On May 2, NOAA Fisheries announced recreational anglers in the Gulf of Mexico will have three days to fish for red snapper in federal waters in 2017. The season will run from June 1-3, and include only one weekend day.
Despite a healthy, robust population of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, seasons have been progressively shorter each year, and the 2017 red snapper season will mark the shortest Gulf red snapper season in history.
NOAA cites several reasons for the short season in the announcement, though one of the most significant factors is the rapidly rebuilding, increasingly larger red snapper population. As the fish become more abundant and grow larger in size, NOAA estimates recreational anglers will reach their hard-poundage quota more quickly. As a result, NOAA sets seasons for shorter and shorter periods of time, attempting to predict when the quota will be reached. Ironically, the healthier the population of red snapper, the fewer days recreational anglers are allowed to fish.
Some are quick to blame the short federal seasons on the states for providing their anglers a longer opportunity to access the abundant red snapper within state waters. State waters for all five Gulf States were from the shoreline to nine nautical miles in 2016. Red snapper in the Gulf are managed as one stock by federal managers and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. As such, any fish harvested in state waters outside of the federal season count towards the overall Gulf-wide recreational quota.
More than 80 percent of the recreational quota is predicted to be caught during the longer state seasons (Florida will be 78 days, while Texas will be 365 days in 2017). However, a significant portion of some state waters have few, if any, red snapper because they are too shallow. Furthermore, according to a NOAA response to a series of questions from the Gulf Angler Focus Group, if the states and federal seasons were the same for the 2016 season, it would have only resulted in slightly less than double the number of days for recreational angling (nine to 15 in 2016).
Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus Vice-Chair Congressman Austin Scott (GA) discussed this issue from the state perspective during a recent hearing focusing on red snapper management in the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Interior, Energy and Environment. “It’s not really fair to blame the states when the states only did what they had to do. The mom-and-pop [shops] out there with a small bait store have got to have a season.”
There is another issue with the estimates of how many fish are caught by recreational anglers. The federal data collection system, known as the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) is designed to measure harvest over many species and over the course of the year. It does not accurately capture angler harvest data for red snapper in cases where the season is measured in days, not months. For this reason, the states have each developed their own data collection program to specifically target red snapper and collect the necessary data in these extremely short seasons. State programs are showing some significant discrepancies in the number of fish harvested by anglers compared to the federal MRIP numbers. However, the information from the state data collection programs are not incorporated into NOAA’s estimates of season lengths or overall stock assessments.
The continued erosion of the recreational red snapper season has renewed calls for fundamental changes to federal fisheries management that are more appropriate for recreational fisheries. One such opportunity currently before Congress is H.R. 2023, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017. This bill seeks to provide amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Act that would provide opportunities for NOAA to manage recreational fisheries using management models more appropriate for the sector, rather than trying to force commercial management approaches on recreational anglers.
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