South Atlantic Eying Federal License for Reef Fish Anglers

  • The red snapper season in the South Atlantic has been exceedingly short over the last several years, in part due to the inability of the federal Marine Recreational Information Program to effectively estimate not only how many fish are landed, but also how many are released.
  • To get a better handle on the number of anglers targeting reef fish offshore to improve harvest and discard estimates, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is considering the development of a federal fishing license for anglers who bottom fish in federal waters.
  • While a federal license would help in identifying the universe of anglers who bottom fish in the region, the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation (CSF) has concerns it will do little to improve overall management of reef fish species in the region.

Why It Matters: The federal Marine Recreational Information Program that collects private recreational angler catch data across multiple species and geographic areas is a useful survey for general trends in fish populations but is not at the scale necessary to effectively survey reef fish anglers in the South Atlantic. As a potential solution, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is exploring the possibility of implementing a new federal reef fish permit. While understanding how many anglers are targeting reef fish is important for stock assessment purposes, questions remain as to whether a federal permit is the right option for ultimately improving management and extending seasons for South Atlantic anglers.

The South Atlantic Snapper Grouper Recreational Permitting and Reporting Technical Advisory Panel met virtually last week to discuss moving forward with a federal reef fish license for anglers in the region. The intended purpose of the permit is to determine the number of anglers, or private vessels, that target reef fish in order to get better estimates of landings, discards and improve management. The federal Marine Recreational Information Survey (MRIP) was not designed to capture this information, and the broad nature of MRIP’s general survey across multiple species and geographic areas leads to a lot of uncertainty in the estimates of reef fish catch and effort currently. In turn, this has resulted in short seasons for red snapper due to the large number of fish that are estimated to be caught and released throughout the year, a portion of which do not survive. Trying to refine these discards estimates by determining how many anglers surveyed by MRIP actually target red snapper and other reef fish has been the catalyst for the possibility of a federal permit.

However, during the discussion, there was a key question raised as to whether a federal private angler (or vessel) permit is the best option for improving both data and management. What data, beyond the universe of reef fish anglers, is necessary to truly make a difference in the management of red snapper and other bottom fish in the South Atlantic?

“I’m skeptical that a new federal fishing license is the answer to the shortcomings of the federal MRIP system,” said Chris Horton, Senior Director of Fisheries Policy for CSF. “Most anglers are likely to feel more confident obtaining an offshore license and reporting their catch through their state agency. On top of that, developing a state-based system to supplement MRIP like those in the Gulf of Mexico would be more efficient at not only identifying reef fish anglers, but what they are catching in real time as well. The latter has implications for better in-season management in the long run.” 

The potential federal permit, under Snapper Grouper Amendment 46, will be before the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council at the September 12 – 16 meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

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