Contention over Reallocation of Red Snapper

On August 14, 2015 the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council voted in favor of Amendment 8 of the Reef Fishery Management Plan, which reallocated red snapper catches slightly. The previous allocation assigned 51% of the catch to commercial fishermen and 49% to recreational anglers. Amendment 8 effectively swapped these percentages, allotting 51.6% of the catch for recreational fishermen and 48.4% for the commercial sector.

Previous allocation percentages were based upon stock assessments conducted in 1991 during the Marine Recreational Information Program. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) later reanalyzed the data and found it to be flawed. It was determined that due to this error the recreational sector had been under-allocated. Amendment 8 was passed in an effort to correct the historical catch limits. It was not an attempt to lengthen the recreational season, which was only 9 days in 2015.

Recreational anglers brought in millions of red snapper during 9 day fishing season in 2015 Photo Credit: NOAA FishWatch

Recreational anglers brought in millions of red snapper during 9 day fishing season in 2015 Photo Credit: NOAA FishWatch

To the biologists conducting a stock assessment “a dead fish is a dead fish.” Yet when it comes to recreational fishermen, an angler coming from out of state for a deep-sea fishing trip may spend thousands of dollars on tackle, bait, fuel, and local guides. For the economy of Gulf states, each red snapper may be worth upwards of a thousand dollars a piece in extra time and expense, making them a vital piece of the states’ economic infrastructure.

Camp Matens, a member of the Council, feels that the Gulf States need more control over the management of the resource. He recognizes that different states have different needs. “If people come to Louisiana, they come to fish, not for shopping or vacation,” he noted, “But in Florida, the family comes down for vacation and the husband spends a day fishing on a charter boat with his buddies while his wife and kids go shopping and play on the beach. Therefore, the different ways in which fishing is integrated into each state’s economy means that each state has the best idea of what its anglers and commercial fishing fleet want.”

During an open forum in New Orleans, LA, tempers flared as the public vehemently argued either for or against reallocation measures. Representatives for the commercial industry included local chefs, who argued for local, sustainable seafood to support their customer base. Meanwhile, the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) backed recreational Gulf anglers who are angry at short red snapper seasons, which they feel is due to mismanagement of the stock.

The Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSFCMA) requires the Council to periodically examine reallocation of the nation’s fisheries, such that fisheries resources are “fair and equitable to all…fishermen” while still “promot[ing] conservation.” Parameters such as sociological and economic impacts to the area heavily influence the Council’s decision.

Though red snapper are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, many scientists and managers feel they should be managed as two separate stocks – an eastern and a western stock. Western stocks are traditionally healthier and more prolific than eastern stocks, which are heavily depleted due to overfishing.

Red Snapper at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary

Red Snapper at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Photo Credit: NOAA FishWatch

Additionally, recreational and commercial fishermen are targeting different sized fish, which contributes to management concerns. Recreational anglers are targeting the biggest “record-breaking” individuals, while commercial fishermen want a “plate sized” fillet, generally about six to eight inches long. Therefore, the combined fishing pressure removes the smallest and largest individuals from the population, making it difficult to find an average size for management purposes.

Despite the heated debates at the last council meeting, Mr. Matens is quick to remind anglers that “it’s ok to have differences, but at the end of the trail we all need to sit down and have a drink together and be friends.”

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