Snapper situation still not solved

Published 10:46 pm Thursday, February 18, 2010

For the first time in years, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted at its February meeting in Mobile to raise the total allowable catch (TAC) for red snapper. Unfortunately, that will not translate into immediate relief for the beleaguered recreational sector and its charter boat fleet.

In fact, the 2010 red snapper season will be the shortest on record, according to Roy Crabtree, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries Service’s Southeast Region. To keep the recreational sector from going over its quota, which it did last year by more than a million-and-a-half pounds, Crabtree said the season will likely run from 51 to 60 days with a start date of June 1. A final season closing date will not determined until May, Crabtree said. The TAC was raised from 5 million pounds to 6.945 million pounds with a 51-percent split going to the commercial sector and the remainder to the recreational sector.

“We do not have all of our recreational catch estimates from last year, but from the preliminary estimates, that’s about what it would mean,” Crabtree said of the shortened season. “The only reason we’re able to allow the TAC to start going up is the projection that overfishing should have ended. I think that’s a big accomplishment. It’s something the council has been trying to do for many, many years and this is the first time we seemed to have succeeded.

“In theory, the TAC should go up every year. Of course, that is contingent on us not exceeding the quota. We have had some very large overruns the last few years in the recreational sector. We need to correct that problem. If we can stay within the 6.945 million pounds then the council could come back in and increase the TAC next year and it could keep increasing each year. Ultimately, it will be somewhere in the 13- to 14-million pound range, which is higher than anything we’ve had in a long, long time.”

Crabtree said the reason the TAC is going up is the size of the fish is getting bigger. As the stock recovers, the proportion of the stock made up of older fish, which are larger on average, will increase.

“The problem is that as the fishing gets better, more people are able to limit out and more people go fishing,” he said. “There are all kinds of complicating factors involved.”

Johnny Greene, captain of the charter boat Intimidator out of Orange Beach and a member of the Gulf Council, said he’s encouraged to finally see the TAC go up after all many years of reductions. He also said it’s hard for him to explain the regulatory process to his customers, who experience just how good the snapper fishing is off the Alabama coast.

“It’s hard to relay that to people in a manner that people can understand,” Greene said. “It seems to a lot of people that common sense is not involved. Obviously, the shorter season doesn’t sit well at all. It’s one of those things that everybody is seeing tremendous fish stocks out there. The fishery is coming back, but it’s hard for people to understand that it’s a rebuilding thing. The size of the fish is a concern, because the larger the fish the larger the poundage and the shorter the season. That’s something we’re really going to have to look at.”

Gulf Council Chairman Bob Shipp, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, echoed Greene’s concerns about using weight as a determining factor for the health of fish stocks.

“This issue of the size of individual fish has pretty much wiped out the (TAC) gains,” Shipp said. “I think the direction we want to go is to change the way we evaluate the quota and put it in terms of numbers of fish rather than weight. Weight is simply a proxy anyway for fishing pressure. A much better way of measuring fishing pressure is the percentage of fish you catch. That would eliminate this problem of the fish getting larger. I’m beginning to see a push in that direction. Eventually, that would be a big plus.

“I think for the 2011 fishing season, there are several things on the horizon that could help. One of them is to lower the minimum size from 16 to 13 inches. First of all, that’s what the commercial minimum size is. There’s always been conflict about the difference in minimum sizes. Plus, you will reduce the number of discards (undersized fish returned to the water). Thirdly, you would reduce the size of the fish if we’re still wedded to this weight parameter. If you go to a 13-inch size limit, you’re going to insert a few smaller fish. Now it’s true there might be some high-grading. But if you reduce the average to 4.5-pounds, it would increase the season by two weeks.”

A move away from the survey method of determining fish stocks would also increase the reliability of the data collected, according to Shipp.

“I see in the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries Service) a greater willingness to move toward the fishery independent data source,” he said. “I think they’re finally beginning to believe what the fishermen have been telling them – there are a lot more fish out there, especially off the west coast of Florida. Incorporating this additional data would make the (computer) models far more accurate and reduce the uncertainty.”

Capt. Ben Fairey, president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association, said the charter industry desperately needs more time on the water.

“I’ve been fishing for 37 years and the red snapper fishing is better than I’ve ever seen it,” Fairey said. “The average size keeps going up so our season is going to be shorter. We caught about the same number of fish, about 700,000 individuals, in 2008 as we did in 2009. But we went over by almost 2 million pounds. It’s like a double-edged sword. It’s great that the fishery has rebounded, but the fish are getting so big. That’s something the council is going to have to address. One of the things I want is the option of a 13-inch minimum explored. One school of thought is that if we drop it to 13 inches, which is was at one time, your discard mortality will drop. Also, the dolphin interaction will slow up.

“Between the economy and the regulations, it’s a tough, tough time for the charter industry. We need longer seasons.”