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Posted on Nov 19, 2009 in Top Shots
Red Snapper: A Way to End the War?

In all the rhetoric surrounding the unbelievably contentious issue of red snapper management these days, with devastating seasonal/bag restrictions and even complete closures haunting the future of major coastal sport fisheries Texas to Georgia, there's been one element glaringly missing: alternative solutions that might manage to satisfy federal law while not obliterating entire fisheries.

Bob Shipp has given me a sneak peak at just that. A "common-sense approach" he's derived could offer hope.

Shipp's an enthusiastic angler, but beyond that, the Ph.D. biologist is chair of the Department of Marine Sciences, University of South Alabama. He's also a veteran Gulf Council member (in fact, currently the council's chairman).

And on the confounding red snapper mess, Shipp says, "It's time to call 'time out'!"

First, he notes that Gulf red snapper stocks are increasing; neither anglers nor scientists can quibble about that, only about the rate of that increase. Moreover, data in recent years shows what fishermen already know: snapper keep getting larger (on average) and more abundant.

That should be great news but the downside is that anglers have regularly and considerably exceeded their annual quotas, even when fisheries managers have tried to reign that in with shorter seasons and reduced bag limits. This also accomplishes the negative result of greater release morality.

Shipp says the current approach isn't working. I don't think he'll get much argument from any side on that.

"It's time to look at a different approach - one that would greatly reduce the waste and at the same time safeguard the stock for the future."

Here's Shipp's approach to red snapper management:

Red snapper in the Gulf occur from depths as shallow as five fathoms to one hundred fathoms. Where structure is present they are naturally abundant at all these depths. In addition, as are most reef associated species, they show high site fidelity. This suggests an areal closure [within a specific area] of a portion of their range could be an effective tool toward maintaining a healthy stock.

I would suggest that this would be a temporary closure, not to be confused with creation of a marine protected area (MPA). Its duration would be determined by the time required to put in place the necessary fishery-independent data to improve the stock assessment for red snapper. Currently the stock assessment suffers from heavy reliance on fishery-dependent data, which reflects bias due to fishing practices (e.g. commercial fishers targeting small snapper which bring higher prices) and lacks credibility due to the current method of gathering recreational catch data.

The scope of the closure would be determined by bathymetric analysis. Certainly closure of a significant percentage of the species range would be required, and logic would dictate this be in the deeper portion, thus reducing release mortality.

If the fishery were conducted in 20 fathoms or less, it appears these criteria could be met.

To further ensure protection of the stocks, bag and size limits could provide additional safeguards, but certainly ones far more liberal than are currently in place. This would greatly reduce the mortality incurred when seasonal closures result in anglers targeting other species but continue catching red snapper which have become so abundant.

The commercial sector must be addressed in a plan such as this, but this would follow the implementation for the recreational sector. Also, compliance with The Magnuson Act would have to be determined, but certainly this system would better address the ten National Standards of that act.