Snapper Disaster

This Gulf of Mexico fisheries-management train wreck isn’t coming: it’s already here.

red snapper
The superabundance of red snapper and ridiculously short federal seasons haven’t stopped the commercial industry from shamelessly claiming that “regulators are allowing recreational fisherman [sic] to deplete scarce red snapper stocks in the Gulf of Mexico.”Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

OPINION
Recreational fishermen have often shown a desire to place the welfare of game-fish stocks ahead of their own opportunities to catch them. More than once, for example, Florida anglers, via groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association, have actually pushed for tighter rules and seasons.

In particular, I think many anglers are all about sacrifice when they believe specific game-fish stocks are in trouble. But sacrifice for a species that has become ubiquitous is a much tougher sell.

Last spring, I fished a day out of Destin, Florida, with Capt. Pat Dineen. The weather pretty much sucked, and we were limited to dropping on small pieces of rubble in shallow water — not traditionally where one would expect great fishing for red snapper. Yet in drop after drop we found them: big, hungry snapper, competing for our jigs and bait.

Nearly everyone who fishes the Gulf has such stories; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard guides and anglers complain that they can’t get away from red snapper to catch other species they can legally keep. And the evidence — scientific, empirical and anecdotal — suggests they’re still spreading into areas and depths where they were previously absent.

But hold the applause. Ironically, as red snapper numbers have soared, the federal season shrank to just 10 fishing days in the Gulf last year — with the possibility looming of even fewer days this year.

The superabundance of the species and the ridiculously short seasons haven't stopped the commercial industry from shamelessly claiming that "regulators are allowing recreational fisherman [sic] to deplete scarce red snapper stocks in the Gulf of Mexico." (undercurrentnews.com, Dec. 31, 2015)

By any standard, red snapper management in the Gulf has become one of the most complex and confounding problems in the history of fisheries management. One school of thought (a very large school, from the recreational standpoint) suggests federal mismanagement is largely responsible for creating the metaphorical train wreck, as discussed the Sport Fishing article, "The Great Gulf Red Snapper Train Wreck."

That article’s author, Bob Shipp, a fisheries scientist and one of the leading experts on Gulf red snapper, does a remarkable job of explaining the wreckage and how we got there. He looks at the many difficult issues involved, such as allocations and quotas, sector separation, management jurisdictions, and catch and effort data. Shipp also offers an alternative and innovative approach to managing red snapper.

There have been some hopeful signs for Gulf anglers, with a number of U.S. lawmakers pushing for more state control of the resource. And for at least this year, all Gulf states have jurisdiction to manage red snapper in state waters that extend to about 9.5 miles offshore, per a provision inserted into the recent omnibus spending package. For several states that previously had control over state waters extending only to 3 miles offshore, this opens up vast areas where anglers can fish for red snapper during more generous state seasons.

But that’s sure to mean far greater numbers of fish harvested, which may in turn mean feds declaring no red snapper season — or even forcing states to halt snapper fishing in their waters, which could be a major economic disaster.

At the same time, recreational anglers who fish from private boats are under increasing pressure from (often successful) commercial-industry lawsuits demanding that NOAA restrict recreational catches still further. Also, efforts led by powerful environmental groups (notably the Environmental Defense Fund) to promote sector separation have seen a sizable part of the total recreational quota handed to a select group of charter-boat interests, leaving anglers fishing from private boats with even less quota.

Unfortunately, this is one train wreck that’s far from over. It sure looks from here like more cars could be piling up among the debris for months and perhaps years to come.