Red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime example of how a management scheme designed for one sector (commercial) ultimately penalized the other (recreational). Despite the healthiest population of Gulf red snapper in recorded history, recreational anglers recently faced decreasing season lengths until 2017. Fortunately, the Gulf Council passed Amendment 50 to the Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan that transferred management of the recreational red snapper fishery to the five Gulf States, who have been much more effective at in-season monitoring and preventing overfishing of their individual quota allocations.
The red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf) 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 338 red snapper 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.
Unfortunately, NMFS does not have the ability to get accurate, timely estimates of recreational angler harvest for in-season closures, so season lengths were set with conservative buffers. As the red snapper population grew both in size and abundance, the recreational sector was allowed fewer and fewer days to fish each year because the increased size and availability of red snapper resulted 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 were being managed with conservative buffers and extremely short seasons. This disparity in management approaches was a catalyst for contention between commercial fishermen and recreational anglers and a major source of distrust in NMFS by the recreational community.
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 in 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.
Fortunately, a pilot program was implemented in 2018 through exempted fishing permits (EFP’s) that allowed for individual states to manage their allocated private recreational quota. Federal water season lengths were as short as a 28-day, weekend-only season in Alabama to as long as 82 days in Texas that year, but overall, the pilot program was deemed successful by both the states and recreational anglers. At the conclusion of the EFP’s in 2019, the Gulf Council passed Amendment 50 to the Reef Fish Management Plan in April 2019 which permanently implemented this state-based management model for recreational anglers moving forward.
While all was going well with state management of the private recreational red snapper anglers from 2018-2020, 2021 saw a new glitch in the highly successful state management model. The red snapper catch estimates under the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) were used to set the recreational season annual catch limit (ACL) or quotas that we are fishing under today. Even though the states are now using more timely and accurate recreational harvest data collection programs, NMFS insists the new state data must be calibrated back to the MRIP data used to set the quota to remain in compliance with the Magnuson-Steven’s Act and to maintain a consistent timeseries of landings for stock assessments. While there is little disagreement that a calibration to ensure consistent currencies between states is necessary, there is considerable disagreement in how the calibration ratios presented by NMFS were developed. Unfortunately for Alabama and Mississippi, the old MRIP estimates were inaccurate and highly suspect, and the proposed calibration will penalize their anglers by cutting their individual quotas by roughly half.
Meanwhile, in 2021 the results of an unprecedented $12 million study that estimated the absolute abundance of red snapper in the Gulf using fishery independent surveys was published. The study, known as the Great Red Snapper Count (GRSC), found that there were around three times as many red snapper in the Gulf than the most recent stock assessment estimated on which current management is based. Unfortunately, as of August 2023, the results of the GRSC have only resulted in very slight increases to the harvestable quota, and the states of AL and MS are still faced with an unnecessary calibration and drastic reductions in their quota and season lengths in 2023. In the Gulf Council’s 2023 spring meeting, the issues with catch estimates and calibration methods using the MRIP were further addressed and the council modified calibration ratios slightly, based on state by state data.
Points of Interest
- The Gulf red snapper fishery is no longer considered overfished or undergoing overfishing.
- In 2005, a federal court ordered the NMFS to reduce juvenile red snapper bycatch in shrimp trawls by 74%. Shortly thereafter, the population began rebuilding. However, the Gulf Council recently approved a measure to roll back that reduction to 60%.
- The commercial red snapper IFQ program has not met some of the intended goals of a catch share program, most notably the failure to reduce bycatch of red snapper in other fisheries.
- States have consistently demonstrated they can more accurately estimate angler harvest using their state data collection programs, as well as generate those estimates much more quickly than the federal data collection system (MRIP).
- All five Gulf States have implemented their own angler harvest data programs and are now managing their individual state allocation of the Gulf-wide red snapper quota, which has allowed some states to extend seasons even longer than projected or to close seasons earlier if good weather allowed for more fishing pressure than expected.
- In 2020, Congress passed the Direct Enhancement of Snapper Conservation and the Economy through Novel Devices Act of 2020 (DESCEND Act) which requires persons on commercial, for-hire, and private recreational vessels to have a venting tool or descending device rigged and ready to use when fishing for reef fish species in Gulf of Mexico federal waters. Reducing dead discards should provide more fish available for harvest in the future.
- Data from Great Red Snapper Count when compared with NOAA Fisheries landings data suggests that maintaining status quo with state management results in a harvest rate by the recreational sector that is even less than the rate necessary to rebuild the stock.
Red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime example of how a federal management scheme designed for one sector (commercial) ultimately penalized the other (recreational). Fortunately, Amendment 50 to the Reef Fish Management Plan permanently established state management of the recreational red snapper quota. The success of the new red snapper management model demonstrates that all recreationally important species should be moved to state management of the recreational quotas, including the charter/for-hire components. However, there are still issues that need addressing in the red snapper fishery, including modifying the IFQ program to address red snapper bycatch in other commercial fisheries and realizing the reduction in dead discards in stock assessments by way of the recently implemented DESCEND Act that now requires descending devices for all reef fish fisheries in the Gulf. CSF and the recreational fishing community will continue to work with the Council to address both challenges and opportunities with the recreational red snapper fishery.