Sunday, March 30, 2014

RED SNAPPER ANGLERS EMBARRASS US ALL

This week, red snapper anglers down in the Gulf of Mexico, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, got spanked by a federal judge and—of all people—a bunch of commercial fishermen who sued to uphold the Magnuson Act.

I met some responsible commercial fishermen when I served on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.  But I can say with some confidence that it wasn’t anglers who wiped out our groundfish back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, nor was it anglers who killed off most of the fluke at about the same time.

So when I hear that the commercial guys went to court to stop “my side” from killing too many snapper, it’s just a little embarrassing.

I understand that red snapper are tough to manage.  They live long, mature late and, even at the best of times, are far less abundant than northern groundfish could be.  Because they bunch up on structure; where you catch one, you usually catch a lot more.  As a result, they have been badly overfished by both commercial and recreational fishermen.

Early efforts to restore the stock bore little fruit.  Anglers placed blame on the shrimp trawlers, who killed a lot of juvenile snapper.  First, they sued to require “bycatch reduction devices.”  The shrimpers lost that round, and sort-of complied, but still killed a lot of little snapper.

The anglers sued again, further restricting the trawlers.  Again, they won.  And again, the snapper moved forward slowly.

The National Marine Fisheries Service revised the snapper management plan in 2008, and set a rebuilding deadline in 2032 (yes, to a full 24 years). 

The recreational harvest limit dropped from 4.47 million to just 2.45 million pounds in 2009, while season length was cut by two-thirds, but anglers still overfished their quota by more than 50%.  In the succeeding years, anglers overfished by as much as 88%; the only exception was 2010, when the BP oil spill halted fishing.

Throughout that time, commercial fishermen had a slightly higher quota—they’re allocated 51% of total landings.  Because they fish under a catch share program, their harvest was predictable and they didn’t overfish a single time.  Catch share programs have their flaws, but they keep overfishing under control.

Suddenly, anglers in the Gulf had a problem.  They had a history of conserving other people’s fish by imposing bans on the use of various nets, and outlawing the sale of various species.  In the case of red snapper, they had already sued over shrimp trawls.

Any time some fish stock fell ill, they blamed the commercial guys.  If someone could just stop them from overfishing, and lift their gear from the water, all would be right with the world.

But this time, commercial harvest was under control.  It was time for the anglers to cut back on their own kill for a change, because red snapper were being overfished by—and only by—recreational fishermen.  Given that undeniable fact, the recreational snapper fishermen…began attacking everyone.  According to them:

NMFS is the problem, because it doesn’t understand anglers and is trying to force them off the water.
Scientists are the problem, because they say that a bigger harvest would be bad for the fish.
The Marine Recreational Information Program, which estimates recreational catch, is the problem, because it overstates anglers’ landings.
Environmentalists are the problem, because they are trying new things to recover the stock and keep anglers from overfishing.
Commercial fishermen are the problem, just because they exist.
If you believe the red snapper anglers, the only people who don’t seem to be the problem are the red snapper anglers themselves, and they are the ones killing too many fish

Federal regulations don’t apply in state waters, so anglers in Texas convinced state regulators to write their own rules.  Texas set its bag limit at 4, its size limit at 15” and has no closed season; in federal waters, the bag is 2, the size 16” and the season last for just 40 days.  That was nice for anglers in Texas, but bad for everyone else, who had to their harvest cut to make up for the Texas fishermen’s excesses.

By law, fishermen are accountable for their overages, but NMFS never did much to keep Gulf red snapper anglers from chronically overfishing.  Biologists suggested a 20% buffer between the annual catch limit—the amount fishermen were permitted to land—and the annual catch target used to set the regulations.  Such buffer would accommodate the “management uncertainty” that led to overfishing.  But anglers opposed it, and NMFS gave in to their cries.

Anglers argued that NMFS overestimated their catch, and they called for a better survey.  When NMFS unveiled the improved MRIP survey, it turned out that the old data probably had been wrong.  Anglers probably killed even more red snapper than NMFS had believed.

To fishermen, the new data was clearly “bad,” because it would lead to a shorter overall season—“good” data lets anglers kill more fish.  NMFS eventually agreed, and replaced the MRIP estimate with a “good” number, even though overfishing would inevitably occur.

In a recent article describing the situation, David Sikes (who happens to be the President of the Texas Outdoor Writers’ Association), wrote in the Corpus Christi (TX) Caller-Times that the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the organizations representing the red snapper anglers

“is behaving like a parent who would rather be friends with their kids (members) than make the difficult and unpopular decision to keep them in line.”
I don’t quite agree.  The National Marine Fisheries Service is really the overindulgent parent; groups such as CCA—and the folks who represent and speak for them—are more like spoiled children. 

So the commercial fishermen took the brats to the woodshed and sued, not to get more fish, but merely to prevent anglers from again killing more than their share, and thus harming the snapper’s recovery.

The commercial folks won in a walk.  The case, decided in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, was Guindon v. Pritzker.  The court’s decision included the following language:

“…To summarize the sequence of events:  (1) In July 2013, the Council proposed increasing the 2013 quota and suggested reopening the season in the fall, contingent on there being unused quota available; (2) in early August, NMFS published a proposal discussing the possibility of reopening the season, contingent on available quota; (3) in late August, NMFS received MRIP landings estimates indicating an overage that exceeded both the current and proposed quota; (4) NMFS reopened the fall season anyway…
“The administrative record is replete with references to the high degree of management uncertainty in the recreational sector, as compared to the commercial sector, which had none…NMFS administrator Roy Crabtree described the recreational sector’s particular management uncertainties to the Council’s Reef Fish Management Committee in January 2013, and to the full Council in June 2013…All this evidence of high management uncertainty explains why the SSC recommended a 20 percent buffer for the recreational sector.  The Council well understood this.  In the July Framework Action, the Council discussed the SSC’s buffer recommendation as one possible alternative…Yet the Council rejected the buffer, while proposing no other accountability measures for the recreational sector, and NMFS approved the Council proposal…”
In other words, the anglers threw a tantrum when told to behave so NMFS, not wanting to hear them scream any more, gave in.  Fortunately, there was another adult in the room, garbed in the robes of a federal judge, and the proper discipline was imposed.

Yet what was truly shocking was the anglers’ response.  On March 28, the Coastal Conservation Association characterized the decision by saying “Ruling Against Recreational Angling Confirms Federal Fisheries Management System Broken” (http://www.joincca.org/articles/656).

And then it went on:

“In a case brought by commercial fishermen, seafood processors and trade groups closely associated with the Environmental Defense Fund, a federal district judge acknowledged this week that federal management of recreational anglers is deeply flawed and in need of overhaul. The lawsuit essentially challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service’s policy of setting hard quotas for the recreational sector without timely or reliable means to manage to such a standard…”

Having read the opinion, I have to say that’s a bit of a stretch, and spun so hard that reality got a little distorted along the way.  But it gets worse.

“After decades of mismanagement, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper population rebounded wildly after successful efforts by recreational anglers to reduce juvenile red snapper mortality in shrimp trawls in the mid-2000s. As the red snapper population increased, the recreational sector began to catch more and larger fish, and thus met their outdated quota faster. Even with recreational seasons that were as short as 27 days, the lawsuit alleged that ‘it became commonplace for the recreational sector to exceed its quota by a large margin even though individual anglers followed the rules.’”

In CCA’s particular universe, red snapper problems were the shrimp trawls’ fault, and that was inexcusable.  But anglers only exceed their quota because the quota is “outdated,” and the fact that “it became commonplace for the recreational sector to exceed its quota by a large margin” is somehow OK because “individual anglers followed the rules.”

Even thought the same “individual anglers” fought against newer, potentially more effective rules…

Fantasy is confused with fact.  Chester Brewer, Chairman of CCA’s National Government Relations Committee, actually stated that

 “It is no longer theoretical – we are in a situation now in which the red snapper population is as healthy as it has ever been, and recreational anglers may be unable to access it for more than a few days due to an inadequate management system and a ridiculously outdated allocation.”

That’s demonstrably wrong.  It’s not even debatable.  Far from being “as healthy as it has ever been,” the red snapper stock remains overfished (http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sustainable_fisheries/gulf_fisheries/red_snapper/overview/), and even when fully “recovered,” will retain just 26% of its spawning potential. 

(I’m not picking on CCA here; they're just the most active player in the game.  Another “anglers’ rights” group, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, has made comments that are nearly as bad http://joinrfa.org/2013/06/62613-red-snapper-wars-come-to-washington/.)
  
I know a lot of the folks involved.  Many are very good, very bright people, but when red snapper issues arise, they seem to take leave of their senses.

Personally, I don’t understand what all of the fuss is about.  I have caught red snapper.  Functionally, if not biologically, they're little more than a big scup (i.e., northern porgy) with a sunburn.  Like scup, they’re not sought for their fight; they appeal largely to headboats and folks out to fill coolers. 

Yet despite all the fuss, they’re not even a big recreational target.  Only about 2% of the fish caught and about 2% of the fish killed by recreational anglers in Gulf-coast Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana (Texas doesn’t participate in the federal catch estimate program) last year were red snapper.  Twenty years ago, the percentages were about the same.  Current regulations haven’t reduced anglers’ landings; because federal management has had some success, anglers actually took home more than twice the red snapper—measured in pounds—than they did in 1993.

Even so, they're dissatisfied.

If the thoughtless, self-serving demands of Gulf-states fishermen only affected red snapper, I would have discussed something else today.  But the antics surrounding that one southern groundfish can—and very possibly will—hurt anglers on every shore of the United States.

Commercial fishermen will probably use the decision in Guindon v. Pritzker to punish anglers when the opportunity arises.  I can easily see them trying to penalize us in the Mid-Atlantic, should we overfish black sea bass or fluke.  Recreational fishermen, everywhere on the coast, risk being tarred with the same brush as the red snapper anglers, even for inadvertent overages rather than the kind of chronic and predictable overfishing that takes place in the Gulf.

On a larger scale, the red snapper fishermen down in the Gulf are now trying to gut the conservation and rebuilding requirements of the Magnuson Act—America’s federal fisheries law, and the finest such law in the world—so that they can kill a few more fish.

They want to take management authority for important recreational species away from NMFS and hand it over to the states.  That way, there will be no inconvenient federal law forcing managers to use the best available science and rebuild overfished stocks.

They may want Louisiana and Texas to manage their snapper, but I’m not sure that any of us wants Maine and Massachusetts to manage or cod stocks, or New Jersey and North Carolina to manage our fluke… 

They want to end current rebuilding deadlines—24 years doen't seem long enough—so that they can continue to overharvest and abuse a public resource and maybe never fully restore the stock.  Their counterparts up here tried that with summer flounder, but Magnuson prevailed and we have more and bigger fluke than we could have hoped for ten years ago.  Thanks to Magnuson, our sea bass and scup are doing well, too.  

So, to those red snapper anglers in the Gulf, I say this:

As sportsmen, you’re an embarrassment.  You make us all look bad when you sound just like the boys up in Gloucester, out to kill the last cod.

As advocates, you’re dangerous.  You want to change the law so you can kill too much snapper.  But the law is just fine--just like it is--for those of us who want to rebuild cod stocks.  And the folks who hope that their kids—and if not them, then their grandkids—might still catch winter flounder.  It's fine for the guys on the Pacific coast who want rockfish restored.

You emphasize the short term, and what you might kill next year; those of us who care about the future find that not only frightening, but remarkably dumb.

Maybe it’s just a matter of age.  You’re getting a lot of gray hairs now.  So you can have your fun and leave rebuilding our fish stocks, just like fixing the national debt and living with too much CO2 in the air, as problems for your kids and your grandkids to address when you're gone.

That wouldn’t be right, but you stopped worrying about “right” a number of years ago.

Or maybe you’re just myopic, and can’t see past your own problems.  You neither know nor care that we don’t have red snapper on Long Island, or off Cape Cod or Point Reyes or in Prince William Sound, and you can’t get your head around the fact that what you do down there can affect folks everywhere else on the coast.  And are you so self-indulgent that you won't fish for something else for a couple of years?  Red snapper are only 2% of your landings; isn’t the other 98% enough?

It’s well past time for you all to get your heads out of the Gulf—or wherever else they've been stuck these days—and come back to reality.  The earth does not revolve around red snapper, and it certainly doesn’t revolve around you.  So consider the chance that you might be wrong, sit down, shut up and just think for a while.

Things need to change.

Because right now, you’re embarrassing—and threatening—us all.


26 comments:

  1. I think you are off base here. There is no way the recs catch in 11 days what the commercials catch in 365 days. And the population of Red Snapper is way better today than in the 80's and 90's. At least in our part of the world (Mississippi). I think all the States should do like Texas and tell the Feds to go F themselves.

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    1. The 2013 recreational season was longer than 11 days--11 days is what's proposed for this year, and I think that you're right. Recs will catch a lot fewer fish in 11 days. On the other hand, remember that there are only about 400 active commercial snapper fishermen, and millions of recs (not all of whom, of course, fish for red snapper). But the recreational fishery is a "derby" fishery in which a lot of people go out at the same time, trying to get their fish before the season closes, and even though they catch by 1s and 2s, the numbers can add up.

      I think that you're right about the fishing being better today than it was in the '90s. I fished for red snapper in the western Gulf in the mid-'90s, and even though there were a lot of fish, just about everything was small, anbd that's a sign of a weak population. The NMFS numbers bear that out, too. Despite the short season, anglers are catching nearly twice the red snapper that they caught 20 years ago, are keeping about 20% more, and the fish kept are more than twice as large, so folks are bringing home a lot more fillets, even in that short period. We have to admit that the numbers are very rough--the short season hurts the accuracy quite a bit--but the trend seems reasonable.

      As far as Texas telling the feds to F themselves, the truth is, they're F-ing you and everyone else in the Gulf. All of those fish they're catching in their 365 day season are being deducted from what is available to you--it's a pretty serious act of selfishness. And remember, their territorial sea goes out to close to 10 miles due to old Spanish land grants; yours only goes out 3. So even if Mississippi had the same sort of season, Texas would still be taking away from everyone else.

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  2. Oh, and this court action only acts to embarrass our Federal Government, showing how Politics gets in the way of common sense management. Yes the management is very flawed, so get rid of the management and put something in that works. Don't make it so one sided that it makes you look stupid.

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    1. I agree that the court decision embarrasses the Feds, and that politics got in the way, because the feds should have put in the 20% buffer that the Gulf SSC recommended despite the Council's rejection--but the politics of snapper didn't let that happen.

      I'm not sure what you call "common sense" management, but to me it's "common sense" to rebuild the stock, and you're not close to that yet. You've got a lot more fish than you did, but your size structure is still pretty weak--it's not bad in the western Gulf, but in the east--which includes Mississippi--fish more than 10 years old are still hard to come by, which leaves you with a very brittle spawning stock that could be wiped out if you get a few consecutive years of poor recruitment.

      We went through the same thing with summer flounder up here that you're going through with red snapper down there. We heard the same arguments--"more fish than any time in the last 30 years," "bad data," bad MRFFS", "we need common sense" etc. But folks stayed the course, and the summer flounder fishing now is pretty spectacular. But summer flounder start spawning at 2 and live for about 20 years; red snapper aren't contributing much to the spawning stock until they are at least 7, and can live to be 55, so your recovery is going to take a lot longer, and there will always be fairly restrictive rules, because that's what you need to manage a late-maturing, long-lived fish.

      On the other hand, I do think that different management approaches could be tried, which might work a lot better. One possibility might be managing them like big game on land--you have a lottery for tags, and get them ahead of time. Some people might not get tags even though they want them, but the folks who get them can fish at any time during the year. I'm not saying that I endorse that kind of idea--and note that I'm not saying that folks buy or bid on the tags, but merely enter a lottery to get them--but its an example of the kind of "outside the box" management that folks should be thinking about.

      I'm not being one-sided about this really--I'm a pretty hard core fisherman, and as I've said, I like to come south and fish for groundfish myself when I can--but there is a time to try to work with the managers while you're finding a better way to do things. I'm not sure if you realize how bad the snapper anglers look to folks elsewhere on the coast--your arguments and your approach to management sound just like the commercial groundfish guys up in New England, and their about the hungriest, most irresponsible guys on the coast.

      Everyone here should try to find a middle ground, but it doesn't seem as if that's happening.

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  3. I really liked your article, except it has some flaws. I'm a deep sea captain in North Florida to give you some background. I know the gulf VERY well. You're saying leave the red snapper alone, well that's exactly the problem! There is too many snapper. They have taken over every wreck and live bottom spot every where! 2 percent, you are way off! Also, out of the 40 days last year, it rained 30 of those days. Not 1 person I know of has ever been asked about catching red snapper. They say over fished, I say way under fished! There are only a 3rd of the captains that were here 8 years ago! Let me tell you what regulates fishing! Gas prices, weather, the awful economy, and the ridiculous regulations! That's just my 2 cents.

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    1. Appreciate your thoughts.

      Are there too many snapper? How do you judge that? There are certainly fewer fish than there would be in an unfished stock, and you could argue that's the "natural" abundance. Of course, everything else is fished down, too, so proportionately they may seem abundant.

      The problem is that no one alive today has probably ever seen a healthy snapper stock--or, if they have, they're getting pretty old. We're dealing with the classic "shifting baseline syndrome"; that is, we judge the health of a stock by what we've seen in our lifetime, which may be very different from what the snapper stock would look like at 26% SPR. We went through that sort of thing with summer flounder up here--everyone said "it's the best in 40 years" without thinking that maybe the last 40 years didn't show the fish at its best. But managers stayed the course, and now we have a really spectacular fishery. I don't know whether you ever had a chance to read this http://www.fisheriessociety.org/proofs/red/hood.final.pdf but it suggests that even with sailing vessels and the primitive gear available at the time, some areas off western Florida were already being overfished in the late 1800s, and also shows the big increase in recreational landings since 1945. I'm guessing that if we really want to set a benchmark, 1945 might be a good year to pick, but I'll leave that up to the fisheries scientists.

      The 2% comes right out of the NMFS harvest estimates for the Gulf, excluding Texas. Maybe its right, maybe its wrong, but it's subject to the same methodology used for any other species. If you're a professional captain, they may be more important to you--for hire boats take more fish than the private guys do--but overall, the numbers support the 2% figure. On the other hand, MRIP suggests that MRFSS undereestimated landings, so maybe you're right. But we really can't say unless someone produces better data.

      If you want to see something interesting, compare what's happening with red snapper in the Gulf today with what happened up our way with summer flounder. I used to be pretty friendly with the former Government Relations Committee Chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association, and we often spoke about the parallels between the two fisheries, down to the comments being made by the participants. And now, I hear a lot of folks trying to make all of the same mistakes we made, including individual state quotas (if you don't live in Texas, you don't want that one, believe me).

      Again, I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for posting.

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  4. The person who wrote this sounds like a complete idiot. Calling people names isn't a good way to go about proving a point. You have failed miserably but may get some publicity out of this by pissing people off. You are the Miley Cyrus of freelance writers. We are all dumber for having read this, you are awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

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    1. Did you ever think of how stupid the red snapper rhetoric coming out of the Gulf sounds to the rest of the country? The fishermen, the fishermen's groups, many of the outdoor writers and some of the politicians all sound like a bunch of spoiled kids upset that they aren't allowed to eat any candy before dinner.

      Yes, I might piss people off, but I've been involved in fisheries issues since striped bass crashed in the 1970s, and I don't think that I have ever seen commercial fishermen go to court before to keep recreational guys from overfishing a stock. The fact that such a thing could happen pissed me off.

      You disagree with my position, that's fine. But it would be nice if you produced some facts to demonstrate why I was wrong. Otherwise, you just sound like...well, a complete idiot, who shoots off his mouth without knowing what he is talking about.

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  5. You are way off base here. when you wrote this line, I about sharted in my pants laughing. "Throughout that time, commercial fishermen had a slightly higher quota—they’re allocated 51% of total landings. Because they fish under a catch share program, their harvest was predictable and they didn’t overfish a single time. "

    So, are you telling em the commercial fisherman who was caught finning thousands of sharks, never caught more than his share of red snapper? Do you honestly think that the commercial fisherman are not selling through the backdoor to fish houses. It is truly a free for all.

    If the Red Snapper is so depleted (which they are not) then why not close the whole season off to everyone, recreational and commercial. that would stop the sueing and fighting. Cant put the blame on the recs or commercials, if they can neither one keep any red snappers.

    In your article you admit that groundfish are different from the GoM and the northeast. why is this? I would have to assume its because Red Snapped dont migrate 1000's of miles each year. So how is Texas really hurting us here in florida? They are not catching our fish, they are catching theirs. Maybe some from Louisianna on the borders, but surely not from Florida. But since Texas did what they did, Florida's fish catch is reduced. That makes perfect sense. About as much as the rest of your article. I agree with the rest of the replies. You are way offbase, and pretty much dont know what your talking about. Do your part in the red snapper restoration, and keep your butt groundfishing up north, that way, your 2 red snappers from a few years ago will go to a local.

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    1. The issue isn't whether commercial fishermen fin sharks. They do. They might also strangle babies and have unnatural relations with barnyard animals. But that has nothing to do with the fact that a catch share program makes it easier to regulate landings.

      Do some cheat and sell fish through the back door? Certainly. Do recreational guys poach fish--and sell a bunch, too? They certainly do up here, and I doubt that they're all angels down there. There are plenty of slimeballs on both sides. But as far as the semi-legitimate catch goes, it's the recreational side that is most difficulkt to regulate.

      The red snapper isn't in bad enough shape to close the fishery. it's actually recovering nicely. But it has a long way to go, and each side needs to stay within their quotas. On the rec side, that probably means that a 20% buffer is needed to control the "management uncertainty" inherent in the estimates. Both sides should be able to harvest fish, they just need to stay within their quotas. I know what it's like; we went through about the same thing with summer flounder, and heard most of the same arguments coming out of the Gulf right now. Recovery is tough, but a recovered stock is a good thing.

      Groundfish are different from snapper because there are just--assuming a healthy stock--a lot more of them. In southern waters, you have high biodiversity--a lot of different kinds of fish--but relatively low biomass. We have high biomass but low biodiversity. Our waters are more fertile than yours; that's why whales tend to feed close to the poles, there's just a lot more plankton and such, and, that can support more finfish. Migration has nothing to do with it; our groundfish migrate, at most, a couple of hundred miles, not thousands. And we have other fish such as tautog that are structure-dependent, and suffer a lot of the same ills as snapper.

      Texas hurts you because NMFS manages Gulf red snapper as a single stock, with a single recreational quota. So when Texas has a 4-fish bag, 15" size limit and year-round season, all of the "extra" fish caught in Texas are deducted from what everyone else can catch in federal waters, making their season shorter. Now that Florida is also going well out of compliance, the poor folks in Alabama and Mississippi (and maybe Louisiana, if the /Coast Guard chooses to enforce the rules more than 3 miles from shore) are going to have their season shortened even further as a result.

      Although you don't believe it,l I know exactly what I'm talking about. I read most of the working papers from the last stock assessment, and am very familiar with the science behind the fishery.

      Can you say the same?

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  6. From another forum on this terrible article:

    My job is to do hydrographic surveys of the GoM. I can promise you that Florida has many many more man made reefs, they just were not made by the state, and are not public. The Gulf is littered with 100's of thousands manmade objects that have been thrown overboard over the years to attract bottom fish, as well as belagics. This list includes:

    Tractors
    Cars
    Trucks
    Railroad Cars
    Old Barges
    Chicken Coops **Personal favorite***
    Tire Piles
    Concrete pipes, and various other piping material.
    Big rocks
    Shopping carts
    Motor blocks
    Bent rims and wheels
    Crop combines,
    Bulldozers
    Back hoes
    Hundreds of junk bicycles
    Cinder blocks
    Scrap metal welded into some sort of awful masterpiece, then pushed overboard on a skid.

    I could go on for days telling you everything I have seen down there. The practice of toting out anything and everything that would last a little while in salt water was in heavy use for the last 50 years. Until recently, there were little to no restrictions onto what you could dump into the water.

    The reason that the data is flawed is due mainly to 3 key things...

    1. They are wanting to return the red snapper stock to what it was in the 1950s. Ok, so what exactly was it in the 1950s? How accurate was the data? How was it measured? Again, I do hydrographic surveys and data testing for a living. I can tell you for certain, any and all data taken in 1950s would be considered null and void in today's standards for surveying or engineering and laboratory testing.

    2. As mentioned earlier ITT, snapper have a natural tendency to hold to structure. In the 1950s, there wasn't a lot of man made structure in the GoM like there is today. This man made structure is more desirable living habitat for the Red Snapper, so naturally, they flock to it. The current data collection process throws out any aggregate count from manmade structure. This is pretty simple to understand, it would be like the Federal Government stating that they want to return the population of humans living in tents or log cabins in the Midwest to what it was in the early 1700s. This is unachievable, as humans now live in houses, not tents. Does that mean that the Midwest has less population now than in the early 1700s? No, it just means that fewer humans want to live in log cabins or tents in the Midwest. We will never be able to return the tent living civilizations to the number in the 1700s.
    Back to point #1, what is the actual number we are trying to achieve? Its hard to reach a goal, when you don't have clearly defined goals. It's all subjective, and at best, a semi-educated guess based on fishing tales and some pictures. (Fishermen have lied for years about their catch, and fishing spots have always been considered sacred)

    3. Where are the current Recreational fish numbers coming from? I live in Panama city, and I am around lots of fishermen every day. Not a single one of them has been questioned about Red Snapper catches in the last 5 years, yet the Feds think they have a pretty accurate number of what people are actually catching. They are pulling numbers out of their @$$.

    My proposal is, if they are truly depleted (which I know for a fact they are not), then shut down the season for 2 years, and no one- not recreational or commercial- can keep red snappers. I know this will never happen, because the commercials are the ones getting the favors from the Feds.

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    1. Some interesting points are raised. To address them in order:

      1. You don't need data from the 1950s. The potential of a stock can be determined from its natural mortality rate and the fecundity of the stock. Given that red snapper live to be more than 50 years old, and given that they don't begin to contribute much to the spawning stock until they reach the age of 7, you can get a pretty good idea of what the stock should look like without reference to the 1950s--although you can guess that, back in the 1950s, the stock was probably healthy.

      2. Dr. Bob Shipp, who is employed, I believe, by the University of South Alabama, has published papers making essentially this argument related to man-made structure. It and many other working papers were considered during the SEDAR process leading up to the most recent stock assessment. The consensus of fishery professionals which reviewed the papers led to the current assessment of the health of the stock. As far as your question as to the number that biologists are trying to achieve, it is not at all based on fishing tales and pictures, but rather on the sort of information that I referred to in Point #1. That aside, you can get a pretty good idea of the health of the stock from the stock structure itself. Does the stock contain a wide variety of age and size classes, or are most of the fish relatively young? In the eastern Gulf of Mexico, few fish are more than 10 years of age; for red snapper, which can grow to more than 50 years, that is a very poor, truncated stock structure, and indicates tht the recovery has a long way to go.

      3. The best way to answer this question is to recommend that you google "MRIP". The explanation of the way harvest is estimated is set forth there. If you have a better estimate of the numbers than MRIP can provide, then they would probably love to know what that estimate is and the methodology you used to calculate it. However, if you can't come up with the "right" number, then you're not really in a position to say that the current estimate is "wrong". You only know that you don't like it.

      And, once again , there is no need to shut the fishery down. The snapper aren't depleted, they are actually recovering. Some harvest can and should be allowed; however, that harvest has to be constrained within sustainable limits. That can be done, if people are willing to work toward a reasonable answer, and spend some time listening instead of just demanding a bigger kill.

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  7. You need to stick to what you know, groundfish in the North. I have been fishing (recreationally) for Red Snapper for over 40 years. In that time the fishery did suffer, but I can tell you from first hand experience that the Red Snapper population in federal waters off Texas have 1.) Never been healthier and 2.) never have had and avg catch size any larger than we are having now. In the early 90's I would have to release 10 undersize before I would get a legal size fish, last year my I only had maybe 1 undersize fish caught per trip and the avg size was in the 14-18 lb range. bad enough that the bag limit is 2 fish but now the 2014 season was just reduced to 9 days! Government overreach at it's finest.

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    1. The fish in the western Gulf are bouncing back far better than those farther east, but the fact that the fishing is better doesn't mean that it can't get a lot better; you're in the same place with snapper that we were with summer flounder halfway through the recovery, with folks saying that it was the best fishing since the 1950s, but not realizing just how good it could ultimately be. What you say just demonstrates that federal management is working, and shows the promise of where we can end up if we just stay the course. On the other hand, like any structure-dependent fish, they're always going to be most abundant when the season first opens; right now your seasons are short, so the abundance holds up through the closure, but bang on them for four or five months straight and watch them disappear. You see that off Florida now, with fish a lot tougher to catch at the end of the season. The guides try to tell people that they're "getting smart", which sounds a lot better than "getting scarce," although that's a little closer to the truth.

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  8. Mr Charles just found your site by doing a Google search about red snapper fishing in NC. Back before my dad passed away he told me that putting a limit on fish you catch even on a head boat would hurt fishing. I have seen with my own eyes he was correct. Fishing will never be like it was when i was young back in the 70s and 80s.

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  9. If you really want to manage the Red Snapper. Every Seafood Distributor, Restaurant, Fish Market, Etc.. Needs to ACCURATLY (Under Heavy Fines) record the weight and or amount of Red Snapper they purchase. They also need to ACCURATLY record the total lbs. they throw away due to Spoilage and improper handling or simply over purchased. Regulations can be passed for a period of time to Track what is caught, what is sold and what they waste. You would really be surprised. Go see what a supermarket fish counter trashes. I used to buy this wasted fish and turn it into chum. I did it for three years till my freezer broke. The first time I could not get the scraps for a month. I was told during the second week they had 20 lbs. for me. At the end of a month when I picked it up there was 186 pounds. Not one bone but Filets and chunks. This was everything from Chilean sea bass to squid heads. Three 10 pound bags of squid heads. Some lobster tails various snappers, groupers and just about any fish you see on a menu. Back then the waste was just appalling in the commercial markets. That's what gets counted, just their catch not their waste. But who can fault them? The Federal Government in destroying old rigs killed and wasted tons. We have all seen the Photos and videos. I got disgusted when they lowered the commercial size limits to 13.5 inches a few years before they closed it totally in the Atlantic years ago. I gave up my Salt Water products license my HMS permit and parked the boat. Over the last 4 years I have seen more Red Snapper then ever in my life. Still the restrictions get more idiotic each year. The reasoning gets more scatter brained, ridicules and deceptive. I really believe this administration is behind all of this. They are controlling our Fuel, insurance, auto and home industries, the medical industry, and the food industry.
    They are making us more dependent by means of regulations and directives. The Fisheries and NOAA need to be brought to heel.

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    1. Agreed that the waste in retail outlets, and to some extent wholesale outlets, can be bad. I used to run lobster traps, and got a lot of my bait the same way that you got your chum.

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  10. I jave a couple questions about your post.

    1. How do you explain the size structure being better in the western gulf with Texas having the state season that they do?

    2. If all the artificial structure were removed ( they are working on removing a large chunk of it now), what would the population of red snapper population look like if they were all moved to natural bottom (virgin stocks didnt have oil rigs available as habitat)?

    3. Would it not be easier to place a slot limit on them? Larger fish are generally targeted in deeper water than smaller fish. Wouldn't that protect the spawning stock?

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    1. Good questions. Although I don't have all of the research at hand at the moment--I read the SEDAR report and associated papers a year ago, and have been focusing on the political/legal rather than the biological aspects recently--these are my thoughts:

      1. The Texas regulations almost certainly thin out the population within 9 miles of shore, but it's a big Gulf, with a good amount of habitat--natural and artificial--out in federal waters. When I fished red snapper out of Galveston a few years ago, we ran about 50 miles offshore. So Texas can drive down the abundance of its inshore fish, and probably impact fish that might traverse the border between state and federal waters, but given that red snapper, at least until they get fairly large, are generally site-dependent, overfishing inshore won't have a big impact on the fish on offshore structure. Out there, the fish are responding well to the federal management measures, and folks are seeing the result. I think part of the reason is also that the Florida fish have been overfished a lot longer--since the late 1800s--and a lot more intensively; add to that the relative lack of artificial structure off the Florida coast, and it starts to make sense.

      2. If you believe some of the papers that have been produced--I'm thinking particularly of the work done by Dr. Bob Shipp of the University of South Alabama, who has advanced the idea that artificial structure has substantially increased the red snapper carrying capacity of the Gulf--removing that artificial structure will substantially reduce the number of red snapper. I suppose that's the point of the "Old Iron" and "Rigs to Reefs" programs that are currently going on. Or, to look at it from a different angle, all of the debate over the current rules may ultimately prove pointless, because if the carrying capacity of the Gulf declines, you won't have the number of fish that are available today, and even if anglers get everything that they're currently asking for, they can only win a pyrrhic victory. Then again, some anglers are arguing that the feds aren't properly counting the fish on artificial structure, and if that is true, if you lose the artificial structure, the rules won't look very different from what they are now. At the time of the last stock assessment, the papers on the subject, presented as a part of the SEDAR process, didn't seem to have a big impact on the outcome. But it's safe to say that if you lose the artificial structure, you won't have more fish than you have today; intuitively, there should be fewer.

      3. A slot might be worth exploring. Deciding whether it is the right approach, or what a slot would look like, would require biologists to take a long look at the life history of the fish and decide what makes sense. You're dealing with a fish that doesn't make a significant contribution to the spawning stock until it is about 7 years old. If you set the slot to harvest fish less than 7 years old, would enough survive to provide the requisite spawning potential? And what contribution do the largest fish make? There is some suggestion that senescence occurs, and if that is true, it would add another consideration. Maybe the right thing to do is a slot that prevents harvest of fish beginning at age 6 or 7, and ending when senescence occurs--if it does. Lots of questions that would have to be answered. So my reaction is that I wouldn't slam the door on a slot without research on its feasibility, but I wouldn't endorse it without adequate research, either. Slots are tools, and like any tools, have to be used in the right place and in the right way to be effective.

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    2. Looking at your response to #2:

      If their goal is to get red snapper to historical numbers, then their goal has been met. Historical numbers would be the number of fish that the natural bottom of the gulf could support (without artificial structure). If the stocks meet that then they should be considered rebuilt. I'm all for management. I want my grandkids to enjoy fishing offshore as much as I did as a kid but a 9 day federal season is idiotic. There are no (zero) red snapper in state waters where I am in Tampa Bay which effectively make red snapper completely protected in waters offshore. If we have overdosed our limits so badly while the stock has been rebuilding faster than NMFS has projected doesent it seem more feasible that the harvest limits that have been imposed are in error?

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    3. That's only true if you accept Dr. Shipp's position which, as I perhaps didn't note clearly enough, represented a minority view that did not prevail in the stock assessment process.

      The stock assessment ultimately determined that the Gulf red snapper stock is at about 13% of its spawning potential, a level that it last achieved around 1970 or so. The biologists who performed the assessment have set the target spawning potential ratio at 26%m twice the current level and one last achieved in the 1960s. So based on the best available science, the stock is about halfway to being rebuilt, with 2032 the target date for full rebuilding. We should probably also note that the stock was at more than three times current levels--at about 45% spawning potential--as recently as 1950. Thus, it appears that the natural bottom in the Gulf has historically supported a larger spawning stock biomass than is present today.

      How could that be? I can't say that I have the answer, but here are two possibilities:

      1) We may be confusing numbers of fish with spawning potential. Right now, particularly off Florida and elsewhere in the eastern Gulf, we have a very truncated stock structure. There are very few fish more than 10 years old--and this is a fish that lives to be older than 50--and even in the fish that are there, you really have a few good year classes with a lot of gaps in between. So it may be that the fish just haven't grown into their full spawning potential yet, and we need to get a better age and size structure in the stock before spawning potential can be restored and the fish can be considered recovered.

      2) Older, larger fish move off the larger structure--whether natural or artificial, and begin to inhabit more cryptic, deeper water structures, which may amount to little more than a depression in a relatively featureless bottom or just a few related stones on an otherwise flat surface. If you've ever fished a snapper tournament in the western Gulf, you know that the winning fish rarely come from obvious structure, but rather are taken from much more subtle features that are far away from the obvious reefs and rigs. That being the case, the amount of natural reefs, etc. may not be the limiting factor that some researchers believe, because the fish may only require such habitat during one relatively short period in their lives. 'After that, they may disperse more widely.

      As far as your comment about overharvest not impeding recovery, remember that there is a difference between the Overfishing Limit, which means just that--the absolute threshold beyond which overfishing occurs, the Allowable Biological Catch, which accounts for scientific uncertainty, and the Annual Catch Limit, which allows for management uncertainty as well. Anglers have been exceeding the ACL, but not the OFL, so the stock can still recover. Does that mean that the ACL and ABC are set to conservatively? Probably not, for error can go either way, and as we learned in the Mid-Atlantic with summer flounder about a decade ago, eventually the odds catch up with you, error breaks the wrong way and your recovery stalls.

      Summer flounder is actually a very good model for red snapper. Everything that you're going through now happened in the Mid-Atlantic ten years earlier. The only difference was that flounder start reproducing at the age of two, and only live to be twenty, so the regulations needed to rebuild the stock don't have to be as extreme as they do in the case of a late-maturing, long-lived species such as red snapper.

      But in the end, the recovery happens and things get better, although you don't think so when you're going through the pain.

      And, of course, summer flounder didn't have to endure states like Texas that disregarded all of the rules and made everyone fishing elsewhere suffer for their refusal to play by the rules.

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  12. Jane you ignorant slut! As Dan Aykroyd would say to Jane Curtain after one of her rants. I submit Exhibit A to support what those of us who spend any time at all in the GOM already know:
    http://www.al.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2014/08/alabama_red_snapper_reporting.html

    My reply is intended to be humorous please take it in that vein. My point is that your point and the entire NMFS ARS management strategy is based on flawed data and being wholeheartedly embraced by groups who seek to monetize and broker a public resource. Environmentalists appear to be the useful idiots in these schemes hoping to get at least someone off the water and apparently more comfortable with commercial exploitation of a resource than the though my son or daughter might harvest a fish. Sector Separation is a case in point. That would put 75% of the Red Snapper fishery in commercial hands and once it's done, it's done forever........

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    1. I read that article when it came out, but I have to admit I'm a skeptic. First, I don't believe that programs that rely on self-reporting are reliable; NMFS recreational self-reporting program for bluefin tuna has, according to folks at the agency, only about a 20% compliance rate. When fishermen believe that underreporting will bring them a longer season or other relaxed regulations, the reason to suspect the reported results becomes that much greater.

      I'd have more faith in the Alabama survey if I knew that the statistical methodology that underlies the estimates was peer reviewed by a panel of independent experts that had no relationship with the State of Alabama or the red snapper fishery, who were truly disinterested in the outcome. Lacking that sort of review, there's no reason to have much faith in the results.

      Having said that, I admit that the current federal system is far from a good fit for the short red snapper season; it's designed for a longer time period, and trying to limit results to a single state raises the inherent error. But the error bounds of the federal system can be calculated; the error inherent in the Alabama system is not, to the best of my knowledge, available for public review.

      Having said all of that, I'm not going to disagree with you non sector separation. I hate to see that go into effect. But I also believe that a lot of the blame for sector separation can be placed directly on the shoulders of the leadership of the recreational community in the Gulf, who in fact failed to lead, or educate their constituents as to the reality of fisheries management, but instead showed a lack of moral courage and instead pandered to the worst impulses of the angling community by fighting the use of buffers for management uncertainty, not insisting that states (most particularly Texas) conformed state regulations more closely to the federal rules (how many more fish would have been available to folks in Alabama and elsewhere if Texas adopted even a 60-day season, 2-fish bag and 16" minimum?) and showing more support for peer-reviewed science. The title on this blog post was not casually chosen; the way the leaders of the angling community, even more than that of the anglers themselves, was an embarrassment and an abrogation of their obligation to deal honestly with the issues. It's unfortunate, because the precedent set here is very bad, and is going to hurt us all in the end.

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  13. I fish in GOM quite often. Down at the tip of Texas where I live there is not only Americans fishing these waters but illegal Mexican fisherman gill netting and long lining anywhere they can reach from Mexican waters. Even with that kind of pressure it is hard NOT to catch anything but Red Snapper. You catch them more often trolling now. You get them coming up all the way to the surface in 150' of water. I've been jigging for Tuna at an oil rig near the Flower Gardens in 400' of water and couldn't keep the snapper of my jigs. I scuba dive on local wrecks and there are clouds of snapper hanging over them to the demise of any other kind of reef fish. I would be the first to admit it when you can't catch fish. I remember around 2000 when you couldn't catch a 15" fish to save your behind in some places. You'd have to kill 10 14.5" fish trying to get your meager limit. We'd go from rig to rig or hard spot looking for places that hadn't been fished out. Back then I advocated a more liberal size limit. Now they are so big and plentiful you don't even have to measure and you end up killing snapper trying to catch an AJ or a Grouper. It's hard to maintain your composure when there are those calling for measures such as sector separation and season closures and touting their brand of "Science" when my own eyes tell me that this fish is quickly going to achieve the status of invasive species if you care at all about a fish that might compete with a snapper for food. I don't care what SEDAR or MRFFS you site. They are WRONG unless I live in a magical place that bucks the trend. I get the distinct impression that managers and their pet scientists are sitting on the bank and crunching numbers until they support their theories and agendas for total snapper domination. I'm not advocating a 10 fish limit. Keep it at 2 fish but at least lengthen the season to something reasonable. I'm all for accurate data and reporting. We all have smart phones now. Every state ought to have a snapper reporting app with stiff penalties if you're back at the boat ramp/dock for more than a half hour without reporting your catch or at least have a self addressed and stamped catch report form completed. If you are on the water in possession of snapper without one of the two you get fined too. I understand the feds don't count fish on man made structure. That's stupid if it's the case. If those fish don't count then let me fish year round on man made structure.

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    1. No question that there are more fish than there used to be, but that's only a relative measure. Other factors, including Bmsy and the age/size structure of the stock come into play.

      I hope that no one is questioning that fact that the stock is recovering strongly, but right now, the best indications are that we're at about 50% of the Bmsy level. Part of the reason for that isn't the absolute number of fish, but the fact that the population has a disproportionate number of younger, smaller fish. It's more or less an extension of what you said--there weren't many 15" fish around in 2000, and if we want to have a well-structured population with fish that are 20, 30 and a few more than 50 years old, it's going to take time--you can't grow a 20-year old snapper in less than 20 years.

      That's particularly true in the eastern Gulf; while the western Gulf is starting to produce a decent number of older, larger fish, the eastern Gulf is going to take longer--and right now, the entire Gulf is managed as a single stock.

      As far as SEDAR goes, I get nervous when people start saying that we should disregard the science and base management on anecdotal information. That's more or less what ended up happening in New England, and no one can call that successful; Gulf of Maine cod are just about gone, and a lot of other stocks aren't too far behind.

      I also think that it's dangerous to talk about the abundance of structure-dependent species. If you don't fish on them for a while, they seem to be everywhere when the season opens, but if you keep the season open for an extended period, that changes. We see that up here with black sea bass; first weekend of the season, it takes longer to run out to a wreck than it does to limit out (8 fish bag) with quality fish. Three or four weeks after the season opens, quantity and quality already decline noticeably on all but the little-known pieces; three or four months in, you're culling through shorts and barely-legal fish for hours to put a few on the ice. I suspect that if the snapper season was open for months, you'd see the same thing happen down there.

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