Thursday, September 6, 2018


The 2018 recreational red snapper fishery in the South Atlantic is over.  From some reports, things didn’t go too well.

The South Atlantic red snapper population had been badly overfished, but the National Marine Fisheries Service recently determined that it could permit a limited amount of recreational and commercial fishing without leading to overfishing, or a delay in rebuilding the stock.  On the recreational side, it determined that it could allow fishing over three extended weekends in August—August 10-12, and August 17-19.

A lot of people wanted to fish, and what resulted was a classic “derby” fishing event that, from reports, created a situation that was less than ideal for the private-boat fleet, for for-hire vessels or for the red snapper themselves.

“The latest population assessment (SEDAR 41) was completed in 2016 and revised in 2017.  It indicated the South Atlantic red snapper population is overfished and undergoing overfishing; however the population is rebuilding.” 
However, NMFS also noted that

“Recent studies show red snapper abundance has increased in the South Atlantic since 2014, and was highest in 2017…The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission study also shows a greater number of large red snapper and a broader range of ages in recent years suggesting the red snapper population is rebuilding despite the limited harvest allowed in 2012, 2013, and 2014,”
and that

“The harvest prohibitions on red snapper since 2010 have resulted in adverse socio-economic effects to fishermen and fishing communities such as loss of additional revenue and recreational opportunities, as well as indirect benefits to businesses that provide supplies for fishing trips.”
NMFS opined that

“The red snapper overfishing determination in the assessment came from 2012-2014 when only a small amount of harvest was allowed to occur.  However, discards during this time period were high due to fishermen targeting other species that co-occur with red snapper, which likely contributed to the overfishing determination.”
Based in part on those findings, NMFS established a 29,656 fish catch limit for the recreational fishery. 

“The [South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (“SSC”)] provides an [allowable biological catch (“ABC”)] recommendation based on catch projections from a stock assessment.  The Council’s SSC total ABC recommendation for 2018 is 53,000 red snapper, which is the sum of landed fish (18,000) and dead discarded fish (35,000).  However, NMFS has determined that that relying on those dead discard estimates for the management of red snapper is not appropriate.  NMFS has determined that the dead discard estimates should be regarded as unreliable for management action due to the extreme uncertainty of the estimates, coupled with the fishery-independent evidence of substantial gains in stock abundance and rebuilding.”
Whether NMFS’ decision in that regard was correct, particularly in light of a provision of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s provision that a regional fishery management council, and by implication, NMFS, shall

“develop annual catch limits for each of its managed fisheries that may not exceed the fishing level recommendations of its scientific and statistical committee or the peer review process established [elsewhere in Magnuson-Stevens],”
is open to debate, but it was nonetheless made and not challenged. 

So what was the result?

“In some places, anglers set out in anything that would float.  One charter boat captain off Port Canaveral even snapped a Facebook photo of two anglers on jet skis, 10 miles offshore…
“Capt. Glenn Cameron of Floridian charters out of…Stuart had near run-ins with ‘weekend warriors’…
“’People lost their minds,’ said Cameron…’If they saw us fighting a snapper they would nearly run into us’…
“Capt. Rich Kluglein of Fins charters out of Fort Pierce City Marina echoed similar frustration…
“’So many people were stealing numbers—there were 10-20 people at every spot—and I had 8-10 boats following me,’ Kluglein said…
“’My numbers (spots) in 27 fathoms are trashed.  The grouper fishery will be done there, too.  I never thought I wanted to quit charter fishing, but they have destroyed a fishery.”
“Destroyed” might be a bit of an overstatement, expressed by a frustrated charter boat captain.  At the same time, it appears that mere crowding, spot-stealing, and such weren’t the worst things that happened.

“Kluglein also said that he witnessed culling [throwing back a smaller, dead snapper in order to keep a larger one] and poor release techniques by anglers.  It resulted in dead discarded snappers floating on the surface.  Way too many, by his estimation…
“Kluglein said the intention of the mini-season was to enable access to an important fishery.  But the unintended consequences resulted in dead 5-pound red snapper floating everywhere feeding no one but the sharks.
“’It was terrible—10 years of rebuilding red snapper stocks gone in six days,’ Kluglein said.”
The author of the piece observed that

“The process as [sic] anything but quick or nimble,”

“Is there a way charter clients and weekend warriors can co-exist in South Atlantic snapper and grouper fisheries?”
and concluded

“Perhaps.  But it will require some creative action.”
Based on the reports, it’s hard to disagree.

The question is, do managers have the political will to do what is needed?  

And will the recreational fishing and boatbuilding industry, and the various anglers’ rights groups, try to fix the problem, or will they looking back into the past, and keep fighting old, pointless battles, instead of moving into the future and finding innovate answers to intransigent problems?

Unfortunately, recent industry and anglers’ rights groups' support for the pending, badly misnamed “Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act,” often referred to as the “Modern Fish Act” in the press, suggests that no real creativity will be proposed, or supported, by the most vocal, self-appointed representatives of the recreational fishing community.

Fortunately, there is a truly “modern” approach to recreational fishery management that could provide a viable remedy to the South Atlantic recreational red snapper problem, and to similar problems elsewhere on the coast.

Recently, a new research paper, titled “Status-quo management of marine recreational fisheries undermines angler welfare,” appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.  It suggested that the traditional recreational fishery management measures, of size limits, bag limits, and seasons,

“fail to adjust to anglers’ adaptive behavior and provide little incentive for anglers to reduce their effort.”
Although it occurred well after  the paper had been completed, the chaotic South Atlantic red snapper season could be cited as a case in point.

The paper suggested that the solution to such problems is one that has a proven track record in the commercial fishery—the adoption of a “’rights-based” management system, the sort of system colloquially known as “catch shares.”

Yes, that’s exactly the kind of really modern fishery management that “Modern Fish Act” supporters seek to outlaw.  Yet, as the paper suggests, it has proven successful in the one recreational fishery where it was given a fair chance—the for-hire fishery for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.  Such a program, which assigned a quota, based on historical landings, to certain for-hire boats, allowed such boats to fish for red snapper at any time of the year, whenever their passengers wanted, so long as they had quota remaining.

In that way, the boats avoided the chaos of a “derby” fishery, and could spread out their effort throughout the year.

The paper’s authors note that

“extending these approaches beyond the for-hire sector to encompass anglers fishing from their own vessels faces significant practical and political challenges.”
While there’s no doubt that the political challenges are very real—Modern Fish Act supporters would desperately fight to prevent any such modernization of fishery management measures—the practical challenges would be very easy to overcome, with a modicum of federal/state cooperation, with an approach already familiar to hunters across the nation.

A similar system could be set up for recreational fishermen.  

If, for example, a South Atlantic angler wishes to participate in the red snapper fishery, that angler could express that interest when purchasing his or her annual fishing license (and probably pay a small application fee to discourage fishermen unlikely to pursue red snapper from seeking permits unlikely to be used). 

The permit would allow anglers to retain a modest number of red snapper, which would have to be tagged immediately upon capture in an effort to deter culling.  Once all of the tags were used, the angler couldn’t retain any more snapper that year.  Tags could be made transferrable at the discretion of the angler (true of New York deer management permits, too) if using them all appeared unlikely; catch would have to be reported promptly, and anglers who failed to obtain a permit for any given year could be awarded preference points that increase the odds of obtaining one in the future.

It’s a simple system that has already been tested in the sportsmen’s arena.  It would spread out angling effort throughout the year, and perhaps result in anglers tagging red snapper that they catch incidentally when fishing for grouper and other species, rather than feeling obligated to target red snapper during the short, derby season.  If so, that would substantially decrease dead discards.

It would work. 

Although in order to work, it would first have to be given a chance.

In the current management environment, where the recreational fishing industry is aggressively hostile to anything truly new, that chance isn’t likely to happen.

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