Excerpts From: Vol. 15/No. 23, August 14, 1996

Don Green editor/publisher

Vol 15 No. 23 - August 14, 1996

Will The Feds Again 'Shoot' Themselves In the Foot?
This Time, It Concerns The 'Overfished' Red Snapper

Is it possible that an assault by commercials to the tune of 1.59 million additional pounds of red snapper will come about on September 15, 1996?

It could, indeed! On the other hand, it might not.

This stems from recommendations made some months ago by the Reef Fish Stock Assessment Panel of the Bulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council as result of a 1995 study. That study concluded that the range (in pounds) of catchable fishes was six to 10 million. Currently commercial and sport fishermen are allowed to catch six million pounds during a variable date fishing year.

The Assessment Panel in its report added a cautionary phrase reminding the Council that any current increase in the total allowable catch could result in subsequent reduction in TAC in future years. Unsolved and possibily unsolvable is a problem inherent in catches made by shrimpers while trolling. This is known as 'by-catch'; collected by shrimpers.

They gather more than shrimp when hauling their nets. They catch a variety of groundfish--juveniles that are too large to escape between the webs. This group comes from the families of amberjack, grouper, turtles and--of course snappers. Since the fishes are undersize, they cannot legally be sold to commercial outlets and must be returned to the water. Lifespan of a stressed fish is known to be short. Lifespan of a small fish is even shorter. The fishes universally are cast back. Survival rate is low so the species for reproductive capability is lost. By-catch at times is higher in terms of numbers in a trawl than that for the delicious shrimp which graces tables as appetizers in restaurants across the United States.

The by-catch problem has been present for years and appears no nearer solution today than when first recognized. Federal regulations are in force regarding by-catch. Regulation or not, it does not keep the fish from being caught, nor the potential for it dying at discard. Study and effort by the fishery biologist continues.

Recognizing the by-catch problem, biologists exerted all their mathematic widsom and concluded, based on current figures, that the spawning potential ratio of the red snapper possibly might be reached by the year 2009. SPR is a measurement which forcasts that 20 percent of this species yearly will be able to produce enough babies to keep the stock at a given level. Currently, all ill-defined formula suggests that a mere seven percent of the snapper swimming in ghe Gulf of Mexico have the capability to spawn. Measures increasing catch and processing of spawnable snapper quite naturally will delay the time period when that desired 20 percent level is reached. Today National Marine Fisheries Service scientists have established 2019 as the year when SPR is reached.

Fishery management in US coastal waters comes under jurisdication of two federal regulatory agencies as result of a Congressional established Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act: ...eight regional councils of which the Gulf Council is one
...National Marine Fisheries Service; enforcing arm protecting fishes in federal waters.

A Council usually is composed of commercial and recreational civilians appointed by federal and state officials. Seventeen voting members may study and recommend a program. NMFS personnel are career federal employees occupying positions because of their expertise. NMFS receives a Council program and declines, modifies or implements it.

Leading office in the case of the red snapper study is the Southeast Regional Office of NMFS with addresses in St. Petersburg, Florida. Earlier this month, they issued an announcement requesting public comment on whether commercial industry should be permitted to harvest the additional one and one-half million pounds of red snapper. To harvest or not is a contentious issue between those who fish for a profit and those who fish for sport. It has been made contentious by the red snapper--Lutanus campechanus, as it is known biologically--itself may be a culprit. This fish, which grows to the 30 pound range--over the millenniums--has developed some of the 'sweetest' meat ever tasted by man. White and firm with few bones; no matter how prepared red snapper is superb. It could not swim the oceans undetected drawing the sport angler and the commercial alike. Add to its delicate taste is the fact that red snapper is a 'stay-at-home'. Snappers spawn in shallow ater. Find a snapper habitat today. It will be there tomorrow. Sport anglers know this and so do the commercials. This leads to regulations establishing bag/keeper.

Sport fishing persons today may catch five red snapper 15 or more inches. They may possess a total of 10. Sport allocation during a given 12 month period is 2,994,000 pounds. The five/10 support figure is designed to keep fishing open year-round. Which it is. Now comes the disturbing evidence that the sport anglers have exceed their poundage figure sustantially over the last several years. Pointing a finger probably is justified. Reducing their daily take of a sertainty will produce a chorus of anguish that easily might be heard by the residents on plant Io, tiny moon circling Mars.

The commercial sector is allocated 51 percent of annual catch. In terms of pounds, they collectively may harvest 3,006,000. When the level is reached NMFS closes the season. Theoretically, it is to remain closed until opening (again) in the new fishing year. The 12 month fishing period for commercials starts around the first of a given calendar year. Along with season opening one may observe what has become known as the "fishing derby". Commercials rush to the known locations and with their bicycle-type multi-hook rigs pull the 'not-t00-smart' snapper to the surface in alarming numbers.

Snapper being a deep water inhabitant does not kindly take rapid elevation. Result usually is an extended bladder which, if not punctured, will not permit the fish to return to depth. Smart predators hover nearby: snapper in the stomach.

The fishing derby has posed a problem for both the feds and the commercial segment. Little good comes when the price of this delicate fish plunges --as it surely does, and fast. Desirable is the program to spread the catch. To date that hasn't been the case--human nature being what it is. Pressure is constant to increase the quota, open the season earlier and keep it longer. Longer seasons would be attainable--if 'greed' among the commercial industry could be curtailed.

Add a group of 'experts' with questionable credentials into this cauldron and one has the makings of a muddy mixmaster. That is exactly what happened last year when the Assessment group told the world the snapper population was six to 10 million pounds. A November 14-16 Gulf Council meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana held lengthly sessin on red snapper status. At focus was the panel report. Fifteen members are in attendance considering a number of amendments. Key to this treatise was one offered by Dr. Robert Shipp who offered a motion to read"...that the 1996 and 1997 red snapper TAC be set at 9.12 million pounds, with 4.47 pounds allocated to the recreational sector and 4.65 million pounds allocated to the commercial sector. " This motion carried by a vote of 14 to one.

Texans voitng for the increase:
...Julius Collins, seafood processor
...Hal Osburn, TPWD employee.
Voting against Dr. Andrew Kemmerer, Southeast Region Director NMFS. The historical 51.49 percent is retained even though an estimated 3,012,000 more pounds of fish may be taken from the Gulf. Commercials may be permitted to harvest the added 1.59 million pounds if public comment can be correlated to the extent to allow NMFS to make the decision. The recreational side will experience a bookkeeping increase, but it will have no effect on the numbers of fishes which may be kept (five/10) during this and next year. NMFS claims the increase is designed to bring sport fishing more in line with poundage requirements levied upon both sectors.

Have the feds and the fishing industry taken leave of logic? Will sanity ever return? Does it make sense to increase the catch of red snappers and in doing so increase by about 23 years the time when the stock will return to a ratio designed to replace lossess with an equal amount of gains.

Fishery experts say this species today is "overfished". What logic causes the Gulf Council to call for a million and one-half pound increase in the harvest by the commercial sector?

That precisely is the call made by the Council's left hand. Then the right hand concludes, "The Gulf red snapper fishery is severly overfished and has severe reductions in total allowable catch under the stock restoration program."

(Source: Gulf Fishery News, a publication of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, Volume 18, No. 3, page one.)

For those in this world who are not as learned or adept at fishery intracies, a profitable proposal might be to:
...'freeze' commercial operations (it's closed now) until 1997; then lower poundage quota below current year.
...reduce by a factor of one 15 inch red snapper caught by the sport fisherman beginning 1 January 1997; review practice for 1998.
(Editor Note: You can bet fewer 'Merry Chrismas' cards will find their way into Blue Water's post office box during the '96 holiday season because of these proposals. But, if followed, it may be that all grandchildren will find more red snapper to catch when they become old enough for offshore travel. Chew on that!)

Blue Water - offshore fishing news --offers lots more information about Texas Gulf Coast offshore fishing. To subscribe contact Don Green at P O Box 1723, San Marcos, TX 78667-1723.