snapper, which is consistent with the idea that the stock is currently in fairly good shape health.

Fishermen can take comfort in knowing that access to fishing will remain the status quo instead of becoming more restrictive. Season lengths have been liberalized since the states took over management of private recreational seasons in 2018. Recreational fishermen were granted year-round access to red snapper in federal waters in 1996, and then the season slowly dissolved. It fell to 194 days from 2000 to 2007. It was then 65 days in 2008, 48 in 2011 and dismal nine days in 2014. The announcement of a three-day season sparked an uproar in 2017 before the Gulf states and the US Department of Commerce do not reach a deal to extend it for another 39 days.

In the short term, the private recreational season for red snapper is likely to be similar to that of the past two years.

“We’re probably still going to look at 60 to 70 days of a red snapper season, which most people would find quite enjoyable,” Stunz said.

The Gulf Council also decided to defer the calibration of reporting data from each Gulf state to the Marine Recreation Information Program (MRIP).

The calibration would have resulted in management crises for Alabama and Mississippi. Both states have reportedly seen drastic cuts in allowances for private recreational fishermen.

“That would have reduced the allocations to Mississippi and Alabama by about half of what we are currently fishing. This has been delayed until the 2023 fishing season. So Alabama will be able to fish at the level that we have fished in recent years, ”said Scott Bannon, director of the Alabama marine resources division.

“We felt it was a very favorable decision for us and the fishermen who fish in Alabama.”

Alabama’s 2021 private fishing allowance of 1,145,026 pounds would have fallen to 547,298 pounds and significantly reduced its season.

“This has a huge economic impact on the state of Alabama. That would create a short season for Alabama, which creates what I call “panic fishing”. No matter what the weather would have been, if we had been open for a short time people would have felt compelled to go. We try to get away from it; it’s not safe, it’s not an efficient way to fish, ”Bannon said.

“The stress level is a bit reduced now that we are back to what we fished. “

Calibrating data from Alabama’s “Snapper Check” system to MRIP would have inflated the amount of red snapper caught off the state’s coast, in his view, and would have been penalized for perceived overfishing.

“We are confident that the level of harvest we have had off Alabama has been sustainable. We conduct an independent pre-season and post-season reef fish assessment annually by the University of Southern Alabama. We are constantly watching the Alabama reef area and are very comfortable with the level of fishing. We think it’s sustainable and we think it provides the access people should have to the Alabama reef area, ”said Bannon, who also acknowledged that the calibration issue has yet to be. resolved.

The decision not to calibrate has angered organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy and the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance.

“The problem is that the current management system for the private recreational red snapper fishery in the Gulf is illegal, unless immediate calibrations have taken place. There is a design flaw in the system. There is no possibility of directly comparing state landings to federal quotas. The Gulf Council has known this and has known it for years. But they voted to keep this illegal system for two more years. So it’s really an abdication of their responsibility to sustainably manage red snapper, ”said Meredith Moore, director of the fish conservation program for Ocean Conservancy.

Moore said the current system allows recreational fishermen to continually exceed their quotas, puts the stock at risk of overfishing and does not comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Moore said it was unfair to the commercial and rental sectors, and while she supports state management and the Gulf Council’s work to rebuild the fishery, this recent decision not to calibrate puts those efforts at risk.

“Everyone is going to take a cut. Right now we’re talking about a few states that need to make a cut for an area, but we’re on the right track for absolutely everyone in the Gulf to have to cut. And also this reduction could be quite large, because we are still in a rebuilding plan and we are nearing the end, ”said Moore.

“The best thing to do now is fix the problem before it gets bigger than it already is.”


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Harold Shirley

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