By Robert E. Jones
If you pay attention to fish news here in the United States, you are likely to be familiar with the ongoing controversy surrounding Gulf of Mexico red snapper. The fishery is a poster child for rebuilding success, in the midst of a remarkable comeback after decades of overfishing and decline. However, most of the news coming out of the fishery stems from conflict over how private anglers access the resource, and how to reform what everyone seems to agree is a broken recreational management system.
The conflict reached a crisis point in June when the Department of Commerce decided to extend the federal season for individual recreational anglers by 39 days without proper notice and with knowledge that it would almost certainly lead to the recreational fishery exceeding its quota. In fact, in its rulemaking the Department of Commerce admitted that this single season extension would likely set back the rebuilding timeline for red snapper by six years.
In response to this action, Environmental Defense Fund, Ocean Conservancy and Earth Justice filed a lawsuit aimed at preventing a similar action by the agency in 2018 and in hopes of spurring meaningful reform. This fishery has made too much progress to abandon the principles that are fueling its stunning recovery.
It wasn’t that long ago that the red snapper population was on the brink of collapse. After setting science-based catch limits, fishery managers spent years struggling to keep fishing within set quotas. After years of work by fishermen, conservationists and other stakeholders, the commercial fishery adopted a catch share program that began in 2007. Since then, commercial fishermen have stayed within their quota every year, the population of the red snapper spawning stock has tripled and quotas for the entire fishery have more than doubled. For seafood businesses and consumers, this progress has delivered tremendous benefits such as increasing the value of the commercial fishery from $37 million to $220 million and making delicious Gulf red snapper available year-round in restaurants and grocery stores.
Yet despite these gains, individual anglers have seen their federal seasons drastically reduced over the same period. How is that happening?
Missing from the headlines about ever-shorter federal seasons is the role lengthening state seasons are playing. State and federal seasons for recreational red snapper used to be aligned. But they have diverged in recent years to the point where in 2016, as the federal season shrunk to just ten days, Texas had its state waters open for red snapper fishing for 365 days with a four fish bag limit, Louisiana 272, Florida 85, Alabama 66 and Mississippi 102. When the 2017 season was initially set, it was projected that 81% of the individual recreational quota would be caught in state water fishing seasons. That leaves very little quota for fishing between 9-200 miles, and that number shrinks further when overharvesting by the recreational sectors in previous years is accounted for.
So what can we do to fix things? In the immediate term, Gulf States hold the power to extend federal seasons by bringing their state fishing rules into closer alignment with federal authorities. But in the longer term we need more far-reaching reform.
The first pillar of improved recreational management must be better data. Regulators currently estimate recreational landings state-by-state through a variety of sampling techniques (surveys by phone, mail, and dockside conversations) and then provide that data to federal fishery scientists for use in developing the annual catch limit or quota. This method alone leaves room for uncertainty, which in several years has led to retrospective determinations that anglers exceeded their quota even while complying with established seasons and bag limits. As a result, a federal judge cracked down on NOAA and the recreational quota was reduced by a 20% “buffer” to prevent overharvesting.
This is a problem we will continue to face as long as we’re just estimating the catch from anglers. Instead, we should be looking for modern tools, such as the iSnapper smartphone app, to count the fish that we keep and discard, adding more certainty to the data for state and federal fishery scientists and ensuring the full impact of a day on the water can be better calculated. And with that higher level of data certainty, fishery managers can consider rolling back the 20% buffer and steadily increase the annual allocation.
The second pillar of improved management must be the deployment of modern accountability tools. Anglers are increasingly coming to realize that seasons and bag limits are antiquated one-size-fits-all regulations, unable to give maximum sustainable access to red snapper. By replacing them with more nimble tools that can constrain catch levels for a growing number of anglers to a scientifically determined limit, the clear reward can be the flexibility to fish whenever it is most convenient – good weather, kids out of school, or when the opportunity for a spontaneous weekend presents itself.
Designing such a system is complex, and it won’t happen overnight. But it’s also not rocket science: such approaches have long been used to manage hunting on land, successfully conserving wildlife populations while enjoying wide acceptance among hunters. While we work to figure out how such approaches can be implemented in this fishery, we can’t abandon the science-based approach to management that has made the United States a global sustainable fisheries leader.