Red snapper — the brilliant vermillion “filet mignon of the sea” coveted by anglers and commercial fishermen alike — was a fish of controversy last year, grabbing headlines nationwide as allotments in the Gulf and South Atlantic regions fluctuated throughout the season.
Red snapper in the Gulf and South Atlantic are examples of two fisheries that are “both mismanaged beyond recognition,” Center for Coastal Conservation president Jeff Angers says.
“This stock has gone from being severely depressed in the 1970s to being wildly healthy in this decade because of conservation measures put in place to reduce the bycatch of juvenile snapper,” Angers says. Also contributing to the reduced bycatch has been the dwindling of shrimp fleets, which were savaged by hurricanes Ivan, Rita, Katrina and others.
“If you talk to anglers, they can’t get their hooks past the red snapper any deeper because there are so many out there,” Angers says.
But he gives credit to the Gulf Regional Fishery Management Council for advancing Amendment 28 to its regulations, which would look at whether the current allocation is efficient from a commercial, economical and conservational standpoint.
By a vote of 9-6, the council approved sending Amendment 28 out for public hearings in all of the Gulf states and selected one of the alternatives for allocation listed in the amendment as its preferred way to address some of the issues. “Encouragingly, the representatives of all five of the Gulf state fishery management agencies voted for this measure,” says a pamphlet from the Coastal Conservation Association that alerts members to the proposed changes.
“Allocation decisions are always contentious and the council should be commended for continuing its efforts to set the allocation based on modern criteria,” it says. “It has been 30 years since this allocation was last set and there will be stiff opposition from the commercial fishing industry, restaurant associations and environmental groups that don’t believe there is sufficient reason to change an allocation that was derived during the Reagan presidency.”
The commercial fishery for red snapper in the Gulf had been consolidated to fewer than 400 commercial harvesters, Angers says. “The federal government has gifted the exclusive right to catch the snapper in perpetuity to these less than 400 Americans. That’s just not what we should be doing with America’s public natural resources.”
The allocation rules have “been rusted shut because federal regulators don’t want to touch it. It is contentious because it’s been that way since the 1980s and it would cause controversy,” he says.
The preferred alternative referenced in the pamphlet was to leave in place the existing 51-49 for the historical high quota of 9 million pounds between the two sectors. Everything beyond the 9 million pounds, the historical high, would be distributed 75 percent recreational and 25 percent commercial, Angers explains.
Last year several Gulf states faced a curtailed snapper season because of fears that recreational anglers had exceeded allotments. Those curtailments wrought economic havoc on businesses that depended on a certain time frame for snapper fishing, says Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga.
“If you’re fishing for snapper and they cut you from 194 calendar days to 27 days and the average person can go maybe three days if the weather’s right, how does somebody justify owning a boat, parking at a marina, paying dock fees and all of the expenses they incur for three or four days a year on the water?” Scott asks.
“It has a tremendous negative economic impact on everyone — from boat dealers to marina owners to a person out there selling bait to people,” he says, adding that one of his boat dealer constituents went from $10 million in annual sales to $2 million because of shortened seasons.
The congressman says he hasn’t fished for snapper in three years “because my schedule just doesn’t let me go the month they decide to open it.”
Scientists have largely agreed that despite using standards that cite a largely depleted species, many say the snapper fishery has actually surpassed levels that restrictions had been set to achieve, says Jeff Gabriel, legislative counsel at the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “So we have a very robust fishery. It’s a dual-use fishery,” for which both commercial and recreational interests are in play.
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.