The way recreational anglers’ share of Gulf red snapper is converted into fixed seasons clearly isn’t working and I believe we can do better! However, I think we can all agree that setting science-based catch limits have helped bring red snapper back from the brink, and now is not the time to abandon them.
The recovery of red snapper over the last decade has been amazing to see. I can remember fishing with my dad as a kid off the coast of Texas and we could barely find red snapper. Today you can go to just about any marina and see sizeable red snapper being unloaded with big smiles all around.
The fact is, as the population is rebounding, catch limits for recreational fishermen have more than doubled. The total for the fishery is 14 million pounds this year, split roughly in half between recreational and commercial fishing, with sub-quotas between charter operators and individual anglers. Better management regimes in the commercial and charter industries are keeping both groups within their sustainable limits.
So if the quota has more than doubled in the last decade and other fishing industries aren’t exceeding their limits, why are we facing frustratingly short federal seasons?
First, state fishing seasons have been getting longer, ranging from 365 days in Texas to 85 days in Florida. Prior to the recent season extension announced by the Department of Commerce, it was projected that recreational anglers would catch 81 percent of their red snapper quota in state waters in 2017. Additionally, in eight of the last 10 years (excluding the closure for the BP spill) we have unfortunately exceeded our quota in the private angling component.
Blame for the overage lies squarely with a broken system, not anglers. We are conservationists at heart and no one I know would intentionally overfish. Still, those overages, as required by law, were deducted from the following year and contributed to a downward spiral of declining federal access.
You may have heard that my organization, Environmental Defense Fund, has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Commerce. Let me be clear that we are not trying to end this year’s season, but we want to make sure the federal government doesn’t get in the habit of saying it is okay to exceed sustainable limits. This additional 39-day season will likely lead to the quota being exceeded by millions of pounds this year. The government even admitted in their announcement that this single season extension will set back the recovery of red snapper by six years.
So what are frustrated anglers like us supposed to do?
First, we need more investment in catch data collection systems that can track how many red snapper anglers are landing and discarding. And no, I’m not suggesting more Big Brother in your life, but surveys compiled sometimes months after a season ends do not create an opportunity for responsive and flexible management. The State of Louisiana has developed a system called LA Creel that is a very promising start.
Second, we should look beyond a fixed season for the entire Gulf Coast that stifles access. In Texas, even in my 38 ft. boat, there are often big chunks of June that I can’t get offshore because of high winds and bad weather. Anglers should be able to choose when to fish so long as we can keep within our sustainable limits.
Some have proposed giving the states more power to manage private anglers and that is something that EDF could absolutely support with the appropriate conservation measures. Obviously, I know reform for private anglers will be complex and there are no easy answers. However, for me a key part of the lawsuit mentioned is forcing a conversation about solutions that give more flexibility to anglers while protecting this rebuilding stock.
Whatever we do, we must avoid the mistakes of the past. With so much progress on bringing red snapper back from the brink, now is not the time to throw away a better fishing future for Gulf anglers.
About the Author
Robert E. Jones is a lifelong recreational fisherman and was raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is director of Environmental Defense Fund’s Gulf of Mexico Oceans program.
Sport Fishing welcomes opportunities to share a variety of perspectives from prominent or influential participants in issues related to recreational fishing and fisheries.