Fall Snapper Season, Really?

By Dr. Bob Shipp

As many of you know, the Gulf Council has recently voted to have a fall red snapper season. Good news, eh? Yeah, I think so, but it could have been better. There are lots of moving parts involved in this, and I think it would be worthwhile to check them out, because in the next few months and years, these parts will still be moving, and more (and perhaps better) decisions will depend on them.

First a quick summary of what went into creating the extended season. First, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) provided the Council and its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) with a new, benchmark stock assessment of red snapper. This confirmed what everyone on the water has known for years: the snapper stocks are markedly improved. The SSC provided the Council with an Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) of a little over 13 million pounds, which by law the Council could not exceed. The Council considered several options, and chose a quota of 11 million pounds, 51% commercial and 49% recreational. If projections of June snapper harvest are correct, this will translate to about three weeks of snapper season in October.

But this has left us with lots of questions. I will take these on, and provide reasons, including my own opinions, as to what was done right and what was not.

First, if the SSC recommended up to 13 million pounds, why did the Council choose 11 million pounds? Good question. The reason is two fold. First, NMFS scientists felt there had been unusually strong year classes of snappers between 2003 and 2009, but in 2010 and 2011 recruitment was weaker, and if we wanted to make sure that we didn’t have to reduce the quota in 2014, we needed to choose a conservative quota. And second, the recreational sector has exceeded their quota in recent years, so to avoid this happening again, we needed a buffer.

I strongly disagreed to both these rationales, and made a motion to choose the highest allowable quota (previously set at 12.2 million pound). The fact is we’ve recorded these “unusually strong” year classes for nine straight years before 2010 (which was the year of the oils spill). Preliminary data from 2012 shows the recruitment is returning to pre-2010 numbers. So when does “unusually strong” become average. To me the data suggest it already has. As for the buffer, there is no need for one this year, because we will have a split season. If June catch rates exceed expectations, we simply reduce the fall season.

Why do we start the season in October? Why didn’t we simply extend the summer season or start the season in September? The summer season could not be extended because the results of the new stock assessment could not go through the review process in time to simply extend the season. Also, extending the season would risk a quota overrun as happened in earlier years. October rather than September was chosen because NMFS wasn’t sure when they would have the information to project a summer quota. So in order for people to plan for the fall season, especially the for-hire sector, the later starting date was chosen.

Why the 51/49% quota split? The quota split is based on historical landings. The Council will consider reallocation of red snapper quotas in upcoming years, but the process to do that is very lengthy and could not have been accomplished in time for the 2013 season. Reallocation is going to be extremely contentious.

There are lots of other related issues such as the validity of data, effort estimates, numbers of dead discards, and what measures of fishing mortality are considered. These must await more scrutiny in coming months.

But I would like to end with some personal/professional opinions. We are supposed to be “rebuilding” the red snapper stocks by 2032. Ludicrous! There are more red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico than ever in history. The Gulf ecosystem has been transformed by artificial structures, creating massive new areas of ideal red snapper habitat. The old “production vs. attraction’ debate regarding artificial structures is archaic. If these structures simply attracted red snapper, where from? Every region of the Gulf has robust, expanding populations of red snapper.

Management of Gulf red snapper has become the most contentious fishery management issue we have ever witnessed. And I think this is just the beginning.

Dr. Bob Shipp is chairman of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council Reef Fish Committee, past chairman of the Council, professor and past chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences of the University of South Alabama. His recently published “Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico” is available at bobshipp.com.

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