What’s Going on With Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Management?

To save the future of this fishery, managers must act to end overfishing by anglers

The Gulf of Mexico is using a new management approach for red snapper private recreational fishing.

In 2018 and 2019, fishery managers from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas) agreed to test a new management system for the private recreational sector of the red snapper fishery.

Under a new model called “state management,” the Gulf states agreed to manage both their state waters and the federal waters off their coasts—extending up to 200 nautical miles from shore—with state-specific management measures that would adhere to federally set, scientifically-based limits on sustainable catch. Under this system, states were allotted a catch limit (or quota) and given the authority to set their own seasons, size limits and other measures in order to stay within their catch limit.

After two years of testing, state management was made the official management system for the private recreational red snapper fishery starting in 2020. However, a key problem with the transition to this new system is undermining the success of state management—specifically, state management is not keeping recreational fishing within sustainable levels. In 2019, too much fishing from the private recreational sector resulted in the whole fishery exceeding their overfishing limit, putting everyone who fishes for red snapper at risk of reduced opportunity. This demonstrates a major issue when it comes to management.

State management suffers from a data discrepancy problem that still needs to be addressed to ensure fishing levels are sustainable.

From the beginning, managers knew that radically changing how they treated recreational fishing would require addressing some new key issues. In particular, not only was management changing, but the ways in which managers would report how many fish were caught in each state would change as well. Because state management must still be held accountable to federal requirements for catch levels (this is necessary to ensure sustainability and fairness to the commercial and for-hire fishing sectors), the data systems used for state and federal management would need to be comparable.  Failure to do so would mean that managers would not know if each state was staying within its allotted catch limit. Yet the managers pushed ahead to formalize state management, leaving this huge problem within the system unresolved (see our timeline of action on this issue).

Now, three years into using state management, managers are finally considering taking action. They have the science they need: calibration factors that allow managers to correctly compare state survey results to quota allocations. The next step is to implement these calibration factors into management.

In order to achieve sustainable management, we need to bring all the surveys and science together.

The problem with state management is this: because each state has their own unique data system and the quotas that were given to each state were created using the federal data system, it’s difficult to tell whether sustainable limits for red snapper have been exceeded. Thus, the state and federal systems must be comparable.

Each year, six surveys are used to estimate catch for private recreational anglers in the Gulf. These include the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), which is the federally managed data system that has been used in partnership with the states for decades, and the five Gulf state-specific programs. MRIP provides our longest history of catch (number of fish kept) and effort (how many fishers tried to catch fish) in conjunction with four of the five Gulf states, while the individual state surveys provide additional resolution for red snapper fishing activity tailored to the specific needs of each state.

All of these surveys provide important data to help us understand how many red snapper are being caught each year.

Many of the state surveys were designed to complement MRIP, not to replace it. Yet that’s not how they were used in the first few years of state management. The Gulf states were each given their individual quotas in federal units after managers determined what a sustainable level of fishing would be for that year, using results from stock assessments that combine MRIP data with many additional science, survey and data sources. Under state management, however, the states reported their catch against their quota using only their individual state surveys. Thus, the problem becomes clear: quota was allocated using one type of red snapper unit, but counted at the end using a different type of unit.

Calibration factors, now deemed the best available science by the Gulf Council’s Science and Statistical Committee, are the solution to this immediate problem. These factors allow managers to convert the landings of each individual state survey into the same units that the sustainable quotas were assigned.

Jim Hellemn
Essentially, this is solving a “currency” problem, a necessary calibration unit. Before, it was as if  everyone was given 100 U.S. dollars to spend, but each state actually spent 100 of a completely different currency, such as euros, pesos, yen etc. Calibration factors simply bring everything back to the same system, so we can tell if we are over or under our sustainable targets.

In the long term, the next stock assessment can help solve some of these problems. Expected to be completed in 2024, this newly updated understanding of the health of the stock can incorporate all of the surveys as well as new science (like a new study called the Great Red Snapper Count). That project is seeking to get a Gulf-wide snapshot of the total abundance of red snapper. Once incorporated into the stock assessment along with all our understanding of historical trends, biological and ecological factors and other data, this may greatly improve our understanding of red snapper.

For now, though, the “common currency” conversions are necessary so that managers can ensure recreational fishing is sustainable this year, next year and the year after that—because there are extremely worrying signs that state management is NOT working to keep catch at sustainable levels.

The health of the red snapper stock is in jeopardy and overfishing is occurring.

The red snapper fishery is currently managed under a 27-year rebuilding plan which started 15 years ago, and is designed to bring the stock back from devastatingly low population levels to a healthy stock size by 2032. Managers had been making good progress on this plan. The other sectors that fish red snapper (commercial and for-hire) have been staying within their sustainable fishing limits, and stock assessments also showed the stock was increasing in abundance. The private recreational sector, however, remained a challenge for managers as they exceeded their catch levels nearly every year for decades.

State management was intended to help address that issue by letting states better customize their recreational fishing seasons and manage their fishing at a finer scale.  Yet the survey conversion issue is undermining that system and causing it to fail. In fact the private recreational sector (fishing under state management) caught 125% of their sustainable quota in 2019, driving the stock over its overfishing limit for the first time in decades.

Exceeding the overfishing limit means that more red snapper are being removed in a year than reproduction can replace, so the overall population of the stock will be driven back down towards low levels. This decline will be more pronounced in the eastern Gulf of Mexico (east of the Mississippi River), where fishing pressure is high and stock abundance is low. This level of overfishing will likely lead to quota cuts in the future, meaning that commercial and for-hire fishermen who are staying within their limits could share the pain of lower fishing levels due to private angler overages.

It’s time to take action to improve state management.

Getting state management right is important not just for the  health of the fish population in the water, but also for everyone who fishes it now and all those who would want to fish it in the future. The Gulf Council is considering some options that would address this problem. One includes the implementation of a Gulf-wide buffer that would reduce the private recreational catch levels for all the Gulf states in order to avoid exceeding their sustainable limit. The other incorporates the implementations of the state-specific calibration ratios approved by the Scientific and Statistical Committee to fix the reporting issues. Both options offer progress, while taking no action would leave state management in violation of the law, consign the fishery to continued overfishing and jeopardize the future of fishing for all those who value red snapper in the Gulf.

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