FISHING FOR TROUBLE - MANAGING FISH AND FISHERMEN IN THE GULF

 

Since it's World Oceans Day today, what better occasion to celebrate a significant step towards sustainable fisheries management here in the Gulf - Our fisheries consultant Marianne Cufone weighs in on red snapper and the Gulf Council.

I’ve been watching and participating in fisheries management for well over 10 years, 8 of which have been right here in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, I’m thinking about what went on during this week at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in New Orleans, LA. Yesterday, at long last, the Council, an advisory body to the National Marine Fisheries Service (the agency tasked with managing fish for the U.S.) finally recommended some REAL management for red snapper. The new rules include: reducing the total annual catch from 9.12 million pounds to 5.0, lowering the commercial size limit from 15 inches to 13, lowering the recreational bag limit from 4 fish per person to 2, setting a recreational fishing season, eliminating captains and crew members from taking the daily recreational bag limit of fish on for-hire boats (charter and head boats), and requiring the use of circle hooks, venting and de-hooking tools to reduce bycatch. Maybe this sounds like no big deal, but in actuality it was a historical occasion.

Why is the recommendation of some fish rules a major accomplishment? A few reasons - First, the Council is dominated by recreational and commercial fish interests, and government folks that often lean toward those interests (since they are from states where fishing is very popular). This means many of those that make money from catching fish are helping to recommend regulations for catching fish. Not surprisingly then, most times the development of regulations are super slow (if they are going to limit catch or access to fishing) and when rules are finally approved, they are often not as strict as the science indicates necessary. Why would people that make money from a resource vote to limit the amount they can take from it? Well, in this instance, because the law says so, - the primary federal law about fish says we have to conserve and manage fish for the benefit of the nation, and that there are certain levels that fish populations can’t fall under. If they do, managers are supposed to take action. Red snapper has been under that level since the late 1980’s… but this was overlooked for years.

Second, red snapper is a super popular seafood item, and thus also a favorite catch for both recreational anglers and commercial fishermen/women. The annual allowed catch is split 49% recreational - 51% commercial. Red snapper therefore, are big money in the form of getting a good price at the dock and also getting people to book charterboat trips to go catch them. Big $$ = big debate over limiting catch…and so there were lengthy arguments, challenges to science and serious manipulation of politicos and information for years and years. Nearly 20 years in fact…red snapper has been known to be severely depleted since about 1988.

Red snapper’s target recovery date (the time by which the population should be back to a healthy level) was originally the year 2000. Seven years ago. Then it got moved back to 2007 (yes, this year), then it was changed to 2019, then 2032, each time to allow continued overfishing of red snapper. Consequently, studies show red snapper down to 3% of its historical population. Yikes. Tofu anyone?

We got to such a depleted population because despite knowing red snapper were doing poorly and that lack of management likely meant red snapper would continue to decline or at least not rebuild, the Council and NMFS bent to political pressures and ignored the advice of scientists, setting catch levels too high and allowing too many fish to be caught and killed as bycatch. We came to a point where really severe management was necessary to avoid a total population collapse. The measures I mentioned above were approved by the Council and now await final NMFS approval to stop overfishing, reduce bycatch and help rebuild red snapper. Yippie – finally.

However, that is sadly not the end to this saga. Old habits die hard, and even as the new red snapper plan was being finalized, the Council added in an assumed 10% reduction in effort to catch red snapper attributed to hurricane impacts, despite a lack of credible science indicating this. This means the rules will assume we are already meeting some of the necessary reduction in catch…we’ll have to wait to see what that does to the final outcome. They also voted to allow an increase in bycatch of red snapper as the population (hopefully) rebuilds under the new plan.

Oh wait, there’s more...right after they voted to send the whole plan to NMFS for final approval, they started discussions about changing it! The Council now wants to look at the concept of regional specific catch limits (for example eastern verses western Gulf) to see if they can squeeze just a bit more out of the total catch limit in certain places, based on local red snapper abundance. So, if there are more red snapper found in the west verses in the east, then the west could get more quota.

Unbelievable...if you haven’t been part of the process for years. If you know this bunch, then its merely typical.

Adding to the hooplah of yesterday were colorful characters from various groups insisting that there were MORE (not less) red snapper out there than ever before…you could walk on red snapper across the Gulf from Texas to Florida practically, and no one can catch anything else (wait…does this mean ALL the other fish are depleted? That’s another issue for another day).

Others claimed that fish kissers (GRN, the Ocean Conservancy and other environmental groups) were weaving a story about red snapper being depleted and that the science indicating a problem with red snapper was simply a result of imagination. Funny, the judge didn’t see it that way in the lawsuit GRN and other groups recently won on the issue, forcing a red snapper management plan that had at least a 50% chance of success (do you believe this is the standard we use???) to be in place by December 31, 2007. It was such a clear case, we actually won on a summary judgment…no trial, no further consideration. Sadly, I think it took the litigation to motivate the final outcome of yesterday…but whatever. After all these years, it seems red snapper will finally be on the road to recovery.

Marianne Cufone is the GRNs Consultant on Fisheries Issues, based in Tampa Florida.

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