South Atlantic red snapper closed. Again.

2016 closure latest example that federal law needs adjustment

Posted on May 24, 2016

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council announced last week that there will be no red snapper season in 2016 because too many fish were caught and killed – as dead discards, since there was no allowable catch - in 2015. News like this is like ripping a Band-Aid off a bad scrape because recent red snapper history in the South Atlantic is such a recurring example of how not to manage a recreational fishery.

You may recall that in 2006 Congress reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act, the overriding piece of legislation that guides federal fisheries management. The new law required managers to end overfishing of all species under management by 2010. However, only a year later in 2007 the first modern stock assessment ever done on South Atlantic red snapper was released and claimed that the species was severely overfished. In a blunder that ensures anglers will pay the price for decades, NOAA Fisheries’ failure to do its job in the past meant that the first time federal managers bothered to look at red snapper they found themselves in the middle of a full-blown crisis.

The situation was so bleak, with the assessment showing red snapper reduced to a fraction of its historic geographic range and finding very few older fish, that federal managers nearly closed the entire South Atlantic to bottom fishing of any kind to prevent any red snapper mortality even as bycatch in other fisheries. CCA and other groups in the recreational angling community called for additional assessments to confirm the original findings. Those subsequent results showed that the bottom could remain open for other species but red snapper had to be closed indefinitely. Anglers were left reeling at the suddenness and harshness of the developments.

Since then, for various reasons NOAA Fisheries has toyed with recreational red snapper “seasons” measured in hours and days that do little more than rekindle frustration with the entire situation. In 2015, the total allowed removals were set at 114,000 red snapper. However, NOAA Fisheries estimated that 276,729 red snapper were removed as dead discards, since there was no allowable catch; therefore, the agency found it necessary to announce there will be no recreational red snapper “season” in 2016.

“We are committed to our role as conservationists and stewards of the marine environment, but NOAA Fisheries is treating this like a game, teasing anglers with talk of ‘seasons’ and then dashing expectations,” said Bill Bird, chairman of Coastal Conservation Association’s National Government Relations Committee. “They simply don’t have the tools or systems to manage this way, and continuing to do so just adds to the frustration of anglers.”

If the original stock assessments are correct, then South Atlantic red snapper is in need of serious conservation measures, but NOAA Fisheries continues to do a disservice to everyone by attempting to manage the fishery this way. It is laughable for the agency to pretend it has the data-gathering systems for recreational catch that could ever be so exact. NOAA Fisheries has no way to accurately manage recreational anglers with hard catch limits measured in pounds or numbers of fish, particularly on such a fine scale. By pretending they can, federal managers are only continuing the illusion that they can make available recreational data fit a commercial management regime. They can’t.

The result will always be what we are seeing now – nonsensical “yo-yo” regulations based on wild guesses that fluctuate violently from year to year. As a fish stock recovers, anglers will encounter more of them, much like they are today with South Atlantic red snapper. Yet rather than gradually loosen regs as the stock recovers, federal management clamps down even more tightly to keep anglers to a hard catch limit, regardless of what the stock is actually doing.

Think about it this way - if managers had set a hard catch limit of 114,000 red snapper, but the stock was so depressed that anglers only killed 50,000 fish as bycatch in 2015, we’d have a season in 2016 on an utterly failing stock. But, since the stock is rebounding and we caught more fish, we get no season at all in 2016. For rec anglers, there is no way to win and the frustration over the uncertainty and confusion only builds. This is especially maddening given that NOAA is currently bending over backward to ensure commercial entities a secure business future through privatization of Gulf of Mexico red snapper.

The low numbers in play for South Atlantic red snapper are hardly worth the argument except that it highlights once again the larger problems that plague federal management of recreational fisheries and will continue to plague South Atlantic red snapper as it recovers. Congress must recognize that recreational fisheries differ fundamentally from commercial fisheries. The Magnuson-Stevens Act must acknowledge that fisheries with significant recreational participation should be managed differently than commercially dominated species.

One of the lessons from South Atlantic red snapper should have been that stock assessments must be done on a more frequent, regular basis to prevent a fishery from ever falling so far unnoticed.  Another is that managers need steady streams of fishery independent information (data gathered outside of commercial and recreational harvests) to understand how the stock is progressing and base timely, progressive recreational regulations on that knowledge.

Unfortunately, for the time being, it seems that the federal management illusion will continue to cloud the future of recreational angling.

Issues: South Atlantic