Time for Some Straight Talk on Red Snapper

Photo courtesy NOAA.org

Photo courtesy NOAA.org

There’s little question that managing red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is one of the hot topics in fisheries circles today.  Although it probably hasn’t bumped the perennial New England cod debate out of the top slot for “most contentious issue,” it still gets more than its share of press and much more than its share of political posturing.

At the same time, there’s not much to say.  Snapper were badly overfished, biologists finally got a handle on how to rebuild them, and since then the recovery has been bumpy, but real.  The stock is about halfway to its biomass target which, because of the species’ long life and relatively late maturity, is scheduled for 2032.  Right now, there is no reason to believe that the stock won’t be recovered on time.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that red snapper have long been a very popular fish, among both anglers—who fish from private and from for-hire vessels—and for diners, who purchase them both in restaurants and for home consumption.

With anglers, party and charter boat captains, commercial fishermen, fish houses and restaurants all interested in consuming a single, finite resource, and it’s pretty easy to understand how red snapper became overfished in the first place.

And with all those folks, plus environmental advocates, recreational and commercial fishing advocates and recreational and commercial fishing lobbyists weighing in on the issue, along with every local, state and federal politician who thinks that they can milk the issue for a few more votes, photo ops and campaign contributions, you can understand why a relatively simple biological exercise has become such a hotly-contested political issue.

You can also understand why most of what you hear is shaped, slanted, targeted, stage-managed and otherwise intended to inflame emotions, satisfy voters or organizations’ members and promote a narrowly-held position, rather than honestly inform the general citizenry and promote the long-term public interest.

This is one of those instances where no one is really to blame for the underlying situation—folks didn’t recognize the essential fragility of the red snapper stock, killed too many fish for too many years and, now that they realize what they did wrong, are going to have to endure a long and painful effort to fix things—but everyone is to blame for chasing short-term fixes and ignoring the concerns of other stakeholders in the fishery.

At any given time, there is so much rhetoric related to red snapper management flying around that it’s hard to decide where to begin.  Maybe Amendment 40 to the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council’s Fishery Management Plan for the Reef Fish Resources of the Gulf of Mexico is a good place to start, because it illustrates the sort of issues that beset those trying to manage the fishery.

Amendment 40 proposes introducing “sector separation” into the red snapper fishery.

Currently, 51% of red snapper landings are allocated to the commercial fishery, and 49% to recreational anglers.  Under sector separation, the recreational anglers would be further divided into the charter fishing sector (as defined in 16 U.S.C. 1802 (3)), which includes only party and charter boats, and the recreational fishing sector, composed of anglers who fish from any other platform (in the red snapper context, virtually always private boats).    Depending on the base years referred to when making the allocation, the split could be anywhere from roughly 50% for-hire/50% private vessel (if base years 1986 to 2012 were used) to 41%% for-hire/50% recreational (if base years are limited to 2006-2012).

Needless to say, the debate has been heated to date, and it’s not over yet.

Supporters of sector separation argue that continued recreational overharvest of the stock (which they generally blame on private boat anglers) has harmed not only the red snapper’s chances for recovery, but also the for-hire vessels, which were limited to just a 9-day federal-waters season last year.

Such advocates contend that, because for-hire vessels are relatively few in number and easily identified, it will be simple to account for their landings, and impose sector-specific management and accountability measures.  On the other hand, the private boat sector is so amorphous and large that its landings cannot be quantified in anything like real time, and are always subject to significant uncertainty.  Thus, mid-season course adjustments are impossible to impose, leading to the recreational overharvest that has plagued the fishery.

Sector separation could also lead to a catch share program for the for-hire vessels, similar in structure to that already successfully used to keep commercial harvest from exceeding its quota.

That’s all probably true as far as it goes, but…

The draft Amendment 40 notes that

“Since 2004, federal reef fish for-hire permits have been in moratorium.  That means that entrance to participation is capped; no additional federal permits are available…On the other hand, there is no limiting factor to the number of private anglers and recreational vessels which may target reef fish species; it is an open entry fishery…Over time, an increase in the number of private recreational vessels, while federal for-hire vessels have decreased in number, have resulted in private vessels landings representing a greater proportion of the recreational quota as a whole…”

That statement inadvertently raises one of the biggest single problems with sector separation—the fact that it freezes each sector’s allocation at a level determined by past fishing activity, without accounting for changes that might naturally occur in the future.

An ever-higher proportion of anglers are choosing to fish from private boats rather than for-hire vessels (and we should never doubt that it is a matter of choice, since the number of federally-permitted for-hire vessels isn’t remaining at or near the cap but, according to the draft amendment, it is actually decreasing).

We could easily get into a situation where the onus of conserving red snapper is placed squarely on the private boat anglers’ shoulders, as a decreasing number of for-hire patrons get to share a fixed percentage of a rebuilding stock—providing them the opportunity for higher bag limits, lower minimum sizes and longer seasons—while an increasing number of private anglers must share a similar fixed percentage of fish, forcing them into a descending spiral of ever-shorter seasons, decreased bag limits (although you can’t get much lower than two) and increasing minimum sizes.

The problem gets even more intractable when you add in the effects of a fixed commercial quota combined with a catch share program, which makes any possibility of reallocation of the resource, in order to satisfy the demand of a growing number of anglers, a very difficult thing to do.

Such a management scheme, which favors the commercial and for-hire industries at the expense of the private citizen, is contrary to the century-old theme of American wildlife management, which emphasizes both decommercialization and the broadest public access consistent with adequately conserving the resource.

Although it offers a viable short-term solution that may well succeed in ending overharvest and rebuilding the stock, its long-term implications for fishery management, both for red snapper in particular and, more broadly, for other species, are not particularly good, and may reasonably be deemed ominous by private recreational fisherman.

That may be what the Houston-based Coastal Conservation Association, had in mind when it issued a press release saying

“Amendment 40 has only been promoted by commercial fishermen and a very select few charter/for-hire operators. It is a misguided response to a broken federal management system that delivered a nine-day recreational red snapper season in 2014. Rather than fix that system, some are seeking to take advantage of the chaos and grab a private portion of red snapper.

“If Amendment 40 passes, it is likely that up to 75 percent of the entire Gulf red snapper fishery will be privately held by a dfew [sic] individuals, for private profit. If Amendment 40 passes, it will likely become the model to apply to other species under federal management. In response to a broken federal system that does not know how to manage recreational fisheries, the answer cannot be to simply lock anglers out of the fishery altogether and ignore them.”

The overwhelming majority of CCA’s membership is made up of private anglers, so its reaction to Amendment 40 is perfectly understandable.  However, it is spinning its message as fast and as hard as anyone else in the arena, blaming “commercial fishermen and a very select few charter/for hire operators” for Amendment 40, and constantly harping on a “broken federal management” system as the reason for both the recent 9-day federal snapper season, the alleged “chaos” that resulted, etc.

On its website, CCA claims that

“Amendment 40 has the potential to end recreational fishing as we know it in offshore waters. Due to a flawed federal management system, recreational anglers are being systematically managed out of the red snapper fishery and will very likely not be allowed to fish for red snapper in federal waters for the foreseeable future if Amendment 40 is approved and implemented.

“Since the federal government contends that recreational anglers catch their entire allotment of red snapper in state waters, anglers will only be able to access red snapper in federal waters by paying a select few charter/for-hire operators to take them out if Amendment 40 is approved.”

Once again, it’s hard to ignore the finger pointing at the “flawed federal management system [emphasis added]”.

And it’s easy to skim over the phrase, “the federal government contends that recreational anglers catch their entire allotment of red snapper in state waters” without actually stopping to think about why the feds may, in fact be right.

CCA has made no secret of the fact that it believes that red snapper management should be handled by the states, not by the federal government.  But what if one of the problems doesn’t lie with the feds, but with states, instead?

And what if the biggest problem of all lies in CCA’s home state of Texas?

This season, anglers in federal waters were permitted to land just two red snapper at least 16 inches long, over a season that lasted for just a brief nine days.  But in Texas state waters, which extend out nine nautical miles from shore as a result of an old Spanish land grant, anglers can keep four fish at least 15 inches long, on every day of the year.

That’s right.  In Texas, you can take twice the federal limit, of fish an inch shorter than the feds allow, and in 2014, at least, the season ran more than forty times as long as it did in federal waters.

All the other Gulf states also have more liberal red snapper regulations in their inland waters, but none are as extreme as those in the Lone Star State.

It’s enough to make a man believe that not all the hogs in Texas are out in the fields eating the deer feeders’ corn…

As Florida charter boat captain Gary Jarvis noted

“The state water loophole ignores the simple fact that only so many fish can be caught per year, that it’s all one stock no matter where the fish are caught.  This has culminated in exorbitant state water season fishing opportunities for private vessel anglers and state licensed guides who fish in areas that have a viable state water fishery while federally permitted captains and their angling visitors only got a nine-day red snapper season this past year. Exploitation of the state water loophole and the imbalance it has wrought is really the driving force behind sector separation.”

You never hear CCA, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the Center for Coastal Conservation or any of the other folks who like to throw stones at the federal managers admit it, but maybe the states share a lot of the blame…

And maybe giving the states more power is just going to make things worse.

It would be refreshing if someone—it doesn’t really matter who—down in the Gulf engaged in a little straight talk.  It would probably sound something like this.

“There are no easy answers.  Nothing is going to be fixed tomorrow.  Red snapper were very badly overfished, and although the recovery is coming along nicely, the population won’t be rebuilt for another fifteen or twenty years.  Even when it is, we are never going back to the kind of regulations—or lack of regulations—that we had in the 1980s and ‘90s, because they’re what caused the stock to decline in the first place.

“Catch share programs and sector separation schemes will help the red snapper’s recovery, because they’ll make it easy to count and regulate about 75% if the harvest.  However, such schemes shift much of the regulatory burden onto the shoulders of the ordinary citizen who fishes from his own boat or that of a friend.  Locking the fastest-growing sector of the fishery into any of the proposed “sector separation” quotas means that an increasingly large number of anglers are going to have to share a pretty small pie.

“You can only kill so many red snapper before the population will again decline.  You can kill them in both state and federal waters, but if you want a healthy stock, the more you kill in one place, the fewer you’ll be able to kill in the other.  So if the states let you kill more, the federal fishery will shrink.  If you want to be able to land more red snapper offshore, don’t complain to the feds that their rules are too strict, complain to the states that their rules are too liberal.

“And don’t fool yourself into believing that, if the states get to manage red snapper, everyone will be able to kill four 15-inch fish every day of the year, the way the Texans do now.  If every state tries that, the stock will collapse and all of your past sacrifice will have been wasted.

“Now, knowing that—name your poison.”

It would be nice if someone demonstrated that kind of courage.
But since a spokesman for one of the big players down there once told me “Nobody wants to be a dead hero,” I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.

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Charles Witek grew up in coastal Connecticut, fishing for Long Island Sound’s then-abundant bottom fish before graduating to weakfish, bluefish and striped bass. He was already in his early twenties, and an avid striped bass angler, when the stock began to collapse. It was then that he had a chance meeting with Bob Pond, creator of the Atom plug, who was an early advocate for striped bass conservation. Pond’s efforts touched a chord and Witek, too, took up the striper’s cause. Over the years, he became more involved in conservation issues, serving as a bluefin tuna technical advisor to the US ICCAT delegation and holding a seat on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. He is currently a member of New York’s Marine Resources Advisory Council and a sits on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Advisory Panel. He is also a Vice President of the New York State Outdoor Writers’ Association. Witek currently resides, with his wife Theresa, on New York’s Long Island, where he fishes for everything from back-bay weakfish to canyon tunas from his 31’ Ocean Master, Arion.

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