Time for State Management of Red Snapper Fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico
(Bob Shipp, PhD, is one of the most respected fishery experts in the nation, with special expertise in reef fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. He’s professor emeritus of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama. He’s also author of the book, Dr. Bob Shipp’s Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, one of the best illustrated fishery guides on the market, available at www.bobshipp.com. Here’s a letter to the editor he penned recently, appearing originally in www.al.com, which we find absolutely on target.)
By Bob Shipp
In all likelihood there have never been as many Gulf Red Snapper in recorded history as there are today. In spite of these soaring populations, a broken system of federal management is precluding what would otherwise be a robust and sustainable economic driver to a regional economy in desperate need of a break.
Last year the recreational season was limited to 9 days in federal waters and this year’s season is 10 days. Just 10 days – with only a single weekend — for anglers in their own boats to catch perhaps the most popular offshore fish in the Gulf.
Conversely, the commercial sector can fish year-round and, under a similar plan approved by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council this year, the charter/for-hire sector will have a 44-day season in 2015.
The glaring inequity of those regulations has rankled everyone from regular anglers to congressmen, yet a solution has remained elusive. The road to this point is roughly 30 years in the making, and there is now virtually no escape from it under federal management.
I served on the Gulf Council for 18 years and encountered countless elected officials in Washington, D.C., and in the Gulf states wrestling mightily over the red snapper conundrum, but all ran into insurmountable roadblocks under the federal system. This year, recognizing that a system that produces results like what we are seeing today is unacceptable, the state fishery management agencies from all five Gulf states did something extraordinary – they came together to produce a viable way out of this mess.
Under a plan unveiled in March, the states have offered to take over management of the red snapper fishery and have outlined exactly how such management would be carried out. Their plan recognizes that there are regional populations of snapper that are fished differently according to local tradition and practice, and would have the flexibility to manage them in different ways.
For example, off Alabama our research indicates we could have a six-month season with a two-snapper bag limit without making a dent in the population. This is due to our extensive artificial reef program. Such flexibility is impossible under federal management, which tends to treat red snapper as one stock, fished one way.
The state fishery management agencies all have seats on the Gulf Council and know that snapper management is at a dead-end under the current system. Responsible for commercial and recreational fisheries in their state waters, they know there are far more efficient and equitable ways to manage this fishery. The system has the same goals as federal management, but the means to reach those ends recognize that one size does not fit all.
The individual Gulf states all know how to provide access to their citizens while managing for conservation of wildlife resources, but rarely do they all agree on anything. The significance of their cooperation here cannot be over-estimated.
Faced with an untenable situation, they have come together to offer the one path out of the manufactured mess of federal management. I encourage Congress to take it.