Solutions for recreational red snapper not found in other fisheries

red snapper

Credit: Gulf Wild

The Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery has undergone a tremendous recovery over the last eight years. Thanks to reformed commercial management the stock is rebounding strongly, and as a result this year’s quota is the highest on record. Unfortunately, recreational fishermen have not fully benefited, since their failed management system creates a cycle of shorter and shorter seasons. There are many competing attempts to address this very real problem, including several in Congress.

This week a U.S. House subcommittee will hold a hearing on H.R. 3094, a bill that proposes to transfer management for Gulf of Mexico red snapper to a new authority made up of the directors of the Gulf state fish and wildlife agencies. Some advocates of this approach, which we oppose, have suggested that the states successfully manage striped bass in the mid-Atlantic and Dungeness crab in the Pacific, and therefore transferring management of red snapper to the Gulf States is a good idea.

But these arguments gloss over important differences between red snapper and these other species, making the comparison about as real as most good fish stories.


Striped Bass

In many ways, the biology of striped bass makes it more suited to state management.  Striped bass aggregate inshore to spawn and are easy to count.  They are easy to fish for selectively, and currently all striped bass are caught in state waters.  Red snapper, on the other hand, live mainly offshore, spawn throughout the Gulf, are difficult to target selectively, and often die during catch and release due to barotrauma (“the bends”) and other injuries.

Who fishes for striped bass and red snapper, and where, varies even more.  When the existing striped bass laws were passed, the striped bass population had crashed and there was little commercial fishing for the species.  As we will see below, the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act and the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Act actually increased the federal role in the management of the fishery, and today some striped bass commercial fishing exists in state waters (accounting for U.S.-caught striped bass’s presence on some menus).  Yet the fishery remains overwhelmingly recreational, with no catch at all in federal waters.

Gulf red snapper, on the other hand, supports a thriving commercial fishery that supports thousands of jobs, contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the Gulf economy, and provides locally-caught, sustainable fresh seafood to consumers throughout the region and the country.  Federally-permitted commercial fishermen catch their entire portion of the quota in federal waters.  Even when it comes to the recreational half of the quota, a significant number of charter/for-hire boats can only pursue red snapper in federal waters, and those fishermen now have a separate sub-quota that they can manage as they see fit.

Thus even if striped bass were successfully managed strictly by the states, the differences between the biology of the fish and the nature of those who fish for them mean that comparing the two species would not be apt.

But contrary to suggestions that striped bass are managed in a state-dominated manner similar to the structure set forth in H.R. 3094, the somewhat complex legal framework that governs striped bass extensively involves federal standards and regulators, even in state waters. (See footnote at end of post for details.)

The conservation standards that apply to striped bass are not as strict as those of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and that may account for the troubling downward trend in its population size and availability as documented by others. H.R. 3094 would impose even less stringent standards, threatening the progress we have seen in red snapper. Indeed, the steady increase in the Gulf red snapper population contrasts with the varying availability of striped bass over the years.


Dungeness Crab

Similarly, if there is a marine species less like red snapper than Dungeness crab, I’m not sure what it is.

Most crabs are in shallower state waters, and Dungeness is no exception.  In contrast, red snapper is found mainly in federal waters, and many who object to H.R. 3094 fish exclusively in federal waters.  Furthermore, the recreational fishery for Dungeness crab remains small, while the red snapper recreational fishery is large and managed through season and bag limits that are highly contentious. Given these differences, it’s not surprising that there was no federal management for Dungeness when the original legislation transferring authority to the states took effect. In contrast, H.R. 3094 would displace a federal red snapper fishery management plan which has been around for decades.

A final, important difference is the level of U.S. Congress heavy-handedness embodied in H.R. 3094.  The Dungeness crab legislation effectively ratified a deal worked out at the local level and agreed to by stakeholders across the board.  But H.R. 3094 represents an effort by a subset of Gulf congressmen to pick a winner – the private angler component of the recreational fishery – over other fishermen who vehemently object to the bill. It is one thing for Congress to ratify a stakeholder consensus through legislation; it is quite another for Washington to run roughshod over a longstanding local stakeholder decision-making process.

In sum, Gulf red snapper does not closely resemble either striped bass or Dungeness crab in scientific, management, or political terms.  It’s difficult to manage due to competing fishing groups, which is precisely the type of situation the regional management council system was set up to deal with.  Rather than imposing the views of a subset of user groups to decide on how to manage the fishery, Congress should let the regional process work.


Footnote on Striped Bass Legal Framework: See, e.g., 16 U.S.C. §§ 5154 (federal government can declare moratorium on fishing in state’s coastal waters, impose regulatory controls and seek civil penalties against violators); 5155 (federal government shall conduct stock assessments and investigate impacts of factors like water quality and land use on striped bass population).

While fishing for striped bass in federal waters is currently prohibited, 50 C.F.R. § 697.7(b), if it reemerges it will be governed by federal regulations developed in consultation with the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils (sister organizations of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which H.R. 3094 would deprive of authority over red snapper) or federal regulations.   16 U.S.C. § 5158.  Even within state waters, the federal government has the responsibility to re-enforce the management plan developed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, including imposing a moratorium on fishing in the waters of states that do not comply with the Commission’s plan.  Id. § 5154(a).


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