Red snapper are mismanaged by feds

Posted on April 10, 2015 by Hughes Andry

It is difficult to understand why anyone would willingly wade into one of the most difficult fishery management issues in the entire country, much less volunteer for the monumental responsibility of rebooting the whole deal. However, the fisheries directors of all five Gulf states recently offered a plan to assume management of Gulf of Mexico red snapper from the federal government with the belief that they can set it on a more sensible course.

Why would these state directors take on such a thankless task? The answer is that they know it simply does not have to be so convoluted and difficult. The red snapper fishery is the healthiest it has been in decades and it could be the largest the population has ever been, thanks in large part to the expansion of habitat created by offshore oil and gas platforms and limitations on shrimp trawling bycatch. But you would never be able to tell under federal management, which last year limited the recreational season to nine days in federal waters. Such overly restrictive regulations are incongruous with what anglers and many fisheries scientists are seeing on the water, and are negatively impacting the thousands of recreational fishing dependent businesses all along the Gulf coast.

The causes are myriad and complex but simply put, federal managers are prohibited from managing red snapper the way the states, like Texas, manage marine fisheries like red drum. The states manage by setting seasons and size limits, and then carefully monitoring the stock every year to determine if the regulations need to be changed. As the size of the stock expands, the regulations can be expanded. If the stock shows signs of trouble, the regulations can be tightened. This type of proactive and adaptive management aligns fishing regulations in a given year with the health of the stock. The federal system does it backward. Federal managers evaluate the stock every three or four years, set an exact quota in pounds, and in between they put all their focus on counting every fish caught to determine when each sector hits its quota. It is a one-size-fits-all approach that works well for commercial operators and is completely impractical for the diverse recreational sector.

The states have recognized that a system that produces results like what we are seeing today in Gulf red snapper cannot endure. They have proposed a system that has the same goals as federal management, but the means to reach those ends recognize that one size does not fit all. The states’ plan recognizes there are regional populations of snapper that are fished differently according to local tradition and practice, and would have the flexibility to manage them in different ways - an approach currently impossible under federal management.

The state plan is superior to the current management approach because it provides five independent and ongoing evaluations of the fishery every year, instead of the inadequate approach that treats red snapper as one stock, fished one way. The states’ proposal is unquestionably the harder path - it requires a commitment to actively monitoring and evaluating the stock, and basing thoughtful regulations upon that knowledge.

Decades of mismanagement have painted federal oversight of red snapper into a corner from which it cannot escape. While the current system is seemingly working well for the commercial industry - and the states are not proposing to change how that sector is managed - it is abundantly clear that it is incapable of adequately meeting the needs of the Gulf region’s 3 million saltwater recreational anglers.

The state directors know the challenge they would be taking on - they’ve been managing wildlife resources responsibly for decades. They know how to provide access to their citizens while managing for conservation of wildlife resources. They have a mutual goal, a shared responsibility and a common home - the Gulf of Mexico. Given the chance, they would set this tortured fishery back on a level playing field for everyone.

Andry is SW sales manager for Sportco Marketing in