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 2000s, 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 grew both in size and abundance, the recreational sector under federal management was allowed fewer and fewer days to fish each year due to an inappropriate management model, inaccurate data and overly conservative regulations. Fortunately, for the 2018 and 2019 fishing seasons, the states took over management of the private recreational component of the fishery through exempted fishing permits (EFPs), which for the 2018 season were highly successful. The Gulf Council is currently working towards an amendment to the reef fish fishery management plan that would permanently implement state management of the private recreational red snapper fishery.

Background

The red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico is managed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). Once considered “overfished” from the late 1970s through the early 2000s, the red snapper population has turned the corner and is rapidly rebuilding in the Gulf, thanks in large part to the reduction in juvenile red snapper mortality as a result of changes in the shrimp fishery. Ironically, what was once a 180-day recreational season in federal waters (2007) was initially reduced to just 3 days in 2017 because of the fishery being rebuilt and an inadequate management system for recreational anglers.

The 2007 reauthorization of MSA included language (Section 407) that created a catch share in the form of an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) for the commercial sector. The red snapper IFQ program gifted individual commercial fishermen, without having to pay a resource rent or lease for the rights, a share of the red snapper fishery proportional to their documented historic catch. While there were numerous small IFQ shareholders in the beginning of the program, many have since been bought out and the shares consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. Today, there are over 380 shareholder accounts, but only about 55 commercial fishermen (called “Sea Lords” by some) own more than 75% of the commercial red snapper allocation. This consolidation of wealth has led to considerable influence on the Gulf Council process to maintain the program’s status quo and the now firmly entrenched IFQ management model. 

Section 407 also included a provision that required the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to implement in-season closures of a sector (commercial or recreational) when their quota is predicted to be reached. Unfortunately, NMFS does not have the ability to get accurate, timely estimates of recreational angler harvest for in-season closures, so season lengths must be set with conservative buffers. As the red snapper population grows both in size and abundance, the recreational sector is allowed fewer and fewer days to fish each year because the increased size and availability of red snapper results in anglers reaching their predicted hard-poundage quota more quickly. While relatively few commercial fishermen are given exclusive rights to nearly half the red snapper fishery, the 3 million recreational anglers in the Gulf are managed with conservative buffers and extremely short seasons. This disparity in management approaches has been a catalyst for contention between commercial fishermen and recreational anglers and continues to foster distrust in NMFS by the recreational community.

Unfortunately, the only “solution” for recreational anglers recently offered by the Gulf Council was to split the recreational sector roughly in half in a scheme known as sector separation. While this approach benefitted 1,200 charter/for-hire captains by giving them 49 days to snapper fish in 2017, it further penalized the millions of private recreational anglers by only allowing for a three-day season the same year, the shortest Gulf season ever for those anglers. After the closure of the 2017 three-day season, the U.S. Department of Commerce reached a deal with the five Gulf states to allow for a 39 day recreational season extension open on weekends to both state and federal waters. This was contingent upon the states closing seasons in their waters on weekdays during that same period. While the deal provided much-needed short term relief for anglers, forfeiting state access for federal access was not a viable long-term solution to federal fisheries management. Even more disconcerting are the efforts underway within the Council to establish a similar commercial IFQ system in the charter/for-hire sector, which would result in roughly 70% of the total red snapper available for harvest each year being privately owned.

Fortunately, a pilot program was implemented in 2018 through exempted fishing permits (EFPs) that allowed for individual states to manage their allocated private recreational quota. Federal water season lengths were as short as a 24-day, weekend-only season in Alabama to as long as 82 days in Texas, but overall the pilot program was deemed successful by both the states and recreational anglers. 2019 will be the second and final year of the EFPs, at which point the Gulf Council must amend the Reef Fish Management Plan to allow for the continuation of this state-based management model for recreational anglers.

 

Last updated: 4/1/2019

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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