Uncharted Waters: Experimenting with Red Snapper Management

Last year, we told you about how the rebuilding of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico was being jeopardized by a long recreational fishing season that would lead to overfishing. This year, managers are trying something new—experimental strategies that give states more say in how recreational fishing is managed. This has never been tried before—and the question will be, can anglers get the days on the water they want and still fish under sustainable limits?

For 2018 and 2019, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will divide the quota for recreational red snapper into five portions and allocate them to each of the five Gulf States. At that point, things are in the hands of the states—each one has an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) that gives them the responsibility of setting the season length, collecting landings data, and enforcing sustainable limits.

As a result of letting the states manage all the way out into federal waters (200 miles offshore), the season length for federal waters will be zeroed out—which sounds bad! But actually fishermen will have a lot more days on the water, as each state will set and manage access to those far-off fishing spots. Depending on what state you’re from, you may be able to fish way offshore for upwards of 80 days.

Private anglers and the states have been asking for this responsibility for years, and now they have a chance to test whether they can manage this part of the fishery sustainably, while still allowing this iconic species to rebuild to healthy levels.

What we can’t have is a repeat of 2017’s excesses. Private recreational fishermen greatly exceeded their quota last year after the Secretary of Commerce illegally extended the fishing season from 3 days to 42 days. Fishing rates from private anglers were so high that they drove the entire red snapper fishery—commercial, for-hire, and private recreational fishermen alike—over the overfishing limit for red snapper. This kind of excessive fishing pressure jeopardizes the rebuilding of the stock, as well as the stability of fishing-dependent businesses, access to the fish by fishermen, and the opportunity for future generations to also fish.

While the EFPs are, on paper, designed to prevent such a thing from occurring again, statements by the Secretary of Commerce have us concerned. In a press release announcing the new strategy, Wilbur Ross said that this approach “continues the work we started last year.” If we see more of the same, we’ll see fewer fish in the water.

Ocean Conservancy supports recreational fishing, and we support the effort to find management solutions that work for fishermen, states, and managers. At the same time, we’re working to protect the hard-earned progress in rebuilding vulnerable fish stocks in the Gulf. The fact is, if managers aren’t careful and the important rebuilding provisions of the MSA aren’t heeded, we run the risk of zero day seasons that can’t be saved by Exempted Fishing Permits—and nobody wants that.

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