Of all the fisheries issues that have arisen over the past decade, the fight over recreational red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico is among the most acrimonious, and one of the most difficult to resolve.
It started out simply. As fisheries managers began to successfully rebuild the red snapper stock, red snapper anglers began catching, and keeping, more fish. As other anglers became aware of their success, those anglers began targeting red snapper, too, pushing recreational landings even higher, to the point that they regularly exceeded the annual catch limit.
In response, federal fisheries managers tightened restrictions in an effort to get recreational landings under control. Anglers, bristling at regulations that became more restrictive at the same time that red snapper were growing more abundant, convinced state fisheries managers, who had previously followed the federal managers’ lead, to go out of compliance with federal regulations. That led to higher recreational landings in state waters; to compensate, federal managers kept shortening the season in waters they controlled, leading to a spiral of higher state landings and more restrictive federal rules that finally culminated, in 2017, to a federal red snapper season that was only three days long.
After various anglers’ rights groups, and their allies in the fishing and boating industries, complained to the new presidential administration about the shortened season, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) agreed to reopen the recreational red snapper season for part of the summer, an illegal action which assured that overfishing would occur, and led to a lawsuit which was settled only after NMFS stipulated, in writing, that it would not take such an action again.
Things just kept getting worse until the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council adopted a solution that, it hoped, would satisfy all parties: NMFS would continue to set the annual recreational catch limit, but the states, some aided by state-administered, NMFS-approved surveys that provided more timely information on recreational catch, landings, and effort, could set fishing seasons that best suited their local fisheries.
That solution was heralded by many who had previously criticized the federal fisheries management system. On February 6, 2020, the Center for Sportfishing Policy, one of the most unrelenting critics of federal red snapper management, announced that
Today, the recreational fishing and boating community praised final action taken by NOAA Fisheries to implement state management for private anglers fishing for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. Today’s action cements the management changes found in “Reef Fish Amendment 50: State Management for Recreational Red Snapper” agreed to by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) in April 2019 and sent to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross for approval…
“We have reason to celebrate today thanks to the willingness of the state fish and wildlife agencies on the Gulf Coast and the leadership of Secretary Ross and congressional champions like Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Representatives Garret Graves (R-La.), Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Austin Scott (R-Ga.),” said Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy. “Over the past two years, private recreational red snapper anglers in the Gulf have become more active partners in the states’ data collection systems and enjoyed much longer red snapper seasons than the federal system was able to provide.”
But now, the enthusiasm for the new management measures seems to be waning, as new data is revealing that recreational red snapper landings, even under joint state and federal management, continue to exceed sustainable levels.
Much of the problem appears to arise from anglers’ misunderstanding of the data generated by state surveys such as Alabama’s “Snapper Check” and Mississippi’s “Tails ‘n Scales.” Such surveys were intended to supplement the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), and provide more timely estimates of recreational landings. Because each employs a methodology that differs somewhat from the methodologies used by the other states and by MRIP, scientists recognized, as early as January 2018, that the results of each survey would have to be calibrated into a so-called “common currency,” before they could be used in the fishery management process.
When surveys such as Alabama’s Snapper Check showed lower landings than did MRIP, anglers immediately assumed that the state figures represented the more accurate estimate; state fishery managers did the same thing, depending on the lower state numbers to set a longer season that resulted in a larger harvest.
Yet even as most states’ 2020 red snapper seasons were beginning to open, state managers had reason to know that the state surveys were undercounting recreational landings. A document released by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) in early June indicated that, if the state surveys were calibrated to work with MRIP data, Mississippi and Alabama would see their quotas cut by 63 percent and 58 percent, respectively, while Louisiana’s quota would be reduced by nearly 30 percent.
Despite that knowledge, the Gulf Council set 2020 state quotas at levels that, given the uncalibrated state surveys, would certainly lead to overfishing. States made no effort to prevent that from happening; Alabama even reopened its season for three days in October, after closing it in early July, so that anglers might land their entire, uncalibrated quota.
But actions have consequences, and because the Gulf Council and the fisheries managers in the Gulf States decided to ignore the calibration issue, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, have overfished their recreational allocations and must now be held accountable for such overages.
Although anyone paying attention to the issue should have known that would happen, as soon as the news came out, long-time critics of federal red snapper management began to feign surprise and renew their attacks on federal fisheries managers.
As part of their renewed assault, spokesmen for various angling-related organizations falsely claimed that the data generated by MRIP conflicted with the state data when, in truth, all of the data merely needed to be calibrated into a common currency. As NMFS noted, “The MRIP state surveys are designed to improve regional monitoring of the recreational red snapper catch and effort. Estimates from these surveys can be used for federal scientific stock assessments and fishery management once there is a transition plan that describes how to integrate state and general data, and how to calibrate new and historical catch and effort data.”
Instead of explaining the need for calibration to the angling community, various anglers’ rights organizations, assembled under the banner of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, seemingly tried to incite angler outrage against federal fisheries managers. Ted Venker, Conservation Director of the Coastal Conservation Association, went so far as to accuse federal managers of engaging in “gamesmanship” and a desire “to continue its adversarial relationship with the states and with recreational anglers.”
That statement proved so outrageous that NMFS took the unusual step of issuing a public response, which stated, in part, that “The recent press release regarding NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) contains many inaccuracies and omissions. Foremost among them is mentions of ‘gamesmanship.’ Along with our state partners, NOAA fisheries has dedicated significant time, expertise, and resources toward the development of these state data collection workshops.”
The anglers’ rights community offered no explanation as to how NMFS’ helping the states to develop their recreational data programs constitutes “an adversarial relationship” with such states. Instead, it started a new initiative to discredit federal managers, this one based on something called “The Great Red Snapper Count (Count).”
The Count, standing on its own, is a remarkable scientific endeavor. Supported by a $10 million federal grant, it has engaged a number of highly qualified biologists, using state-of-the-art scientific methodologies, to determine how many red snapper now reside in the U.S. portion of the Gulf of Mexico. The results, once they are finally calculated and reviewed, should make a significant contribution to scientists’ knowledge of Gulf red snapper.
The Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, a part of Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, is lead institution for the Count. It advises that “Results from this study will be compared with stock assessment results to examine what accounts for any differences observed. This project represents a unique opportunity to bolster the stock assessment-derived estimate of red snapper abundance for the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, with the goal of ensuring the most robust management possible for this iconic fishery species.”
Mississippi State University Extension, another institution involved in the study, echoes those comments, saying that “the Great Red Snapper Count will provide new insight into the Gulf of Mexico red snapper population, while also helping to calculate the current stock assessment.”
Although the Count’s results have yet to be finalized and peer-reviewed, it appears that it has already made one big discovery: Most of the red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico don’t live on reefs, wrecks, oil rigs and other high-profile structure, as people have long believed. Instead, the majority reside over sand, mud, or other low-profile bottom, where few people fished and even scientists failed to look for them.
That’s the kind of information that, if confirmed, can and should be integrated into the red snapper stock assessment. It will inform scientists not only about current abundance, but about the likely size of the unfished red snapper stock, the spawning potential of such unfished stock, and how today’s population and spawning potential compares. That information, in turn, will allow fishery managers to determine the health of the stock, and calculate the harvest limits that must be imposed to assure its sustainability.
Unfortunately, anglers’ rights groups are using the preliminary information for something else—to renew their attack on federal fishery managers. The Coastal Conservation Association’s Texas chapter issued a press release which alleged, in part, that
It turns out that NOAA just doesn’t count snapper very well…This week, the Great Red Snapper Count, as it was called, revealed that, while preliminary, instead of the 36 million red snapper NOAA believed were in the population, there are really more like three times that number, or 100-million plus red snapper out there…The implications of this are hard to overstate. It means that the foundation of everything NOAA thought it knew about red snapper is fundamentally cracked…It means that the only crisis in red snapper has been NOAA’s faulty data and its culture that tailors management for the privileged few rather than the many. The snapper count means that NOAA has been wrong about a lot of things and has been wrong for a long time.
Like the earlier comment about “gamesmanship,” those allegations, too, were inaccurate, and unjustifiably stirred up anglers’ ire. As NMFS explained, “the preliminary abundance estimates produced by the study are consistent with those of the 2018 Gulf red snapper stock assessment conducted by NOAA Fisheries for natural and artificial structures, of high relief areas…What’s new is that this study better estimates the red snapper living in the low relief/bottom habitat, such as sand or mud.”
NMFS wasn’t aware of the number of fish that lived over such bottom because “Historically, much of the Gulf red snapper stock assessment data comes from the fishery. The fishery occurs mostly on the high relief natural and artificial structures in the Gulf or from surveys conducted near those areas. And, while we suspected there were more fish out there, a study of this magnitude is unprecedented.”
Now that the Count has revealed the fish’s presence, that information will be incorporated into the management process, although right now, no one knows how it will impact management measures.
As NMFS has already advised, “While it is difficult to determine exactly how this study will influence red snapper management, we intend to incorporate study results into an interim stock assessment in 2021. We will work with our partners on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and their Scientific and Statistical Committee to peer-review the assessment and make adjustments to red snapper management as appropriate.”
That’s the right way to manage red snapper: Using new data to augment current information, to assure that such management employs the best available science, and best assures that the red snapper stock is sustainable in the long term.
Hopefully, despite the ongoing controversies surrounding recreational red snapper management in the Gulf, NMFS will be allowed to do just that.