Sunday, June 12, 2016


Today, at 12:01 am, another federal recreational red snapper season drew to a close in the Gulf of Mexico.  From some reports, it has been one of the most unsatisfying seasons so far, not only for its length, but for a host of problems ranging from a dearth of willing fish off Florida to the weather system that eventually became Tropical Storm Colin creating hostile sea conditions in much of the Gulf, which led the National Marine Fisheries Service to add an extra two days to the season.

So what happens next?

Maybe a month ago, in a Manhattan restaurant, I chanced into a couple of old friends, who I once worked with on fisheries matters.  We’re on different sides of the red snapper debate these days, but we enjoyed a good meal and a good discussion.  At the end, one of them asked me the question:  “How would you fix red snapper?”

I couldn’t provide an immediate answer.  But I did note that folks needed to admit one simple truth:  There will never be enough red snapper to make everyone happy; demand will always exceed supply.

Anglers need to face up to some other things, too. 

They need to accept the true impacts that recreational fishermen have on the stock.  For example, I once received a comment to another red snapper essay that asked

“[M]e as a recreational angler will probably get out fishing offshore dependent on the weather and finances 20 times a year, and will only fish red snapper certain times of the year.  How am I responsible for the decimation of this stock?”
The person asking that question, he forgot is that he is not alone, but instead is is just one of many other anglers, all having an impact on the red snapper stock.  

According to a report issued by the American Sportfishing Association in 2013, in just one year salt water fishermen spent 1,480,312 angler/days fishing in Alabama, 1,532,519 angler/days in Louisiana, 2,293,475 angler/days in Mississippi and 8,157,241 angler/days in Texas.  They also spent 36,347,825 angler/days fishing in Florida, although that wasn’t broken down between the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  Even if the Florida number was cut in half, the figures show that, in the aggregate, anglers made more than 30 million fishing trips in a single year in the Gulf of Mexico.  While only a minority of those trips targeted red snapper, the overall effort was still clearly large enough to have an impact on the stock, even if each angler’s individual impact was very small.

Then there’s angler behavior.  The fishing mortality attributed to the recreational red snapper fishery is a combined estimate of the number of fish landed and an estimate of the number of released fish that die, as determined by the Marine Recreational Information Program and various studies on released fish’s survival.  What isn’t accurately reflected in those numbers is the practice of “highgrading” or “culling,” in which an angler keeps a limit of fish, but keeps on fishing; when a larger red snapper is caught, the smallest fish is discarded, dead, into the ocean and replaced by the larger one.  It’s impossible to know how serious such problem is, but I have spoken with Gulf Coast charter boat captains with many years’ experience in the red snapper fishery, and they tell me that such activities take place on far too many trips.

Finally, anglers need to take full ownership of the fact that, even without highgrading being taken into consideration, current regulations are the result of anglers consistently overfishing the red snapper stock for many years—although that was not the case in 2014, when anglers stayed within their annual catch target, nor was it the case last season, when recreational anglers substantially exceeded the annual catch target, but did not exceed the annual catch limit, thus proving the worth of the 20% buffer between the target and ACL, adopted at the behest of a federal judge to impose accountability on the fishery.

That 20% buffer, and the fact that it has apparently prevented recreational overharvest in recent years, demonstrates that the fishery can, in fact, be “fixed,” even if progress is made in very small steps.

The fact that recreational overfishing has apparently been halted, at least for now, also raises the question of whether the fishery needs any “fixing” at all and, if it does, what, exactly, needs to be “fixed.”

If you ask the folks who condemn the system, the biggest problem is the short federal season, which limits anglers’ ability to access the red snapper.  In some ways, complaints that

are both disingenuous and dishonest, as they completely ignore much longer state seasons (as long as 365 days in Texas), that both allow anglers to harvest fish in state waters and give them cover to run farther offshore and illegally harvest red snapper in federal waters, an opportunity that far too many anglers are willing to exploit.

There are only two ways to lengthen the federal season—either find a way to provide more fish to anglers, or find a way to limit the number of anglers catching the fish that are currently available.

So far, all of the effort has been spent on ways to provide more red snapper to anglers.  That has proven a difficult and generally unproductive process; the only successful effort has been a recent increase in anglers’ share of the harvest, from 49% to 51.5%, a change so small that it was hardly worth the effort involved.

Otherwise, the angling community’s efforts have been aimed at weakening the conservation and stock rebuilding requirements of federal law, or by evading those requirements completely by taking management authority for red snapper away from federal managers and handing it over to the states.  Both efforts, if successful, would provide anglers with higher red snapper landings in the short term, but over a longer period of time would likely cause real harm to the stock, and leave anglers worse off than they are today.

Fortunately, for the moment, such efforts have stalled.

The only other way to get anglers more fish is to give them access to the commercial quota.

The recent allocation change will probably be the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s last word on the subject for now.  Given that the commercial red snapper fishery is well-managed and completely sustainable, and supplies the non-fishing public’s desires to dine on red snapper, there is little or no objective reason for shifting fish from the commercial to the recreational sector.

On the other hand, there is also little or no objective justification for preventing commercial fishermen from selling some or all of their quota to anglers on a willing buyer/willing seller basis—that is, for selling or leasing such quota if the commercial fishermen found it economically advantageous to do so, and voluntarily decided to transfer quota to recreational fishermen, just as they might lease it to other commercial fishermen, in any particular year.

Doug Olander, the Editor-In-Chief of Sport Fishing Magazine, took a look at the question a couple of weeks ago.  He notes that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council allows such inter-sector quota transfers in the Pacific halibut fishery, and laments that the Gulf Council isn’t willing to do the same.  Mr. Olander then suggests that the only way to get it done is to shift responsibility for red snapper management to the Gulf states.

Although I agree with his basic premise, that inter-sector quota sales would be a good thing, the downside of stripping NMFS of its authority to manage red snapper would be greater than any advantage gained, primarily because doing so would strip the red snapper of the protections granted by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  Without those protections, authority to manage red snapper would be shifted from a science-based federal management system to a state system where politics and short-term economic considerations would be the primary drivers.

As an alternative, I suggest that angling interests should sit down with representatives of the for-hire, commercial and conservation communities, and work in good faith to find a solution.

That would require them—and everyone else—to leave their egos at the door.  Organizations would have to be willing to forgo tub-thumping press releases that impugn others’ interests while throwing red meat to such organizations’ members.  Each side would have to forthrightly confront its own faults and flaws, as well as others’ legitimate concerns, and try to craft a compromise that takes all such things into account.

The biggest obstacle to inter-sector transfer is probably accountability.  The current commercial fishery is fully accountable, with vessels calling in to regulators before making a trip, monitored by a vessel monitoring system throughout the voyage, and calling in again to provide regulators with the time and place that a catch will be landed.  Anglers are currently subject to few such strictures, although in some states, they may be required to report red snapper landings after their return.

“NOAA estimates that compliance with recreational bluefin reporting requirements is a mere 20 percent.  I’d suggest it’s even lower.”
As an active member of New York’s tuna fishing community, I’d agree.  Reporting is particularly problematic when a boat brings in 2 or 3—or 8 or 10—bluefin above the legal bag limit, and/or illegally sells its catch through the back door of a restaurant or fish store, which are, unfortunately, common practices here on Long Island.

It’s hard to believe that similar issues wouldn’t arise with Gulf red snapper.

Another suggestion that’s making the rounds is to limit the number of anglers able to access the red snapper resource, probably by issuing a limited number of tags that would each allow an angler to harvest a single fish. 

One proposal that has recently been making the rounds would have the recreational fishery more closely resemble the for-hire and commercial fisheries, in that each fish would have to be tagged, and fishermen couldn’t pursue red snapper without having an unused tag on board.  

Supposedly, such a program would benefit the fish, because it would make anglers more accountable, and it would benefit the anglers as well, because it would do away with the need for closed seasons and, except as limited by the number of tags on hand, bag limits.  Fishermen with excess tags would be able to transfer them to those needing more.

It sounds like a great idea, except for one thing.

There are millions of recreational fishermen operating in the Gulf of Mexico.  If every one of them killed just one red snapper, they would blow right through the recreational quota.

Thus, tags would have to be limited to accord with the size of the recreational quota.

The easiest way to do that would be by some sort of lottery.  Here in New York, when hunters applies for a license, they have the opportunity to try for a “deer management permit” which allows them to take a doe, in addition to any buck that they might take pursuant to their general license.  The number of management permits is limited; for a fee of $10, the hunter gets to enter a lottery and perhaps win a the right to kill a doe.

The same sort of approach could be used for red snapper, with each state assigned a limited number of tags to offer, provided in lots of 5, 10 or some other number.  Unsuccessful anglers would receive a “preference point” that would give them a better chance in the following year’s lottery.  Federal managers would make possession of such state permit a prerequisite to possessing snapper in federal waters. 

It would require a voluntary/state federal agreement to implement, and otherwise sounds as if it would work, but…
Last year, only 46% of successful New York deer hunters reported their kills, as required by law.  That’s less than half.  While better than the reporting rate for bluefin tuna, it’s still pretty dismal, and that’s even after the check stations and enforcement roadblocks aimed at ensuring compliance come into play.

There’s no reason to believe that Gulf red snapper anglers would report at higher rates.

The issue remains one of accountability.  And that is an issue uniquely within anglers’ control.

Putting together something that works would be neither easy nor impossible.  So to the question “How would you fix red snapper,” I’d now give the following response:

In many ways, the system is not broken.  The commercial and for-hire fisheries seem to be staying within their annual catch targets, and in the past couple of years, overfishing by private boat recreational anglers appears to have finally been constrained.  The stock is being successfully rebuilt, with more fish and more and older age classes appearing in the population.  Those are all good things.
However, the length of the recreational season in federal waters remains a sticking point.  In order to extend that federal season, I would do the following things.
1.       Bring states into compliance with the federal season and regulations.  Since red snapper landings, wherever they occur, affect the length of the federal season, shortening state seasons would result in a longer federal season, not coincidentally because it would make it far more difficult for anglers to poach red snapper in closed federal waters, where the bulk of the population is found.  With poaching brought under control, the number of fish reported as caught in state waters is likely to plummet, allowing the federal season to expand.
2.       Allow the inter-sector transfer of commercial quota on a willing buyer/willing seller basis.  No commercial fisherman should be forced to give up any part of his or her quota.  However, if such fisherman chose to sell or lease quota to a recreational fisherman or other clearly identifiable and responsible party, such transfers should be permitted.
3.       Implement a tag system covering the entire recreational quota.  No angler would be allowed to land, or possess, a red snapper unless that fish was marked with the proper tag (anglers purchasing/leasing commercial quota would have alternate reporting requirements).  All such tags would have to be of a construction that only permits one-time use (such tags are common in the commercial fishery) and would have to be attached immediately upon landing the fish.  Reporting would be required within 24 hours, and a failure to report or return unused tags would render a fisherman ineligible to apply for tags in future years.
4.       Implement meaningful accountability measures.  A red snapper fisherman would have to call in to an established number before leaving the dock, providing regulators with the name of the boat, port and expected time of return.  Upon return, the fisherman would have to call in before reaching the dock, providing regulators with the number of fish on board and the tag numbers used, thus helping to prevent re-use or the non-attachment of tags.  Anglers buying/leasing commercial quota would have to comply with commercial regulations re reporting harvest, but not vessel monitoring.
5.       Implement penalties strong enough to deter violators.  This one is self-explanatory.  However, the regulations must be zero-tolerance, with no allowance for “accidental” failures to call in on departure or return,  failure to tag fish, etc.  Fines must be substantial, sanctions on future ability to obtain tags imposed, and forfeiture of vessel and gear a possibility in the case of repeat offenders.
Yes, I know much of that is pie-in-the-sky.  But I also know that if I can come up with some sort of workable framework, folks intimately involved with the fishery can too, and probably devise something far better.

That is, they can if they are willing to embrace cooperation instead of confrontation, are willing to reach a compromise that meets the dictates of science and federal law, and are willing to consider the wants and needs of sectors along with than their own.

Would the result be perfect and make everyone happy?
Absolutely not.

But it would still be a lot better than what they have now.

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