Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery coming under more permanent state control

A pilot program that gave five U.S. states bordering the Gulf of Mexico greater control over their quotas for the Gulf red snapper fishery is in the process of being made permanent, signaling a willingness from NOAA Fisheries to embrace more flexible, decentralized management programs for U.S. fisheries.

In April 2019, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council unanimously adopted Amendment 50, which would extend state regulations for recreational red snapper harvest in the Gulf of Mexico into adjacent federal waters for 2020 and beyond. Draft rules are now being considered by the individual states, which include Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. As that happens, NOAA Fisheries is conducting an evaluation of input received during a recently-concluded public comment period, and will soon publish a final rule, cementing Amendment 50 in place. That will likely happen in the early part of 2020, according to Roy Crabtree, the regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries’ Southeast Regional Office.

“We’ll continue to work with the states monitor how successful this is as the states take a larger role and larger responsibility setting and staying within quotas,” Crabtree told SeafoodSource. “I think we have adequate accountability measures in place and I’m optimistic see how this plays out over the next few years.”

The changes being brought about by Amendment 50 keep the Gulf red snapper fishery in line with the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, but effectively create a new management model never before seen in the United States. Under the new system, NOAA Fisheries will grant exempted fishing permits (EFP) to each state for its recreational anglers, allowing them to set their season dates, bag limits, and minimum- and maximum-size limits – with the only limitation being that the minimum size must be within 14 to 18 inches. The rule change also extends each state’s rules into federal waters out to the border of the 200-mile federal exclusive economic zone, and gives to the states the power to close areas of federal waters adjacent to the state by requesting that NOAA Fisheries implement the closure.

Amendment 50 represents a solution to a political quagmire that emerged as recreational fishermen annually overfished their allotment of red snapper in the Gulf, forcing NOAA Fisheries to shorten its season. Gulf states responded by lengthening their own red snapper seasons, resulting in a patchwork of regulations that scientific and environmental groups said impeded recovery of the species from its listing as overfished as recently as 2016.

“We had a difficult problem with red snapper between the five states and the federal waters, so we had six jurisdictions in the Gulf. We had a problem with states opening up their waters for extended periods of time, and what was happening was a large fraction of the federal quota was being caught in state waters, resulting in the federal season becoming very short,” Crabtree said. “These EFPs and Amendment 50 allow more flexibility and control over their seasons, and in that sense it is a big improvement.”

Enforcement of quotas remains a difficult task, Crabtree acknowledged – anglers in Florida overfished their 2018 quota by 13 percent, or 232,211 pounds, and Alabama also overfished its quota. However, a provision requiring states to “pay back” their overages by deducting them from their assigned quota for the following year can be an effective tool to incentivize states to prevent overfishing from occurring.

“We’ll continue to work with the states to monitor how successful this is as states take a larger role and larger responsibility setting and staying within the quotas, but I think we have adequate accountability measures in place, and I’m optimistic see how plays out over next few years,” Crabtree said.

The states will report their 2019 catch totals at the Gulf council’s January meeting, where the council is also expected to set red snapper quotas for 2020. However, as part of Amendment 50, states are now responsible for their own data collection and development of their own catch estimation methodologies in lieu of participating in the Marine Recreational Information Program. Several of the state systems are still under review by NOAA Fisheries in a process it is calling “common currency conversion,” according to Crabtree.

“They’ve been reviewed by the Fishery Service and we still have to deal with making some calibration adjustments in order to compare the data with historical surveys,” he said.

The process will take at least 12 months, which means there will be no stock assessment for Gulf red snapper in 2020.

“I expect we’ll have a new stock assessment probably in early 2021,” Crabtree said.

Sepp Haukebo, the manager of the Environmental Defense Fund’s private angler management reform initiative, said EDF backs Amendment 50.

“Everybody has been talking about red snapper for so long both in the region and at the national level … EDF embraces innovative solutions that balance access with sustainability, not just on the commercial side but on the recreational side as well,” Haukebo said. “This is proof positive the Magnuson-Stevens Act has the flexibility to allow solutions to be created to solve regional problems. It’s proof positive you don’t have to rewrite MSA to find solutions to recreational fishing problems.”

Emily Muehlstein, the public information officer for the Gulf council, said Amendment 50 was more than four years in the works, tracing back to a previous failed attempt to pass a similar motion, Amendment 39, in 2015. That original effort stalled out over disagreement between the states on the apportionment of quota. However, the 2017 Appropriations Act directed NOAA to develop a pilot program for the recreational red snapper fishery, and state fisheries leaders subsequently were able to strike an agreement that led to the creation of EFPs, paving the way for the adoption of Amendment 50.

That ability to find a path forward shows the power of the regional councils to forge compromise, while keeping U.S. fisheries managed legally and sustainably under the MSA, Muehlstein said.

“The cool thing about the NOAA process is the council works very closely with NOAA Fisheries as we’re developing a management plan so that by the point it gets to rule-making, it’s not illegal,” Muehlstein said. “We work very hard throughout this process to ensure whatever the council recommends is feasible. If the council says this is what we want to do, we’ve already done the due diligence and worked with NOAA throughout the process.”

That system is only effective if the data the council needs to set catch limits is fed with plentiful, accurate data, Muehlstein cautioned.

“For the future, one of the biggest things NOAA and the Gulf Council are working on is calibrating all the new state data collection programs so into a new currency, so we can filter them all into one unified data-set to give us a complete understanding of the status of the stock,” she said.

Having states collect their own data may result in more accurate results, as local fishermen tend to be more open to sharing the details of their catch with local, rather than federal officials. But if the data collection isn’t robust, or if the states continue to overfish their share of the red snapper quota, or if any other aspect of the recreational red snapper fishery is determined to be inconsistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Amendment 50 can be withdrawn by a vote of the Gulf council, Crabtree said.

“We could always come in and change this. Ultimately, while the states have been granted additional jurisdiction, the ultimate authority lies with the council, and I believe there are adequate safeguards in place to ensure the fishery is managed responsibly,” he said. “Nevertheless, all of these systems require us to partner with the states. There really isn’t any system where a federal government can manage in a vacuum with large recreational component, as we have in the Gulf. We have to work with our state partners and try to find management that everybody can live with.”

Haukebo, of EDF, said Amendment 50 represents “progress.”

“It certainly has quieted the issue down, as it had become very politicized two or three years ago. It’s nice to see a lot of commercial fishermen supporting Amendment 50 as well. We needed to find a solution, and this is a big compromise. Only time will tell how it works out. If it’s not working, can always go back to the drawing board,” he said. “We’ll look back two or three years from now and see how it went. But right now, everything we have indicates the stock is doing well and continues to recover.”

Haukebo, who is a recreational red snapper fisherman himself, living in Galveston, Texas, said the common feeling for those involved in the fishery is relief.

“It will be nice for all of us to spend more time fishing for red snapper and less time arguing over it,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Fish and Wildlife Research Institute


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