When the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meets this week, anglers in Mississippi and Alabama are likely to be stunned at the outcome of yet another man-made crisis in red snapper management. On the table is a proposal to reduce the annual catch limit for recreational anglers fishing from their own boats by a staggering 52% in Mississippi and 62% in Alabama. If it passes, the result will be a dramatically shorter red snapper season for offshore anglers in those states beginning in 2021.
Why this is happening is a testament to an agency in desperate need of new direction.
For the past several years, the Gulf Coast states have been managing their private recreational anglers in the red snapper fishery with their own state-based harvest data systems. That shift in management came after anglers and managers alike lost all faith in the data coming out of the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). Under MRIP, angler seasons had dwindled to just three-days despite what appeared to be a booming red snapper population. The Gulf states were convinced they could do a better job and set about designing their own data systems, which are far more robust and timely than MRIP. State managers have mostly stayed within their assigned snapper quotas and are even able to take into account factors like weather events and wave heights to lengthen or shorten their seasons. By any metric, state management has been a success, with better data, longer seasons and higher angler satisfaction.
However, NOAA Fisheries – the agency charged with managing the nation’s marine fisheries – announced last year that the state recreational data must be recalibrated back into the MRIP data “currency” for management. The new data was ordered to go through a hazy mathematical conversion to produce harvest results in the old MRIP numbers. In other words, the states abandoned a broken system, built a better one, and now are being told to return to the broken system. The result, NOAA Fisheries says, is that Alabama and Mississippi are wildly overfishing their quota.
At the same time, preliminary results of the Great Red Snapper Count have been released. This effort at a true assessment of the Gulf red snapper population came about after anglers, managers and Congress lost all faith in the data coming out of the federal stock assessment process. Primarily through the efforts of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), Congress dedicated $10 million for an independent, two-year project. A team of 21 investigators from 11 institutions around the region scoured the Gulf and found a red snapper population at least three times larger than NOAA Fisheries thought. This is a stunning failure for an agency supposedly dedicated to managing our fisheries.
The full results of the Count are currently under review and have not been fully released yet. The agency could eventually plug the new gift-wrapped numbers into its decrepit management system and salvage a season for Mississippi and Alabama. Or the Council could pull a rabbit out of its hat this week with a stop-gap temporary measure to address this latest absurdity. But Congress and the public should not allow the agency to waste this valuable new information plugging holes in a failed system.
Despite the best efforts of Congress and the Gulf states, anglers are likely to bear the brunt of yet another federal-agency-created crisis in red snapper. With the new state data systems and a ground-breaking independent assessment of the red snapper population in hand, the tools are in place to chart an innovative future for this troubled fishery. With its apparent unwillingness to move forward rather than backward, it seems that NOAA Fisheries is just not the agency to lead us there.