Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Management


The primary model for marine fisheries management in federal waters was developed around commercial fisheries, which is generally neither an effective nor appropriate model for recreational fisheries. Red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime example of how a management scheme designed for one sector (commercial) ultimately penalizes the other (recreational). Despite the healthiest population of Gulf red snapper in recorded history, recreational anglers have been faced with a ten-day or less season in federal waters for the last two years, yet a handful of commercial fishermen can fish year-round. Where federal management has utterly failed for one or more sectors of a fishery, state-based management solutions can provide a more balanced approach.


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 reduced to just nine days in 2016 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 allotment. This consolidation of wealth has led to considerable influence on the 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 3-day season the same year, the shortest Gulf season ever for those anglers. After the closure of the 2017 3-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 is 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.

Points of Interest

  • States have consistently demonstrated they can more accurately estimate both angler harvest and population abundance through their fishery-independent data (what the population looks like in the ocean), as well as fishery-dependent data (what anglers/fishermen are catching), thereby reducing the need for overly conservative buffers.
  • Unfortunately, the primary model for marine fisheries management in federal waters (using hard-pound quotas and IFQ’s) was developed around commercial fisheries, which is not an effective or appropriate model for recreational fisheries.
  • State managers, on the other hand, have demonstrated that they can successfully manage both the commercial sector and the recreational sector without privatizing the resource through catch share programs, while still ensuring the health and sustainability of public trust fishery resources.
  • Where federal management has utterly failed for one or more sectors of a fishery, state management should be supported as a solution - either through direct state-based management authority, or by the incorporation of state fisheries management approaches in federal management models.
  • CSF, along with some of our partners in the recreational fishing community, led an effort called the Gulf Angler Focus Group Initiative (GAFGI) which gathered together anglers form across the Gulf to explore management options under the current Gulf Council process. The GAFGI report highlights a several possible alternatives that would provide a few extra days for the recreational sector, but it became clear that Congressional action to allow for more state management control is the best alternative. 

Moving Forward

Red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime example of how a management scheme designed for one sector (commercial) ultimately penalizes the other (recreational). Given the current direction of the Gulf Council and its inability and/or unwillingness to genuinely address the problems with the private recreational component, while simultaneously working to expand catch shares in the charter/for-hire sector, a solution likely will only be found through Congressional action.

  • H.R. 3094 Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act – introduced by Congressman Garret Graves in 2015, and based on an agreement reached by all five Gulf States fisheries directors, would give management authority to the five Gulf states.  The states have proven they can collect more accurate data, both fishery dependent (estimates of angler harvest) and independent (actual population data), which would allow for a more efficient, robust management strategy, increased access by the American public while maintaining a healthy and growing red snapper population. The bill passed out of committee but did not see floor action prior to the expiration of the 114th Congress 
  • A new red snapper bill has been introduced in both the House and Senate by Representative Graves and Senator Cassidy that would extend state management jurisdiction to 25 miles, instead of 9, for the purposes of red snapper management. While the states would still be bound by the problematic, Gulf-wide hard-pound quota set by NMFS and the Gulf Council, the legislation offers a first step towards full state management of the fishery. 
  • Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization 
    • The recreational angling community is advocating for clarification in the next MSA reauthorization that the Councils and NMFS can use more appropriate management models, such as a rate of harvest, instead of the commercial hard-poundage quota system currently in place in the Gulf. 
    • The recreational angling community is seeking a provision that requires periodic reexamination of allocations based on peer reviewed economic, biological and social data. 
    • Both of these provisions, among others, can be found in the H.R. 2023 and S.1520, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017 which are currently before the 115th Congress.
  • Regional Management Through the Gulf Council – though Amendment 39 is currently stalled in the Gulf Council process, it would designate some authority to the states.  Unfortunately, it has been bogged down by Council politics and essentially become useless in its current proposed form. In order for Amendment 39 to be a viable solution, and supported by both the states and the recreational angling community, the states would need full management authority of both the charter/for-hire sector and the recreational sector. In addition, the states should be given management authority for data collection and stock assessments. With several new members to the Council taking their seats in October 2017, Amendment 39, or something similar which gives the states more management authority, is a possibility. 


For more information regarding this issue, please contact Chris Horton at

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