Red Snapper Update

By Christopher Hong
Regulation changes on red snapper may allow anglers to harvest popular game fish


http://jacksonville.com/news/metro/2017-07-25/regulation-changes-red-snapper-may-allow-anglers-harvest-popular-game-fish


Major changes could be made to the strict and controversial regulations on Atlantic red snapper that would allow anglers to harvest the popular game fish, driven by biologists’ belief the species is recovering from overfishing much faster than previously thought.



Officials who manage fishing regulations in federal waters hope the changes could create an open season next summer, which would be the first since 2014. They also say it’s possible the fishery could temporarily open as early as this fall.

There’s been just a few opportunities to keep red snapper since the federal government enacted a strict set of rules in 2010 to help them recover from overfishing and rebuild their numbers off the east coast.

The potential overhaul to those rules is a major development in the acrimonious red snapper saga, which has pitted many in the city’s ubiquitous fishing community against federal fishery officials.

SEE ALSO

Environmentalists sue over extended red snapper season
Locals are hopeful feds will reopen red snapper fishery off Florida’s northeast coast
The reasoning behind the proposed change is two-fold.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which manages fishing in the Southeast’s federal waters, believes new data shows the red snapper population rebounded much stronger in recent years than previously estimated. They believe the species is now resilient enough to handle conservative fishing seasons without risk to their recovery.

They also believe some of the data used to estimate the number of fish caught and killed each year — a crucial part of determining whether there is an open season — is too uncertain to be used. The council is now working to establish a new process that relies on more reliable data.

“When I look at the … data and see the upward trajectory, yeah, I have a hard time continuing justifying the closure,” said Roy Crabtree, a regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that oversees fishing in federal waters. “I would view it that the management has been working over the last seven to eight years. I know fishermen have sacrificed.”

An undeniable fact complicates fishery management: It’s impossible to count every fish in the ocean, 0r even every fish caught.

Biologists have many ways to work around that obstacle when determining the overall health of a particular fish. They survey anglers and deploy traps equipped with cameras. They develop complex formulas to estimate fish populations and how many are killed by fishermen each year.

But estimates are just that and their reliability is often limited by the data used to create them.

That inherent uncertainty hasn’t sat well with many anglers, who say their observations on the water lead them to believe red snapper are doing just fine. How in the world could they not be, they ask, when they often catch more red snapper than any other fish, including the ones biologists say are abundant enough for them to keep.

Anglers can still catch and release red snapper. But the closure has hit a raw nerve. For some anglers, a bounty of wild fish is a sacred part of their relationship with the ocean. For others, it’s a real justification to the costs of owning a boat.

Red snapper aren’t the first fish anglers have accused the government of getting wrong. It probably won’t be the last. Still, the dispute revealed an underlying mistrust many in the fishing community hold about the government’s ability to manage fishing.

Ask around enough and you’ll find people who believe the red snapper rules were created as part of a secret government agenda to end fishing.

“Their hearts may be in the right place, but they’re not looking at real numbers,” said Chris Rooney, president of the Jacksonville Offshore Fishing Club. “Guys like me, I can take you out tomorrow, we could get a two-person limit. Snapper stocks are unbelievable.”

• • •

Most people with an interest in red snapper agree that at some point starting in the 1990s, it was painfully obvious red snapper were overfished.

In 2008, the federal government released a study concluding red snapper remained overfished and their numbers had dipped to dangerously low levels.

That finding forced them to create a plan to help the fish recover. Officials considered closing widespread areas to fishing. Anglers responded with outrage.

That idea was dropped and an alternative approach was agreed upon in 2010: Red snapper would be off-limits to the ice chest until further notice.

The moratorium was lifted in 2012 with a six-day season. There were similarly brief seasons in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, biologists determined too many fish were killed the prior year and closed red snapper to harvest. There hasn’t been a season since.

A 2014 study tracking the progress of the red snapper’s recovery found while their numbers were growing, overfishing was still occurring. It found the population lacked bigger fish capable of laying more eggs than their younger cohorts. It also concluded too many fish were being killed by anglers.

Holly Binns, the Tallahassee-based director of a campaign to end overfishing run by an arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the study showed the recovery efforts were working, but needed more time.

“When a species starts to rebuild, the first thing you hear is, ‘They’re back. We should fish them again.’ The challenge is getting that balance right during that interim period to make sure you don’t open the flood gates so wide that we return to where we were before,” Binns said.

A major driver of the fish being killed during the last several years aren’t fish being kept. Instead, it’s the number of fish believed to die after being released.

Biologists estimate a significant number of red snapper caught and released don’t survive. The high death rate — referred to as “dead discards” — is mostly attributed to the trauma of being quickly pulled from their deep water habitat, similar to “the bends” that can kill scuba divers who surface too quickly.

Biologists acknowledge the estimates are based on highly uncertain data. But this year, they took an unusual step. They rejected the dead discard estimates because the uncertainty was too high to be considered reliable science.

It was a significant decision that has opened the door for a major overhaul to red snapper rules.

Federal law requires overfished species, like red snapper, to be protected under a rebuilding plan. Overfished species can still be harvested, as long as the number of fish killed doesn’t surpass a limit set by biologists each year.

The limits are required to be supported by the best available science, a measure to keep politics and biology separated. If a catch limit is surpassed one year, the next year’s limit is automatically set to zero.

Without the dead discard estimates, biologists haven’t been able to determine how many fish were killed last year — and, more importantly, how many fish could be harvested in 2017.

Chester Brewer, a member of the South Atlantic Council, said that has given the council an opportunity to “do what we think is right.” In this case, he said the right thing is opening the species to harvest.

“Making sure you’re not doing harm to the fishery and creating maximum accessibility. That’s the balance,” he said.

Officials now believe there’s evidence the number of fish killed during the last several years didn’t interfere with their recovery. They say the conclusion is supported by fish trap surveys from 2015 and 2016 showing fish numbers to be significantly higher than previous years.

If that’s the case, the council has argued anglers can continue harvesting a similar number of fish that were kept during the 2014 season without hurting their recovery.

“We had to rely on the science we had. Things evolve when you get more data,” Crabtree said. “I think the general feeling on the council is that given the speed and the good news on the stock, and the rate it’s rebuilding, we don’t need to keep this fishery closed, and it’s time to re-open.”

Biologists are looking at ways to improve data used to set catch limits in the future. Until that is figured out, the council decided to move forward with a temporary process to create a 2018 season.

That process is currently being developed and the council hopes to approve it during its September meeting. They could also discuss at that meeting whether to open red snapper to harvest later this fall, Crabtree said.

Public comments on those changes can be made during an online seminar Aug. 3.

To ensure they can approve the temporary rules in time for next summer, the council decided not to include measures it was already considering, like requiring anglers to use descending devices to help increase survival rates for released fish.

Since the new process is on an expedited route, it will also not be formally reviewed by the council’s Science and Statistics Committee, a group of advisers that reviews the scientific soundness of the council’s decisions.

“That does concern me,” Binns said. “The council’s science advisers are independent scientists with expertise. They make sure the number of fish caught each year doesn’t exceed a number that isn’t sustainable over the long-term.”

Crabtree said a permanent process would be fully vetted by the science committee.

Brewer said the length of the season has yet to be determind, but he thinks it’d be about six days over three weekends starting in July, if approved. He said he’s confident that won’t interfere with the snapper’s recovery and may possibly help repair the damaged relationship between fishermen and the officials charged with ensuring there are fish to be caught.

“People don’t trust us anymore,” he said. “Everything I hear is that they’re just ate up with red snapper. We need to figure a way to catch and keep some of these fish.”
Mark Wilson
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Replies

  • RK McLeanRK McLean Posts: 7 Greenhorn
    We can only hope that they wake up and have the good sense to NOT OPEN THE RED SNAPPER SEASON DURING THE SUMMER MONTHS WHEN IT IS WELL KNOWN THAT THE FISH ARE ALL CARRYING ROE! Part of responsible wildlife management is being aware of the life cycle of the fish you manage and opening a season during their egg bearing time is not responsible. What, catch one summer snapper and effectively kill many thousands?! Real bright! Real science! Should we hunt duck when they are sitting on their eggs? Deer hunting when they are pregnant? RK McLean
  • bay20bay20 Posts: 1,485 Officer
    RK McLean wrote: »
    We can only hope that they wake up and have the good sense to NOT OPEN THE RED SNAPPER SEASON DURING THE SUMMER MONTHS WHEN IT IS WELL KNOWN THAT THE FISH ARE ALL CARRYING ROE! Part of responsible wildlife management is being aware of the life cycle of the fish you manage and opening a season during their egg bearing time is not responsible. What, catch one summer snapper and effectively kill many thousands?! Real bright! Real science! Should we hunt duck when they are sitting on their eggs? Deer hunting when they are pregnant? RK McLean

    Are you some kind of scientist RK?
  • Doc StressorDoc Stressor Posts: 2,051 Captain
    Red snapper are not aggregation spawners, so taking them while they are reproducing makes little difference vs any other time of year. Removing them from the population the winter before they spawn or the winter before they can spawn again the following year has the same effect on the effective population size. The 16" size limit gives some protection in that they can spawn once before they are exposed to harvest. But the goal of the recovery plan is to increase the number of larger ARS, which are a much more sustainable and productive spawning population than smaller fish.

    Fish that aggregate to spawn such as gag grouper and sheepshead can benefit from protection during spawning periods. They are easier to catch in large numbers once aggregations are discovered and reducing the size of aggregated population below a certain point can disrupt spawning activity.
  • ANUMBER1ANUMBER1 Posts: 8,192 Admiral
    We kill does the whole season and they are pregnant from the start..
    I am glad to only be a bird hunter with bird dogs...being a shooter or dog handler or whatever other niche exists to separate appears to generate far too much about which to worry.

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