Give Power to the States

Cooperative effort closes in on solution to federal fisheries chaos.
Florida red snapper
Red snapper can’t get out of the spotlight. Anglers are catching a bunch of them, but fisheries managers are having trouble tracking their numbers. What’s the solution to the current mess? Courtesy FWC/FWRI

Recreational anglers are applauding progress by the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC) to improve the quality and timeliness of recreational fishery dependent data gathered by the Gulf states. With the ongoing turmoil in federal recreational data collection efforts, anglers are optimistic that the states will be in position to break from the federal data system, as other regions have done, and assume management of red snapper and other species in the Gulf of Mexico in the near future.

David Donaldson, executive director of the commission, recently reported to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council that more than $6.6 million in Inflation Reduction Act funding is being applied to:

  • Improve state and commission data management systems;
  • Develop better methods of quality control;
  • Establish GSMFC as centralized warehouse for state fishery dependent data;
  • Evaluate ways to validate state-based recreational fishing effort estimates;
  • Evaluate ways to improve recreational discard data

Progress at the commission can’t come too soon as it is becoming apparent that the federal management system is struggling to function due to uncertainty in the federal recreational data. Continued cooperation by the Commission and the Gulf states is critical to provide a viable alternative to the current federal system, which is anchored in decades of questionable data, uncertain conversions and outdated management models. It has become almost impossible for fishery management councils to make timely decisions.

In just the last few months, the following developments have highlighted deep-rooted problems in the federal management system bringing trust in that system to the lowest level possible:

Fishing Effort Survey Errors

Last August, NOAA Fisheries announced that errors in its recreational data program — the Marine Recreational Information Program-Fishing Effort Survey (MRIP-FES) — is causing the over-estimation of recreational harvest by up to 40 percent for some species. This error was believed to be caused by the order of questions in the survey; moving them around yielded more accurate results.  Despite that rather small change that led to exceptionally spurious findings, managers will be forced to use the flawed data for management for several years as the system is analyzed. The recreational data program will once again go back to the drawing board — now looking at the third major change since the last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This certainly does not instill in recreational anglers any trust in NOAA management.

Red Snapper Numbers Remain Unclear

In January 2024, it was announced that SEDAR 74 — the current Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Stock Assessment — was unable to produce a viable stock assessment for the most studied species in the Gulf reef fish complex. The stock assessment model contains more than a jaw-dropping 2,900 parameters, each with its own level of uncertainty and bias. Even a casual observer would not expect robust management advice to be produced by such a convoluted process. A new assessment is not expected for at least two years. Moreover, due to the model’s instability, reviewers recommended not including findings from the Great Red Snapper Count (GRSC), a $12 million independent stock assessment of the Gulf red snapper population funded by Congress and conducted by 12 leading marine science institutes and more than 100 of the top scientists around the Gulf and beyond. The GRSC was finalized in 2021 and found a red snapper population at least three times larger than NOAA’s estimates. As it stands, that $12 million effort has been largely ignored by NOAA Fisheries.

Conflicting Gag Grouper Numbers

NOAA Fisheries recently released its initial recreational harvest numbers for Gulf of Mexico gag grouper, which were seven times higher than results generated by the State of Florida Reef Fish Survey (SRFS). The findings included 106,000 pounds of gag grouper harvested from shore based on a single intercept on a bridge. Taken as presented, those findings would indicate the recreational sector is more than four times over its annual catch limit and would necessitate severe management actions, including possible bottom closures. NOAA officials have laid out a plan to go back and determine where these incredible numbers came from and how to deal with them.

What’s the Next Step?

These are just a few of many findings and outcomes of what continually appears to be a flawed system of exceptional reactive vs proactive resource management. These events are part of a crisis management pattern that has undermined the effectiveness of NOAA Fisheries as a viable management entity. Constantly unwinding errors from the past and eliminating unexplainable outliers leaves no room for forward-thinking — only reacting. The fishery management councils and staff are doing the best they can, but the federal agency has painted itself into a corner and the system is staggering under its own weight. Trust is so low that there are reports of private marinas beginning to block NMFS access to their docks. This crisis of confidence in MRIP needs to be addressed by turning the data collection over to the states.

Comparing West Coast to Southeast States

The Gulf Coast states are following a path taken by the West Coast states, which opted out of the federal data system in 2002. This follows a long-held management paradigm that fisheries management is most successfully accomplished at the most local level reasonable. For example, Oregon, Washington and California reached an agreement in which NOAA takes the funding it was using to collect recreational data and gives it to the states, and those states collect their own data and supply it to NOAA Fisheries for management purposes. No calibration, no trying to tie it back to NOAA’s inexplicable MRIP numbers — a clean cut. The West Coast states broke with NOAA due to frustration with the same problems that are plaguing the Southeast. States in the South Atlantic are also currently exploring options after ongoing data debacles in the red snapper, reef fish and Spanish mackerel fisheries, among others.

Recreational data problems in the federal system aren’t going away — they’re getting worse. Fortunately, there is a path forward in the Gulf, and we believe it is time to embrace a cohesive state-based management program that utilizes timely, current data and produces information managers can use today. We must get down to the business of properly managing our fisheries rather than wasting time explaining the mistakes of the past.

About the Author: Ted Venker is the Vice President and Conservation Director of the Coastal Conservation Association.