Gulf Coast Snapper – Past to Present

Photo Courtesy of GulfMex.com

Photo Courtesy of GulfMex.com

Who would have ever thought red snapper could become the next Leatherback turtle, a species pursued to the brink of extinction?  Certainly not my fellow offshore anglers and me, who pursued the red delicacies back in the offshore fishing hey days of the early 1970s.  But if you look at the latest regulatory actions of the National Marine Fisheries Service, you might make an argument to have the species added to the list. I say, “might” because despite NMFS data indicating doom and gloom, they readily admit that data isn’t worth the word documents and paper on which it’s published.

The latest developments in a four-decade saga of mismanagement include for 2014, the possibility of less than the skimpy 9-day, 2 fish per person season Louisiana was offered for 2013 and the withdrawal of the LA Department of Wildlife & Fisheries from the NOAA Fisheries Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).  This move represents the state fishery management equivalent of seceding from the Union.  Furthermore, what seemed just a few decades ago to be an Orwellian project, there are serious attempts to “breed” red snapper for supplemental release into the Gulf of Mexico.   How did we ever get to this point and maybe the more important question, is it necessary?

Having spent forty years of contributing in a very small way to the red snapper demise, here’s what I’ve seen.  In the early 1970s when I first began offshore fishing, big, beautiful red snapper were easily caught along with 3-4 pound white trout and bull croaker.  We were only limited by how many we wanted to clean.  All three species went into a serious decline from the late 1970s into the 1990s. With few exceptions, handfuls of 12 inch and smaller red snapper became the catch of the day.  Rarely are those big white trout and croakers found at all any more.  That is another story for another day.

Following an overharvest determination and the resulting regulations, red snapper populations in the Gulf rebounded.

But while populations were growing through the 1990s and 2000s, NMFS continued to implement stricter regulations using their suspect data. In more recent times the empirical evidence of many more red snapper in the Gulf than estimated by the feds has pretty much been ignored.  Reports from commercial and recreational anglers and what you would have to regard as very reliable, eyewitness observations from scuba divers who have monitored fish populations at rig and reef habitat first hand for decades have not convinced federal managers that longer seasons with more generous bag limits are warranted.  Conversely, they have shortened the seasons as if red snapper are declining when in fact, clear-thinking, unbridled-by-bureaucrats fishery biologists proclaim there are and have been many more snapper than federal counts have estimated for years.

Earlier this year, Louisiana, frustrated with the incompetency joined other Gulf States by going non-compliant with federal regulations in state-managed waters. The LDWF set up a state waters season offering more days and a larger bag limit.  Additionally, Louisiana began its own accounting method to set the stage and argument for regional management of offshore species.  This obviously posed a threat to the feds.  Their response – at first they said using the new methodology they were pleasantly surprised to “find” excess snapper and would allow an extended fall season in October. But at its latest meeting they reassessed the data and put a hold on that extension until they can further study the data.  So while they are considering if and when a fall snapper season is a possibility and what impact this new data will have on the 2014 season, charter boat operators as well as private fishermen are put on hold.

Would this type of mismanagement happen under more state control under the regional concept? No one can be certain but I’m willing to take the risk, given the track records of fish stocks under management authority of both agencies.   There’s not a single saltwater species Louisiana manages that is considered over or under -fished. Federal managers have demonstrated the exact opposite whether real or perceived.  The result is still the same.

The latest move by LDWF to withdraw from MRIP is huge.  As of January 1, 2014 they will no longer participate in the survey.  What type of retaliation the state can expect is uncertain, but given the direction federal management is headed, is there really anything to lose?

The Thad Cochran Center for Marine Aquaculture at the University of Southern Mississippi is working on developing a supplemental stocking program by raising juvenile snapper in tanks.

Perhaps the combination of these two efforts will be part of making once again catching and keeping a sensible limit of the wonderful red snapper possible.

Posted in Conservation

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