Two slow-moving, long-awaited initiatives currently underway could each hold a critical piece of the puzzle to explain at last the never-ending Gulf of Mexico red snapper train wreck. The first initiative is a recalibration of historical recreational catch data being conducted by NOAA Fisheries, and the second is a Gulf-wide, independent red snapper count being conducted by almost a dozen marine science institutions and universities. The results could very well explain why the federal management system has restricted recreational anglers to some of the shortest seasons in history despite a booming red snapper population.
NOAA Fisheries recently changed the method for estimating recreational catch and harvest through the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). The agency has now used the new MRIP method side-by-side with the old data system for several years to detect differences and use them to recalibrate the earlier estimates. The recalibration for the entire time series – from 1981-2017 – is mostly completed, and this article is designed to describe what this means to the average angler.
First off, marine recreational catch is estimated through a two-step process. One part involves interviewing anglers at the landing, beach, pier, etc. From this, researchers can estimate the catch per trip. In the second part, they ask randomly-selected anglers how many times they went fishing recently, and from this they can estimate the number of trips anglers have taken in a given time period.
It is the second part of that equation – the effort estimation – that is revealing some shocking new insights. When NOAA Fisheries changed the method for estimating effort for private recreational fishermen, they found that the new method showed substantial increases in effort – about 5.3 times more trips for anglers who fish from shore and about 2.9 more trips for anglers who fish from private boats. Using the equation for estimating catch, an increase in the number of trips leads to an increase in the estimated catch.
One of the first wrong conclusions some will jump to is that the new estimates must mean anglers were wildly overfishing, since they caught so many more fish than previously thought. That is not necessarily so – fish don’t simply appear out of nowhere. Those fish were there, and anglers were catching them all along; NOAA Fisheries simply didn’t know it since the old data collection system was so flawed. At its simplest, a stock assessment recreates a population of fish based on the available data and recreational catch is usually one of the more important sources of information. Most current stock assessments use the old catch estimates, so comparing the new catch estimates with the old stock assessments would be inaccurate and inappropriate.
What the recalibration will most likely mean is that the stock of Gulf red snapper is far, far larger and more productive than previously believed, although we won’t know anything about stock status for any species until new stock assessments incorporate the new MRIP catch estimates.
However, what this means to the allocation of the fishery between private anglers and the for-profit sectors (commercial and for-hire) is much more clear-cut. Federal managers have persisted in using historic catch as the only criteria to allocate allowable catch between sectors, so new information that indicates private recreational anglers have always had a much larger harvest than previously thought should result in a much larger allocation of red snapper for private recreational anglers, independent of how the data is handled for catch and effort estimates.
What would seem to make sense is to simply take the new catch estimates from whatever time period was used to originally make the allocation percentages and simply do a new allocation between sectors. That would be a simple arithmetic exercise, but some Councils and managers will undoubtedly try to make it more complicated. At the recent October Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting, NOAA officials were obviously overwhelmed by the results of the recalibration, and the implications. Clearly, no one in NOAA knows what to do with the new data, but no one should be surprised if there are efforts to maintain the status quo.
GREAT RED SNAPPER COUNT
Running concurrently with the recalibration is what is known as “The Great Red Snapper Count.” In 2016, Congress – thanks to Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama – made funding available to independently estimate the population size of U.S. Gulf of Mexico red snapper. A total of $10 million was awarded by Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant with a $2 million matching requirement for a two-year $12 million-dollar project, which will run from 2017-2019.
The project is now well underway and is being conducted separately from the assessment process employed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. It is led by a well-integrated, multidisciplinary team of 21 investigators, which comprises leading fisheries experts from 11 institutions around the Gulf region and beyond. Results from this study will be compared with stock assessment results to examine what accounts for any differences observed. This project represents a unique opportunity to bolster the stock assessment to include an estimate of the absolute red snapper abundance in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico by utilizing strategies such as habitat classifications and direct visual counts, something the current assessment cannot produce.
It seems that Congress was as baffled as recreational anglers by what was happening in recent years to the Gulf red snapper fishery and decided to allocate funding to an independent effort to get to the bottom of it once and for all.
Recalibration and The Great Red Snapper Count have the potential to completely redefine reality in the Gulf red snapper fishery. If the study finds a significantly larger than suspected snapper population coupled with a far larger private angler allocation, it would fix a lot of the “problems” that NOAA Fisheries has sought to address with shrinking seasons for anglers and privatization schemes for for-profit operators. The new science may finally prove current-day crises are the result of bad data and an unforgiving and constrained federal management system.
The final results from both efforts are not ready for the spotlight, though, and perhaps the biggest uncertainty is whether or not federal managers will use the new data to make drastically needed changes in the management of the fishery or if they will seek to minimize and dismiss anything that disagrees with the current management track. What happens next will have to be closely watched by both Congress and the angling public, but it is encouraging that after decades of stumbling in the dark, some light may finally be shed on the Gulf red snapper fishery.
The real question will be if NOAA will continue to navigate like we have a flat earth, even after a recalibration and stock assessment show it’s a whole new world.