Charting a path forward for red snapper

ROBERT E. JONES | Special to The Log

Charting a path forward for red snapper

By Robert E. Jones

Special to The Log

Have you ever seen two million pounds of red snapper? Me either, but I bet it is a sight to behold and thanks to advocates of science and accountable management practices, fisherman in the Gulf are going to get the chance to see just that much more snapper in 2015. That is because this week the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council initiated action to increase the total allowable catch of red snapper.

Everyone can agree that the Gulf red snapper stock has come a long way since it nearly collapsed in the 1990s. After decades of overfishing and ineffective management, the fishery underwent some contentious management changes in order to try to rebuild the stock. The results have been remarkable.

It’s easy to see this good news and forget how much work we have left in front of us. We have more than 15 years until we’ll see a red snapper population comparable to the one we had half a century ago. We have had some strong years of rebuilding, but many of the fish that make up our current snapper population are young and need years to grow before they are able to reproduce at significant rates. We should be proud of the progress we have made, but we are at an inflection point in the rebuilding timeline. From here, we must continue to improve management and ensure long term sustainability. Bad management decisions or inaction at this point could reverse the momentum we have created.

The commercial fishery has kept its annual catch within its limits for many years now, and catch share management has allowed commercial fishermen to fish year-round and build stable businesses as the stock rebuilds. However, broken management in the recreational fishery has led to persistent overages and kept anglers from experiencing better fishing opportunities even as millions of pounds have been added to their total allowable catch over the last seven years. This year’s increase will likely add minimal days to the 2015 federal recreational season as well.

These shorter federal seasons have led states to abandon federal regulations in their waters, further contributing to the confusion and chaos. Red snapper fishing has become a political hot button.

Some members of the Gulf Council continue to fuel this chaos by promoting false promises in the form of a proposal that would take fish that would normally be shared between the commercial and recreational sector and giving it all to the recreational industry. More fish will not solve the problems facing recreational fishermen. The increases over the last several years have not helped prevent overages. Changing the broken management system in the recreational sector is the only way to provide better fishing opportunities to the Gulf’s anglers.

The Council should continue to build on its actions late last year, when it officially split the recreational fishery into two components – for-hire and private anglers.  This action is a positive first step, and offers both components a chance to find a way to manage their fishery that works for them. The needs of charter captains are different than those of us who fish for fun. While we all need predictability, their livelihoods depend on it, and management should acknowledge that difference. Over the coming months, the Gulf Council should explore all the management options in front of them, and look to the the Gulf Headboat Collaborative pilot program as a model for how to increase flexibility for for-hire operators and ensure sustainability.

Individual anglers require a different approach and the Gulf States may be better equipped to manage their needs given the right management tools. The Gulf Council should explore a regional management option for private anglers that provide states the freedom to deploy management approaches that work better for anglers, but still keep each state within its set limit. If we could accomplish that goal, all three sectors in the red snapper fishery would be under accountable management and this iconic and tasty species might recover even faster.

I hope we can all move past the politics, rhetoric and false promises to chart a path forward this year. Let’s seize the momentum of the rebuilding red snapper stock and find a way to end the overages in the recreational sector so that we can accelerate the recovery of the species for everyone to enjoy for generations to come.

Robert Jones is a lifelong recreational fisherman and Director of Environmental Defense Fund’s Gulf of Mexico Oceans program.