No Quick Fixes for Red Snapper

Ted Venker | Director of Communications | Coastal Conservation Association
No Quick Fixes for Red Snapper
The management of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico has become one of the most contentious fisheries issues in recent history.

The current problems we face have been brewing for almost 30 years. But even within this predicament there exist some certainties. First and foremost is CCA's dedication to the future of the red snapper fishery and the participation of recreational anglers within it.

Troubles with red snapper date back to 1979 when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) determined that stocks were overfished. An estimated 87 percent drop in recreational harvest from 1980 to 1984 prompted the Gulf Council to create its "Reef Fish Management Plan." This program became law in 1984 and was implemented by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the late 1980s.

The Gulf Council recommended an extensive rebuilding plan for red snapper. An integral part of that program was new and intensive restrictions on commercial and recreational catches coupled with a newfound realization that a majority of juvenile red snapper mortality was caused by shrimp trawls.

However, due to tremendous political pressure, fisheries managers were unable to implement bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) to reduce commercial Gulf shrimpers' impact on juvenile red snapper numbers. A 1990 congressional mandate prevented BRDs from being required in federal waters.

Reauthorization of the Magnuson Act into the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1996 forever changed the arena of federal fisheries management. Within this document are the components needed for the prevention of overfishing, addressing the issue of bycatch, and rebuilding overfished fisheries. A floor amendment allowed the Gulf Council to treat shrimp-fishery bycatch like any other in the country.

In the spring of 1998, the Gulf Council passed an amendment to require BRDs for shrimp trawls in federal waters. The Texas Shrimp Association sued in opposition to the bycatch reduction requirements and CCA intervened to ensure that shrimpers would have to do their part.

With the BRD requirement in place, red snapper recovery was premised on closed seasons, commercial quotas, recreational bag limits, size limits and a 40 percent reduction in bycatch due to BRDs.

The introduction of BRDs in 1998 allowed recreational and commercial anglers to roughly split a 9.12 million-pound annual total allowable catch (TAC). The only thing that curtailed an effort to reduce the TAC to 6 million pounds in 1998 was CCA's successful work for the implementation of BRDs.

The average recreational catch from 2000-03 was 4.091 million pounds a year, 8 percent below the allocated 4.469 million pounds per year. Commercial landings over the same period averaged 4.663 million pounds, slightly above the 4.651 million pound annual quota.

While the quota targets were largely met, studies in 2003 by NMFS revealed that BRDs had achieved only a 12 percent reduction in red snapper bycatch in the shrimp trawl fishery. Non-compliance by shrimpers was cited as the primary reason for this failure.

On page 30 of the latest issue of Marlin magazine, columnist Michael Leech notes that the reported discards in the Gulf shrimp fishery alone total more than a billion pounds - four times the retained catch. For every pound of shrimp harvested, more than 100 fish die.

As a result, Gulf fishery managers today are confronted with a shorter list of options for red snapper that includes further reduced commercial quotas, tighter recreational bag limits, and shorter seasons for both recreational and commercial fishermen.

Compounding the problem is a host of other factors. Enforcement of the commercial fishery by the National Marine Fisheries Service is notoriously lax. To help combat this, CCA Texas has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in night vision and surveillance equipment to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. When you read about the capture of a commercial boat loaded with thousands of pounds of illegal snapper, that bust was most likely made using equipment donated to Texas game wardens by CCA.

"We (TPWD) are actively involved in the enforcement of red snapper regulations in the Gulf of Mexico, interdicting vessels that are moored or returning to Texas with red snapper," says Captain Rex Mayes, Region IV TPWD Game Warden. "It takes specialized equipment to catch people who are operating illegally. They often come in during the night and we often have addressed them in the open seas. CCA-funded radars, GPS units and night vision equipment really help us level the playing field."

Illegal commercial harvest is a pervasive problem in a number of fisheries, and CCA is making efforts to address it at one of the most important levels enforcement. But commercial overfishing alone did not get red snapper to this grossly overfished level. All science indicates that shrimp bycatch is the primary cause of devastated red snapper stocks.

Another issue that many anglers question is the allocation of the red snapper directed fishery, roughly 49 percent recreational and 51 percent commercial. CCA has argued in the past that for a variety of species, greater economic benefits can be achieved through recreational harvest than commercial harvest. That argument has been successfully employed by CCA in a number of states where particular species have been declared game fish, including speckled trout, redfish, snook, tarpon and bonefish.

However, reallocating red snapper is currently perhaps one of the most difficult regulatory feats to accomplish in the Gulf of Mexico. The same pro-commercial politics that have prevented adequate bycatch reduction by the shrimp fleet for two decades will fight against shifting quota away from the commercial sector to the recreational side.

This is one of the reasons why CCA supports the concept of Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs) for the commercial red snapper fleet. A commercial fishery managed by IFQs will, after a five-year waiting period, be allowed to sell their shares of the red snapper TAC to anyone. The most realistic method to shift allocation to the recreational side in this fishery is for commercial shares to be purchased and shifted. This is a long-range plan, but a reliable one, that has real promise for increasing the TAC for recreational anglers and creating a year-round fishery.

But the inescapable fact remains that if we do not address limiting shrimp bycatch, we will never get to the root of the problem.

In March of 2005, CCA petitioned the Secretary of Commerce to put emergency measures into effect to end the overfishing of red snapper by the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fleet. A few months later, CCA filed a lawsuit over Amendment 22 to the Reef Fish Management Plan, also known as the Red Snapper Rebuilding Plan.

The lawsuit is seeking to achieve significant shrimp trawl bycatch reduction on the order of 60-80 percent through measures such as bycatch quotas, areas closed to shrimping, seasonal shrimping closures and meaningful reduction in shrimping effort. The suit continues to make its way through U.S. District Court in Houston.

The shrimp industry was reduced to half its size in 2005 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita decimated the fleet. The industry is smaller today, and perhaps closer than ever to being properly sized, but there is no guarantee that it will not grow back to its over-capitalized state in the very near future. And much damage has already been done. Measures are needed today to reduce bycatch once and for all, or we will find ourselves right back in the same situation in the future.

There definitely are no silver bullets in this issue. It will take a holistic approach that will incorporate many components, but it starts with bycatch. Without the immediate implementation of measures to reduce shrimp trawl bycatch, and maintain or reduce the current shrimp trawl effort, recreational anglers will be left to carry the weight of management...again.

For more information on CCA's efforts for the proper management of red snapper, visit the Fishery Focus page of the CCA website,