Snapper bag limits could increase

Published 10:42 pm Thursday, January 14, 2010

Red snapper fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico got a Christmas present this holiday season. Problem is, those anglers won’t be able to open the package for at least a year.

After an update to the red snapper stock assessment late last year, the designation of “overfishing” has been lifted from the Gulf snapper stock. However, the “overfished” designation remains. Therefore, anglers will likely have to wait at least another year before red snapper bag limits and season dates are increased.

Vernon Minton, Director of the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said getting rid of the “overfishing” stigma gives the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council great deal more leeway in the snapper management plan.

“That’s real good news and we can start to look at increased quotas down the road,” Minton said. “Part of the problem, though, because of the success of the program, last year anglers caught less fish but they weighed more. So they still went over the quota by more than a million pounds.”

Minton also explained how the Gulf council uses the definitions of overfishing and overfished.

“Overfishing is a rate of taking that the fishery cannot sustain,” said Minton, also a member of the Gulf council. “Typically, you’ll start out with overfishing and you end up with a stock in an overfished state. Overfished is where you have fished a fishery so long that if it continues that way it would not be able to recover at all. You hit a state where recruitment into the fishery is not going to be there for the future.

“Right now we’ve stopped the overfishing, but we’re still overfished. Since we’re not taking out more than is put in, it should develop the stock. Then at some point there won’t be overfishing and not overfished at the same time.”

Because of the Magnuson-Steven Act, all overfishing had to end by 2010 or more drastic measures would ensue. However, even though overfishing has ended, the Gulf council must still abide by certain guidelines to reach the overall goal of the fishery no longer being overfished.

The Gulf council will meet Feb. 1-4 at the Battle House in Mobile to set the 2010 seasons and bag limits for red snapper and

other reef fish.

“This is the first time in the last 20 years that we’ve considered that red snapper were not undergoing overfishing,” Minton said. “I’d say it’s very promising and hope that the powers that be, primarily NOAA’s Fisheries Service (formerly known as National Marine Fisheries Service), will continue to look at this picture in terms that science is starting to catch up with what the anglers are experiencing. That’s promising. It’s been this way for a long time. It’s just now that science or scientists say they see it, too. Hopefully, now we can move forward.”

Under parameters the Gulf council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee established for “Over Fishing Limit,” the limit would be 9.26 million pounds in 2010 and steadily increase to 11.73 million pounds by 2015.

“The update showed harvest levels were still a bit too high in 2008; however, scientific projections are promising for 2009, indicating that the stock may improve enough to support higher harvest levels,” said Dr. Bonnie Ponwith, Southeast Fisheries Science Center director for NOAA’s Fisheries Service, in a news release. “This is very exciting news and is evidence of how science and management can work together to protect our natural resources.”

The Gulf council is allowed to set the annual quota at 75 percent of the overfishing limit of that year, which ends up as 6.9 million pounds for the combined recreational and commercial sectors in 2010.

Bob Shipp, Chairman of the Gulf council and head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, said when last year’s over-the-quota catch is subtracted, recreational anglers will be disappointed by what remains under the Christmas tree.

“It’s not going to be too much of a present because even though the allowable catch is up 40 percent over last year we were over so much on last year’s quota that it may not translate into to much good news for 2010,” Shipp said. “Because the quota is based on tonnage rather than number of fish caught that’s why the recreational sector went over. The recreational quota was 2.5 million pounds and it looks like it’s coming in at a little more than 4 million pounds. The reason is the bigger fish. The average size went from 3.5 pounds to 5 pounds. We will probably have a similar season and bag limit because of the overruns last year.

“However, the long-term trend I think is very positive. I think the (computer) models are starting to catch up with reality. I don’t think they’re there yet. I still think they way, way underestimate stocks. But the people who run the models are becoming aware of that, so they’re trying to make updates to better reflect reality. The models are starting to appreciate the bigger fish. That’s why the models are starting to look more positive. One of the problems is that the models have said we don’t have enough old fish and too many young fish. If you’ve got too few at the top, models interpret that as those fish have been caught. That’s not necessarily true.”

Shipp insists the information that is plugged into the models is skewed because it comes from fishery dependent sources.

“Commercial guys target small fish because they get a better price,” he said. “When that information is used in the model, the model interprets that as there aren’t enough big fish. We need fishery independent data where you sample the population randomly. Even NMFS is fully aware that that’s the problem.”

Shipp and the USA Marine Sciences Department has been performing snapper-tagging studies off the Alabama coast for years and it is apparent to him and his fellow researchers that the models and reality don’t match.

“Part of our research is we sample artificial structures,” he said. “Many of our tagged fish have been recaptured off of Florida. Florida is seeing more red snapper than ever in the past. We think it’s because of our artificial reefs and our eggs and larvae that have caused that increase.

“Sean Powers on our staff is chairman of the panel that updated the (red snapper stock) assessment and presented the update to the Scientific and Statistical Committee. The committee voted 16-3 to accept the update. Sean has been out with us a dozen times and he knows what’s out there.”

Shipp said Roy Crabtree, southeast regional administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service, admits that somehow the model is missing the huge quantity of red snapper that has shown up off of Florida.

“Dr. Crabtree said somehow or other we’ve got incorporate those fish, too,” Shipp said. “He’s on board, too, a little late in my opinion, but nevertheless, he’s on board. I think he will also push for a new stock assessment. Right now, a stock assessment is not due for four more years. If we could get a stock assessment in 2011 then they’ll be able to incorporate the new information.”

In the meantime, Shipp said that removing the shackles of the overfishing declaration means a great deal to the average Gulf angler.

“It means we are out from under the gun of the 2010 deadline to end overfishing,” he said. “If this update hadn’t come in as well as it did, we would have had to set a quota of 2.5 million pounds. That’s how low we would have had to go under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. That’s commercial and recreational. That’s almost bycatch. It would have been terrible. Now we’ve got a little breathing room.”