Ready to Snap
Gulf of Mexico fishermen are seeing more red snapper than they have in a long time, but a broken management system is making them see red of another kind.
by Daryl Carson and Fred Garth
Recreational red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico is a big mess, and everybody knows it. To whom you talk to doesn’t matter. From marine science research veterans to charter boat captains to the guy that fishes every weekend from his 19-foot Cape Horn, we all know something is very wrong.
Thankfully, this problem begins with some good news. By all accounts, red snapper are flourishing in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, to hear most recreational and charter boat fishermen tell it, they are nearly a plague. You can hardly bottom fish and catch anything else. The size of the fish being caught has increased as well. Ten years ago, the average fish was 3 lbs. Now it’s 7 lbs. More significantly, the commercial catch has been growing, and the stock assessments based on commercial landings are very positive.
In September of this year, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch folks, who have as much influence over seafood consumption as Miley Cyrus does over questionable dance moves, recognized this positive trend in the fishery. They upgraded the rating of Gulf red snapper from “Avoid” (meaning, if you eat this, you’re a horrible person) to “Good Alternative.” People of conscience can now order Gulf of Mexico red snapper at a restaurant or buy it from a seafood market without incurring the stigma normally reserved for those who club baby fur seals. For the fishing industry, and for everyone who buys seafood in a restaurant or store, this is wonderful news.
But the commercial red snapper catch and the recreational snapper catch are two completely different animals. Commercial guys operate on what’s called an IFQ, or Individual Fishing Quota. That means they are allotted a certain number of pounds of fish to be caught during the year. Essentially, they can catch it whenever and however they like. This system carries many benefits. Commercial guys can fish all year, make money all year, and decide to stay home and be safe when the Gulf looks like a washing machine set to “agitate.” There’s always tomorrow.
Commercial boats also have very strict reporting regulations. They turn in catch numbers on a near daily basis, so it’s easy for government types to keep track of how many fish are being harvested, their relative size and the areas where they are caught. All this makes tracking and managing the commercial red snapper fishery fairly straightforward.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that recreational fishing management is a bit of a joke with a bad punch line. Many would even say it’s an insult to the word “management.” Rather than operating from an IFQ, the recreational sector is allotted a certain number of pounds of red snapper each year that must be caught during a limited season. In recent years, that meant one month of fishing for red snapper and a two-fish per day bag limit. Seems straightforward enough until you try to track thousands of recreational fishermen and what they caught. Catch totals are collected by doing phone surveys, posting people (“monitors”) at the docks to conduct interviews with fishermen and other equally inadequate methods. This limited data is then plugged into some very complex mathematical models that also weigh a whole range of other factors (more on that in a minute) and the result is how many pounds of fish have been harvested in a given recreational season.
“Last year, a huge glitch was discovered,” says Dr. Robert Shipp, former chair of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the governing body responsible for managing red snapper. “In past years, the monitors at the docks were knocking off at 3pm. But a new data collection system approved by Congress now has monitors staying later in the day. When they stayed until 5 or 5:30, landings skyrocketed.”
The result, says Shipp, is that data from previous years is now wildly in doubt. “They don’t know what to do with the last 10 to 15 years of data because they know it’s all wrong. When they came in with these numbers, it meant that the quota for that year had already been exceeded.”
This new revelation is likely to compound the problems of the current trend in recreational management. As red snapper numbers have been increasing, season length and bag limits have been shortening. This is counter-intuitive, and maddeningly frustrating to fishermen. Essentially, because people are obeying the rules and the stock is doing well, as a reward, we all get to fish less. But the problem comes from the fact that it takes a long time (about three years) for researchers to conduct a full-blown stock assessment—a necessary step before increasing fishing limits. So, while new research is being conducted, the old rules must still be enforced. Meanwhile, since snapper numbers are going up, fishermen are reaching the catch limit faster and faster each year. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the catch limit is counted in pounds and average fish size has doubled, so catching the limit automatically means catching fewer fish. The result of all of this is that following the old rules requires shortening the fishing season so the catch limit is not exceeded.
Now, with the revelation that the last 10 to 15 years of numbers are completely unreliable because of poor data collection methods (monitors leaving the docks at 3pm instead of staying until later in the day), it means the stock assessment process has to start from scratch. And even though it seems quite obvious to everyone involved—even the pelicans on the docks—that snapper numbers are growing, there’s no way to scientifically justify an increase in catch limits because it can’t be backed up with hard numbers.
This trend seems unbelievable to most anglers, and the reality of more fish but less fishing is hard on everyone, yet what’s at stake is far more than just a nice recreational activity enjoyed by a few fishermen. There is a huge economic impact as well.
“We ran 200 trips out of here last weekend,” says Tom Steber, manager of Zeke’s Marina in Orange Beach, Alabama. “That’s more than all the trips we ran for the month of July because the weather was so bad.”
Zeke’s is home to a good portion of the Orange Beach charter fleet, which is the largest such fleet on the Gulf Coast. I visited with Tom in mid-October, just after a special two-week snapper season closed. He was happy for the boon in business, but he also made it clear that charter fishing in the 10-plus months that don’t host a snapper season is a far cry from what it used to be.
“Our captains have really had to adapt,” says Steber, who is also the president of the local charter association. “Where we have lost business is from the corporate sector…from companies coming from Mobile or Birmingham and treating their employees or clients to some time on the water. Instead, now, we cater much more to a family experience, where people are not fishing to fill up coolers, but fishing purely for fun. We’re also fishing more for other species like dolphin and king.”
The other point that Steber makes is that cramming the majority of snapper fishing into one 28-day season in July is a real killer for getting the most out of the region’s tourism business during the rest of the year. The Gulf Coast, especially the section from Gulf Shores to Orange Beach, Alabama, is a Mecca for visitors from all over the southeast. And, when the weather is good, fishing is popular the majority of the year. If snapper season was open during Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving—not to mention during other local events such as the annual Shrimp Festival and multiple music festivals—charter boats could be full and running virtually all the time. A short snapper season both reduces the overall tourist draw and it keeps businesses from maximizing their profits when tourists are present. The bottom line is that snapper season is a huge economic driver. It is directly related to occupancy rates at hotels, to receipt totals in restaurants and to gas sales at service stations—all the things that are part of a normal tourist economy.
The Red Tide of History
For local fishermen, snapper fishing is equally important. In fact, it’s a deeply ingrained part of the culture, especially in southern Alabama and along the Florida Panhandle. People here never talk about “deep sea fishing.” Sure, those words are on a few billboards targeting tourists, but that’s not what the locals do. Here, people go “snapper fishing,” as in, “I went snapper fishing and caught a nice grouper.”
And it’s been this way for about 150 years. Pensacola, stuck out on the western end of the Florida Panhandle, is a city that used to be known as the red snapper capital of the world. And they meant it. Because of the snapper fishery, there was a time when Pensacola’s port was the busiest in the nation, even more so than New York.
When you examine the power brokers who dominated Florida’s Panhandle in the early 1900s, the leading role goes to a Mr. R. Snapper. His supporting cast was a group of entrepreneurial humans who capitalized on the legions of red snapper that were landing in Pensacola, as well as in nearby Mobile and New Orleans. If you review history books of the region, two men you’ll run across frequently are movers and shakers E.E. Saunders and Andrew Warren. These two fellows are described in historical records as “very thoughtful and skillful businessmen, as well as imaginative marketers.” Translation: they were the rich guys in town—the “Big Fish,” if you will pardon the pun.
Saunders and Warren promoted snapper, as well as grouper, in cans before StarKist ever packed its first tuna in a tin. Warren even published a special cookbook to prepare fish from “The Red Snapper Capital of the World.” Back then, the Gulf was a wild west of sorts and the fish came in like fruit falling from a tree. This period of snapper prolificness (though that’s not even a real word) is a fascinating history. It’s also relevant to today’s fisherman, because it still influences how we manage snapper fishing.
They used huge sailing “smacks,” some of which were up to 200 feet long, to go out for a month or more and return with their live wells full of red snapper. The ships were called “smacks” because of the smacking sound made by the fish and water slapping around in the live wells. Using this method, ships would go out and fish and bring in up to 6,000 lbs. of snapper at a time. This figure tripled later on with the availability of ice, allowing ships to chill their catch down while still at sea. Commercial landings peaked at the turn of the 20th century, with more than 6 million pounds of tasty red snap-daddy’s coming in through Gulf of Mexico ports.
It was a grand time, but red snapper were being fished hard. Even as early as 1887, we have historical documentation of smacks moving out of the northern Gulf and sailing as far south at Campeche Bay, off the western coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. By 1910, a majority of the commercial fishing fleet was traveling to Mexican waters to find red snapper. In fact, by 1955, it was well documented that 75% of the snapper coming into Pensacola and 50% of the snapper coming into other Florida west coast ports, were all from Mexico’s Campeche fishing grounds.
This history lesson is important because those historical catch figures have helped skew present management practices. Management goals—how many fish we think there should be so we can maximize the resource while still sustaining the population—are based on a number of different factors. These include, among other things, historical catch data, the biology of the fish and its ability to reproduce, and on achieving a healthy age structure in the population—having a certain percentage of young fish, adolescent fish and mature adults, etc. But the underlying premise of tracking historical catches assumes you’re still managing the same habitat. Yet today’s snapper regulations do not cover Mexican waters, just the 200-mile exclusive economic zone that extends from the U.S. coastline. So just like having bad catch data, having skewed historical records has contributed to the debacle that we call “red snapper management.”
Habitat Sweet Habitat
Our history lesson is not quite finished. In the 1940s, the Gulf of Mexico began to change in a big way with the beginning of gas and oil exploration. This started, of course, in the western Gulf, namely off of Texas and Louisiana. Today, tens of thousands of active and retired oil rigs dot the underwater landscape in the Gulf. Fishermen know these structures as serious fish habitat—most of them packed tighter than a senior living center in Palm Springs. In areas that used to be relatively barren expanses of sand bottom, rigs support healthy populations of creatures from every level of the underwater food chain.
“You can’t underestimate the sea change in habitat that came in the 1940s with the introduction of oil drilling,” says Dr. Shipp, who has spent three decades studying Gulf reef fish and is a past chairman of the Department of Marine Science at the University of South Alabama. In a research paper published in 2009, Dr. Shipp documented the growth in red snapper catch totals in the western Gulf from an annual average of less than a million pounds through the first half of the century to about 4 million pounds in the year 2000. Peak catches came in the late 1970s at almost 6 million pounds. Dr. Shipp attributes this sustained growth to habitat increase.
“One of the problems we have today is that our current models don’t account for this massive increase in artificial habitat,” says Shipp. He and others have been petitioning the Gulf Fishery Management Council to do just that. Research has established that habitat creation does not just “collect” fish and concentrate them at one site, but it actually allows for a larger population of fish.
This is significant not just for Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but for Alabama and Florida as well. Although it has the smallest section of Gulf of Mexico coastline, Alabama has the region’s most prolific artificial reef program. In addition to some oil and gas structures, partnerships between fishermen, the state and outside organizations have created a 1,200-square-mile reef zone with more than 17,000 reefs. These structures include everything from scuttled ships to concrete “reef balls” and discarded bridge rubble. Shipp and his teams have regularly conducted fish surveys, including video surveys, on select structures off Alabama coastlines. He has also conducted sonar sweeps to document the number of artificial structures still in place after years under the surface. His findings have backed up what fishermen on the water have been saying for a long time…the snapper are everywhere. In fact, Shipp believes that recreational red snapper fishing could go from one month to six months with a two-fish limit. He says if that kind of fishing was allowed, and limited to waters above 20 fathoms (120 feet), there would be little danger of hurting snapper stocks over a three-year period. That idea is part of a “straw man” proposal he is publicizing to help kick-start a discussion on a new overall approach to snapper management.
Ready to Fight
Bad data, an inefficient system of limited seasons, a skewed historical precedent and a flawed view of the Gulf’s fish habitat are all taking their toll on snapper management. Added to this are human nature and the naturally slow moving wheels of government bureaucracy. But angst and anger among all parties has brought about some change.
At the time of this writing, multiple bills and proposals are being kicked around, both in Congress and in the various legislatures of the states along the Gulf. There is a growing push to see control of the red snapper fishery taken away from the National Marine Fisheries Service and given to the states to manage however they see fit. In 2014, a partial move along these lines is already set to take place. Each state will be allowed to manage its share of the yearly snapper quota, though the quota itself will still be determined by the National Marine Fisheries Service. For many, this is a move in the right direction but does not go far enough. Captain Steber, in Orange Beach, believes that the states need full control if recreational fishing as we know it is to survive along the Gulf.
“I am hopeful that something good can happen. Honestly, I think that the recreational fishing groups, such as CCA and others, will have to come together and sue the Feds for control. I think everybody finally feels pushed back in a corner enough to fight.”
To thicken the plot, there’s also a move among recreational fishermen to bring more immediate change. U.S. Senator David Vitter, from Louisiana, has proposed legislation that would force the NMFS to reexamine the current split of red snapper fishing between recreational and commercial groups. Currently, the split is nearly even. But recreational and charter fishermen, along with their allies, are seeking a greater piece of the pie. Their argument is that current allocations are based on skewed catch data from the 1980s, and if a new allotment were made on present data, recreational guys would get a bigger share of the limited red snapper quota.
Understandably, this move does not have commercial fishermen very excited. They are making money. Snapper sells for a good price, and with the recent change in recognition from the seafood industry of the health of red snapper stocks, demand should continue to rise. If their current quota is cut, without limits being raised, they are going to feel a real economic crunch. They are also warning, through a new marketing campaign called “Share the Gulf” (www.sharethegulf.org), that such a move could limit access to red snapper in seafood markets and restaurants around the country. Many also have concerns that at the state level there is not the expertise or manpower to effectively manage commercial fishing.
Some experts, like Dr. Shipp, have suggested leaving commercial fishing under Federal management and just moving recreational fishing to state control, although no one can agree what that control should look like. The one thing everyone does know is that change is coming. For most, it can’t come fast enough.
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