April 19, 2021

Gulf Red Snapper Crisis Averted


Why it Matters: Red snapper are one of the most important recreational species in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly in the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Prior to last week’s meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, these two states were facing potential drastic cuts in their private recreational red snapper season because of discrepancies in angler catch reporting between the old federal data programs and the new, more reliable state data collection programs. Fortunately, the Council voted to delay the calibration between the two very different systems until 2023, which provides an opportunity to take a closer look at the discrepancies and identify a path forward.

At least for now, red snapper anglers in Alabama and Mississippi can breathe a sigh of relief knowing we may have similar access to the red snapper fishery as we did in 2018-2020. I say “we” because I am one of those anglers. I say “for now” because the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s decision last week to delay implementation of a calibration requirement until 2023 could very well be rejected by NOAA Fisheries or end up in the courts.

Red snapper catch estimates using the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) were used to set the recreational season quotas we are fishing under today. Even though the states are now using more timely and accurate recreational harvest data collection programs, catch estimates still must be calibrated back to the MRIP data used to set the quota. to ensure compliance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Unfortunately for Alabama and Mississippi, the old MRIP estimates were inaccurate and highly suspect, and the resulting calibration would penalize their anglers by cutting their individual quotas by roughly half. We need to better understand why the differences between the state and federal data programs are so great, as well as determine which is the best available science for management moving forward. Congress agrees.

In report language form the 2021 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Act of 2021 that passed as part of a spending bill, Congress made it clear that NOAA Fisheries needs to address the discrepancies between the state and federal data. “Therefore, before making any related regulatory changes, [National Marine Fisheries Service] NMFS is directed to address the question of which data collection system (i.e., MRIP or the catch data programs administered by the Gulf States) are providing the best estimates of recreational red snapper catch in the Gulf of Mexico.” The report goes on to specifically provide funding for NMFS to contract with a “non-governmental entity” to conduct a review and answer questions about best available science and a path forward for calibrations. Not surprisingly, that has not been done.

Fortunately, for now, we have some time to address the data issues. Considering the Great Red Snapper Count indicates we have a much healthier fishery than previously thought, we have perhaps the best opportunity we have ever had with this fishery to safely hit pause and get the management right moving forward.

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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