After their numbers were reduced by 85 percent between 1965 and 1990, the revival of a robust and sustainable red snapper population in the Gulf of Mexico is one of America’s great conservation success stories. The speed and extent of the red snapper’s recovery has belied predictions by the National Marine Fisheries Service that their population wouldn’t rebound until the year 2032.
Yet despite this bounty, families that want to take the kids fishing for red snapper in the Gulf had better hope for good weather on Saturday and Sunday: it is the only weekend you will be able to do so this year.
Thanks to arbitrary federal restrictions and outdated collection methods, even as the red snapper population flourishes, Mom and Dad face limits that are tighter than ever before -- this year, just a single 10-day span.
The recently House-passed reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, America’s primary vehicle for fisheries management, promises to modernize the process, making it more responsive to the growing number of recreational anglers and the multi-billion dollar economic contribution they make.
Federal fisheries management relies on shoreline reporting of commercial catches to ensure compliance with annual catch limits for each respective species. The system works well for the relatively small number of commercial fishing license holders, but for the millions of families who enjoy recreational saltwater fishing, Washington uses an imprecise and jerry-rigged combination of telephone surveys, spot monitoring of boats as they arrive onshore -- and pure guesswork.
Knowing that the margin of error in this Rube Goldberg calculation is so great, federal fisheries managers build in “cushions” when setting restrictions on the recreational catch. The result is that recreational anglers are ensnared in an arbitrary system of time limits and catch restrictions like this year’s 10-day season limit for red snapper in the Gulf.
What’s needed is a fisheries management system that is responsive to all stakeholders -- not just the commercial industry, but the growing recreational component as well. After all, more than 11 million Americans take part in recreational fishing each year, spending $27 billion on tackle and related goods and services and supporting more than 450,000 American jobs. In fact, every 100,000 pounds of fish caught creates 219 recreational fishing jobs, compared to just 4.5 jobs in the commercial fishing sector.
Toward that end, and to provide greater accuracy and precision in monitoring red snapper stocks, the fish and wildlife agencies of the five Gulf states -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas -- have offered to accept the responsibility for management of red snapper in the federal waters off their shores.
The five Gulf States are already responsible for managing commercial and recreational fisheries in their own waters and cooperatively share management for several species with other states. They have proven themselves responsible and successful stewards of both state and federally managed species.
Even now, they patrol both state and federal waters and possess the tools and infrastructure to precisely monitor fish stocks. They are able to provide more frequent assessments and have established new recreational data collection systems to produce more accurate, precise and timely data.
Unlike the federal system, which attempts to determine the health of a fish population by counting up the fish that have been caught, the states conduct far more frequent (and more biologically reliable) calculations of the actual numbers of the species in the water. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, for instance, conducts twice yearly inventories of important species; federal fisheries managers do assessments only once every three or four years.
Congress should approve the five states’ plan. The states have long shown that they are far more responsive to the local needs of all stakeholder groups -- and have a far more direct interest in sustainably preserving the red snapper fishery, which is an economic driver in those states.
While some have tried to couch this issue as one of commercial versus recreational fishing interests, the real question is how best to manage the fishery in a manner that is accessible to both.
The current federal system, which denies access to recreational anglers for 355 days a year based on flawed and inadequate data, is clearly failing.
Angers is president of the Center for Coastal Conservation, which is spearheading an unprecedented alliance of recreational fishing, boating, industry and conservation groups who support modernizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act.