Red Grouper: Another example of how NOT to manage a recreational fishery

Posted on May 23, 2014

The current recreational fishery data collection system estimates the harvest based on a survey of anglers, much the same as has been done successfully for decades in freshwater fisheries and wildlife.   There is a lag time between the harvest and the resulting estimate of the total harvest of the species.  That is the reality of recreational fisheries management - it simply is not a system set up to monitor harvest in real-time.   

It is well known that recreational fisheries respond to the abundance of fish.  That is, as abundance increases, so generally will the recreational catch.  The opposite is also true; as abundance decreases so does the recreational catch.  Unlike commercial fisheries, there is no economic incentive that drives fishing effort.  Thus, knowing the current abundance of a population is critical, or at least having some estimate of the number of fish recruiting into the fishery each year.  Unfortunately, in the Gulf of Mexico we currently have neither for red grouper. 

The Gulf red grouper population was last assessed in 2009.  At that time, the population was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring.  In fact, the population was generally on the increase.  But there has been little information available on the population since that assessment, other than projections. 

Federal fisheries law requires federal managers to put in place hard catch limits and accountability measures, essentially forcing a commercial-style quota management fishery onto an unsuspecting recreational fishery.   According to federal data collection efforts, the recreational fishery for red grouper exceeded its 2013 quota (1,900,000 pounds) by 492,000 pounds. 

According to NOAA Fisheries, “Accountability measures established in the Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico require NOAA Fisheries to reduce the bag limit and announce a fishing season closure in federal waters for red grouper the year following a recreational annual catch limit overage."

So federal managers are lowering the red grouper bag from four to three fish per day, and closing the season from September 16 for the rest of the year.

No one wants to cause harm to a fishery population, especially a recreational fishery that prizes abundance.  What is missing here is any finding or even an indication that the increased harvest did any damage to the stock.  The likeliest reason for the increased harvest is an increase in the underlying population, so that while the absolute catch did increase, the catch as a proportion of the population probably did not. 

In a perfect world, we would have some indices of recruitment that may have indicated a strong year class entering the fishery and, better yet, a stock assessment that is less than five years old that would give a more recent picture of the current population size. Instead we are stuck yet again with trying to shoehorn a recreational fishery into a commercial fishing management system for which it is ill suited. 

The last reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act created what is arguably the finest commercial fishing management system in the world; let’s hope the next reauthorization does the same for the recreational community.  If this is the best we can expect from federal management, then it is another example of why some fisheries would be better managed by the states.

We have all seen what happens when federal managers try to handle the recreational fishery with tools designed exclusively to manage the commercial sector – you end up with the disaster that is red snapper management. Rather than do all the exact same things and expect a different result, it would make far more sense for anglers to demand that this fishery be dropped from federal management altogether and allow the states to take control.