Red Snapper Management in the Gulf of Mexico

Summary

The red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico is managed by the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council (Gulf Council) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Once considered “overfished” from the late 1970’s through the early 2000’s, the red snapper population has turned the corner and is rapidly rebuilding in the Gulf of Mexico. Although not well publicized, much of that rebuilding success is the product of reduced juvenile snapper mortality as a result of a reduction in shrimp trawling effort and the relatively recent requirement of bycatch reduction devices on their nets. Ironically, as the population grows both in size and abundance, the recreational sector is allowed fewer and fewer days to fish each year due to an inappropriate management model, inaccurate data and overly conservative regulations. Unfortunately, the only “solution” for recreational anglers currently being offered by the Gulf Council is to split the recreational sector roughly in half in a scheme known as sector separation. While this approach will benefit a handful of charter/for-hire captains by giving them 44 days to fish in 2015, it further penalizes the millions of private recreational anglers by only allowing for a ten day season in 2015.

Background

Since the 2007 reauthorization of MSA, which included a provision that created an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) - also known as a “catch share” - for the commercial sector and required annual catch limits and accountability measures separately for both the commercial and recreational sectors, red snapper management has become increasingly more contentious. Currently, the total allowable harvest of red snapper is annually allocated at 51 percent to the commercial sector (which constitutes less than 400 commercial fisherman who each “own” shares of more than half of this Public Trust resource) and 49 percent to the recreational sector. These percentages are derived from survey data that are 30-years old, and the recreational component of that former survey has since been replaced because of gross inaccuracies. As the average size of red snapper continues to increase, recreational anglers are projected to reach their hard-poundage quota more quickly, thus causing the seasons to be shorter each year to stay under the quota. This backwards approach to managing the recreational sector has prompted the Gulf states to go non-compliant with the federal seasons and extend the snapper season in their state waters to salvage some access for recreational anglers.

In 2013, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service responded to the states going non-compliant with an emergency rule process to reduce the recreational season in federal waters to nine days off Louisiana’s coast and twelve days off the Texas coast. Both states filed lawsuits and a federal court overturned the action. Conversely, litigation from the commercial fishing sector resulted in a 2014 U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruling that required the Gulf Council to implement accountability measures (AM’s) on the recreational sector for annual quota overruns. The outcome of that suit was a nine-day recreational season for all Gulf States in federal waters during 2014, the shortest recreational red snapper season ever, despite the healthiest population of red snapper in recorded history. The fact that red snapper management is now being decided by the courts is indicative of a significant problem with how the fishery is being managed.

As a solution to the abbreviated fishing season in 2014, at least for the charter/for-hire industry, the Gulf Council passed Amendment 40 at their October 2014 meeting, despite opposition from all five Gulf states, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus (CSC), the National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses (NASC) Executive Council and the Mississippi Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus. Also known as “sector separation,” Amendment 40 will divide the recreational angler’s 49 percent share of the snapper fishery roughly in half between private recreational anglers and charter/for-hire operators. This is not a solution for the recreational sector, and will negatively impact the largest stakeholder, by far, of an important American fishery: the private angler. Amendment 40 sets a dangerous precedent for all mixed-sector fisheries and effectively pits recreational anglers and the charter/for-hire industry against one another.

The Coastal Conservation Association recently filed a lawsuit to block the implementation of Amendment 40 and to once again make the recreational sector whole. The lawsuit is grounded on the fact that Section 407 (d) of the Magnuson-Stevens Act specifically includes charter fishing in the recreational sector. Once again, Gulf Council decisions regarding red snapper management will be determined by the court system, rather than through a robust fisheries management process as envisioned by MSA.

Recent Activity

Early in 2015, the five Gulf states marine fisheries directors gathered together to discuss a better path forward for managing the fragmented and divisive red snapper fishery created by the NMFS and the Gulf Council. The result of the meeting was a basic plan for state-based management for the continued conservation and growth of the red snapper fishery, while providing essential access to each component for the best benefit to the nation. Since the release of the Plan in March, the directors have collectively developed a Frequently Asked Questions document to better clarify how they would more effectively manage the fisheries.

On July 16, the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act (H.B. 3094), introduced by Congressmen Garret Graves (LA) and Jeff Miller (FL), will extend formal federal recognition to the historic agreement between the chief fish and wildlife officials of all five Gulf States to accept joint responsibility for management of the red snapper fishery in federal waters.

On August 13, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council took final action on Amendment 28 (Red Snapper Allocation) to the Reef Fish Management Plan by voting (12 – 5) to send Alternative 8 of the proposed amendment to the Secretary of Commerce for approval. Alternative 8  will shift a percentage of the overall quota to the recreational sector. The original allocation of 49 percent recreational and 51 percent commercial was set in 1990 and based on harvest data from 1979-1987. While the commercial landings were largely accurate during that time period, the recreational harvest was estimated using the poorly designed Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS). Dr. Patrick Sullivan, as chair if the National Research Council, deemed MRFSS “fatally flawed” in a 2006 presentation to Congress on the effectiveness of the survey. The recently implemented Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), which provides more accurate estimates of harvest by recreational anglers, has determined MRFSS was in fact underestimating recreational angler harvest when the original allocation was set back in the early 1990s.

For more than two decades, recreational anglers have been incorrectly allocated a smaller portion of the overall quota. Alternative 8 of Amendment 28 simply corrects the baseline allocation to reflect the new data. In 2016, the commercial sector will receive 48.5 percent of the annual quota, and the recreational sector will get 51.5 percent.  While this allocation shift was in the form of an alternative to Amendment 28, many in the recreational angling community, including the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, felt that Alternative 8 should not have been an alternative for re-allocation at all, but rather an automatic reset of the baseline allocation to reflect the best available science.

A true re-allocation is a shift in allocation, not based on a correction to the science, but as a result of changing social, economic and environmental conditions that warrants moving allocations between sectors. In the case of Gulf of Mexico red snapper, the National Marine Fisheries Service has found that the value of a recreational fish is substantially higher than a commercial fish, indicating that the current allocation was economically inefficient. Alternative 9 would have shifted additional allocation above the new baseline proved by Alternative 8 to reflect the larger size-selectivity of the recreational community. Of all the alternatives, Alternative 9 should have been the preferred alternative based on the best available science. However, the motion to make Alternative 9 the preferred alternative failed on a tied Council vote (8 – 8).

Downloads

Description Download
Mississippi House of Representatives Letter on Amendment 40: August 20, 2014 Download file
National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses Letter on Amendment 40: October 20, 2014 Download file
Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus Letter on Amendment 40: October 20, 2014 Download file
Red Snapper Plan Cover Letter: March 13, 2015 Download file
Sportfishing Industry Letter to Gulf State Governors: March 20, 2015 Download file
Mississippi Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Letter to Governor Bryant: March 23, 2015 Download file
Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority (GSRSMA) Download file
Amendment 40 Minority Report Download file

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