May 23, 2022

Brief Red Snapper Season in South Atlantic Continues to Underscore Problems with Management

Why it matters: Just as they are in the Gulf of Mexico, red snapper are an extremely popular reef fish in the South Atlantic. Unfortunately, the population has been subject to overfishing and is currently under a rebuilding plan. As the population rebuilds, anglers encounter more and bigger red snapper, though the federal program that measures recreational catch struggles to estimate how many red snapper are harvested or released each year. This uncertainty results in short seasons to ensure that fishing mortality is limited. CSF believes the best solution for obtaining better data and appropriate access to the fishery as it rebuilds is through state based, rather than federal, recreational data collection programs.

On Friday, NOAA Fisheries announced the South Atlantic recreational red snapper season would be open for two days, July 8-9, with a one-fish bag limit per angler. Despite a rapidly rebuilding population of red snapper in the region, the total recreational quota from Florida to North Carolina will be just 29,656 fish, the same harvest quota as in recent years. However, the number of red snapper released, rather than the actual harvest, is what drives the short seasons.

The most recent South Atlantic red snapper stock assessment, SEDAR 73, indicated that the stock has shown substantial progress toward rebuilding, but the population is still overfished and undergoing overfishing. The primary driver of the overfishing status is recreational discards, or fish that are thrown back when the season is closed. Many of the released fish survive, but a substantial portion do not and are counted towards the total removals from the population each year. As the population grows, more red snapper are estimated to be encountered by anglers, which results in high discard mortality estimates and a relatively low red snapper annual catch limit (ACL) available for harvest. (Note – the use of descending devices should result in lower release mortality and more fish available to harvest if anglers fully embrace their use.)

However, there are questions as to how well we can estimate the number of fish harvested in such a short season, as well as how many are released throughout the year, using the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). Unfortunately, the broad spatial and temporal design of MRIP does not allow the survey to estimate the “universe of anglers” who are targeting reef fish in the South Atlantic, either during the red snapper season or when it is closed, which is used to derive estimates of harvest and total discards.

One solution currently being considered by the Council is a fee-based, federal fishing license or permit for reef fish anglers in the region. Although this approach would help to get a better idea of how many anglers are heading offshore, defining the universe of anglers is only part of the equation. CSF continues to advocate for state-based recreational data collection programs that have significantly improved the precision, accuracy and timeliness of angler catch estimates in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery compared to MRIP.   

Studies conducted at both the state and federal level have found that the number of hunters and trappers have been on a generally declining trend over the past several decades. To increase recruitment, retention, and reactivation (R3) of hunters and trappers, which initiative do you think would have the greatest impact?

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