Great Red Snapper Count Holds Key to Reevaluating Federal Management

  • Management of the recreational red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico has been considered highly successful under Amendment 50 to the Reef Fish Management Plan implemented in 2020, which gave the states the authority to manage their individual private and state charter recreational quota.
  • Unfortunately, discrepancies between the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) data and the relatively new state data collection programs have not been resolved and a forced calibration of state data collection programs back to MRIP data could result in drastic reductions in access to red snapper for some states.
  • Fortunately, the Great Red Snapper Count (GRSC), an unprecedented absolute abundance study funded by Congress, found that the Gulf red snapper population is at least three times larger than originally thought.
  • The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) led an effort to demonstrate that by using GRSC information to calculate actual fishing mortality rates, the current proposed calibration is unnecessary and should be delayed until the GRSC and state data collection programs are incorporated into the upcoming red snapper stock assessments.

Why it matters: Red snapper are one of the most important recreational species in the Gulf of Mexico, and after years of increasingly restrictive federal management, the states have successfully managed their recreational red snapper quota for the last five years. However, discrepancies between state and federal data and a pending calibration of the state data back to the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) threatens to upset this highly successful state management model. Fortunately, when compared with data from the Great Red Snapper Count, the actual number of fish being removed by recreational anglers relative to the total population abundance is well below the allowable harvest necessary to rebuild the stock, suggesting the calibration is likely unnecessary and premature at best.

Once again, red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf) is at a crossroads. After years of increasingly restrictive federal seasons as the population quickly grew, the states were delegated management authority of the recreational quota under their own state data collection programs beginning in 2018. By all accounts, the switch to state authority to manage their individual recreational quotas has been highly successful.

However, the latest twist in the ongoing saga with the management of the Gulf’s most popular and important recreational species will require states to calibrate their data back to the federal data system (MRIP), sending some states back to very limited seasons and threatening the successful state management model. Last week, CSF and members of the recreational fishing community sent a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Southeast Regional Office (SERO) expressing disappointment in the calibration and offering justification for why it is not necessary.

“We’re clearly frustrated with not only the proposed simple ratio calibrations that fail to account for the discrepancies between the state’s data collection programs and MRIP, but also the fact that NMFS has had five years to work with the states and independent reviewers to understand those discrepancies and arrive at a better calibration methodology than what they are currently proposing,” said CSF’s Senior Director of Fisheries Policy, Chris Horton. “Furthermore, in light of the exceptional Great Red Snapper Count (GRSC), the calibration is likely completely unnecessary at this point.”

The GRSC is an unprecedented absolute abundance study that estimated the total red snapper population size by counting fish in the water, unlike typical stock assessments that rely largely on past recreational and commercial landings to provide a best guess as to how many fish are out there. “The GRSC gave us a gift that we have never had before in a federally managed fishery – a comprehensive, peer-reviewed estimate of population abundance,” adds Horton. “We should be using it as a way to validate whether our actual removals from the population under existing state management are too high, too low, or just right instead of relying on the current annual catch limit (ACL) in pounds based on a stock assessment that we know is wrong and will soon change. Using the data from the GRSC and the recent private and charter/for-hire recreational landings data from NOAA, I provided an example of how that could be done.”

Specifically, the letter highlights the potential for using a fishing mortality rate (F) derived from the GRSC and recreational landings compared to established F targets to prevent overfishing and ensure the snapper stock continues to rebuild. The results suggest that the recreational fishery is not overfishing, and in fact, is fishing red snapper at a rate well below what is necessary to rebuild the stock. The results also suggest calibration of state data back to MRIP for the purposes of management is unnecessary at this point.

“The GRSC gave us an opportunity to reevaluate how we manage federal fisheries,” said Horton. “We’re trying to push that opportunity because the way we’ve always done it is insufficient.”

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