By all accounts, recreational fishing by private anglers is booming around the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, as fishermen head out on their boats to see if they can fill their coolers with some prized red snapper. With so many activities prohibited or unsafe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Gulf residents have turned to fishing as a way to continue to connect with the outdoors and spend time safely with their families and friends. The vast majority of fishermen are conservationists and are doing everything they can individually to follow the rules—they fish when the season is open, they only keep as many fish as they’re allowed and and they try to carefully release fish that can’t be brought back to shore.
But there’s a big problem—unless federal fishery managers step up and do the right thing soon, those rules being followed by anglers will likely allow at least 2 million pounds of fish in excess of a sustainable limit (148% of their annual catch limit) to be caught this year. This failure to prevent overfishing puts the recovery of red snapper at risk and threatens the future fishing opportunities of not just private anglers, but also for-hire captains and commercial fishermen.
The story for how we got to this crossroads is complex, but the solutions are simple. Managers can act quickly to make sure sustainable limits are set correctly and enforced. The question now is whether they will.
How did we get here?
During 2018 and 2019, fishery managers tested “state management,” which allowed each of the five Gulf states—Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas—to determine when and how private anglers should fish for red snapper in both their state and associated federal waters (from the shoreline to 200 nautical miles offshore.) As part of this new management system, the federal agency in charge of managing red snapper (the National Marine Fisheries Service—NMFS, or NOAA Fisheries) divided the annual amount of red snapper that the private recreational sector was allowed to catch under legally required and science-based limits into five slices, one for each state. In turn, the states took on the responsibility for setting management measures that would keep their state’s catch under their annual catch limit (ACL, or sometimes called “state quota”). This includes the responsibility to accurately monitor the red snapper catch of their anglers throughout the year and ensure that the sector stays below its limit. If overages occur, states pledge to do “paybacks”—essentially catching less in the following year to undo the damage to the stock.The first two years of state management were an experiment conducted under special rules called Exempted Fishing Permits (EFPs). The point of testing state management was to determine if letting the states set fishing rules would allow fishermen more opportunity to fish while still staying under their sustainable limits. The rationale is sound—setting one season for all parts of the Gulf ignores that fishermen have to consider a lot of factors when deciding when to go fishing. Weather, fish availability, water quality and habitat type all vary across the Gulf, meaning that a good day for fishing in Florida looks very different from a good day of fishing in Texas. State management would also make fishing rules easier for fishermen to follow; instead of having different rules for state waters (around three or nine miles offshore) and adjacent federal waters (all the way out to 200 miles), the rules would be the same in most cases.
But from the very beginning of state management, there was a significant problem. Each state was using its unique monitoring surveys and reporting systems to track the catch from their anglers. Unfortunately, because of the different choices made in designing and implementing each survey, the data they produced weren’t directly comparable. For instance, a pound of fish reported by the Snapper Check survey system in Alabama wasn’t equivalent to a pound of fish reported by Florida’s Gulf Reef Fish Survey. What’s more, the catch levels from each state weren’t able to be compared directly to the ACLs that were assigned to each state, because those were derived from a different survey run by NMFS that measured the recreational catch of the stock Gulf-wide. As a result, six different surveys were being run simultaneously in the Gulf to track recreational landings—one for each state and one by NMFS—and none of them could talk to each other.