Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council

Red Snapper Emergency Action Request for 1999 Management Measures

November 20, 1998

Dr. Andrew J. Kemmerer
Regional Administrator
National Marine Fisheries Service
9721 Executive Center Drive, North
St. Petersburg, Florida 33702

Dear Dr. Kemmerer:

With this letter, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council) respectfully requests that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issue an emergency rule to implement several regulatory actions that were approved by the Council in the process of setting total allowable catch (TAC) at its November 9-12, 1998 meeting. These actions pertain to the commercial and recreational red snapper fishery and include only those that, in the Council’s opinion, must be implemented by January 1, 1999. The following is a list of the regulatory actions and the rationale for implementation through an emergency rule:

Reduce the minimum size limit for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico from 15 inches total length (TL) to 14 inches TL.

Amendment 5 to the Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) proposed a gradual increase in the minimum size limit for red snapper from 13 inches TL to 14 inches TL in 1994, 15 inches TL in 1996, and 16 inches TL in 1998. The Council took this action primarily because an earlier stock assessment (Goodyear 1992) indicated that biomass yield would be maximized by delaying harvest until fish reach 19 to 21 inches TL and reducing instantaneous fishing mortality (F) to about 0.2 (18 percent annual mortality). Attaining this fishing mortality rate that would maximize yield per recruit (YPR) was recognized as a long-term goal, and a gradual increase was favored over an immediate increase to reduce adverse social and economic impacts on the directed recreational and commercial fisheries. This goal was also contingent on potential gains in YPR not being negated from release mortality of undersized fish. As discussed below, increasing the minimum size limit over the last few years may be causing increased fishing mortality, having a negative effect on the spawning potential ratio (SPR) and impeding the recovery of the red snapper stock.

Schirripa and Legault (1997) examined the effects of various minimum size limits on YPR and spawning potential ratio (SPR). Two different selectivity patterns were used in their analyses: computed selectivities that varied vulnerability by age; and, a flat-top selectivity pattern that assumed equal vulnerability for all ages after being fully selected. According to the authors, the computed selectivities may be an artifact of the method used. If the flat-top selectivity pattern is used in combination with fixed yield (which is the most probable case since both fisheries are regulated byquotas and quota closures) in a comparison of the effect of size limits versus no size limit on SPR (Table 21B of Schirripa and Legault 1997), the results showed substantial reductions in SPR with increases in the minimum size limit. A reduction of approximately 5.5 percent was computed between a 14-inch and a 15-inch minimum size limit. They also noted that an increase in minimum size limit from 15 to 16 inches TL would probably not increase the SPR value in the year 2019, primarily because released fish were being subjected to release mortality but were not contributing to yield. Consequently, the Council approved and NMFS implemented a regulatory amendment that negated the scheduled minimum size limit increase from 15 to 16 inches TL and maintained the 15-inch minimum size limit for the 1998 fishing season.

A probable reason for a lack of observed positive effects of minimum size limit increases and the likelihood that they may be negatively affecting the stocks is that as the minimum size limit increased, the stocks had to be fished harder to achieve the same yield, resulting in even higher release mortality. The Council believes that this phenomenon has been occurring in both the commercial and recreational fisheries for red snapper, particularly since the minimum size limit was increased to 15 inches TL.

Goodyear (1995), and Palma and Deriso (1990) noted that minimum size limits may focus fishing mortality on the faster growing individuals in a population, thus increasing the number of slower growing individuals. This selective mortality could result in a long-term reduction in YPR as the slower growing fish are subject to natural and other mortalities, including release mortality, over a longer period. Consequently, the recently instituted increases in the minimum size limit for red snapper could be having a negative effect on YPR and, as previously mention, possibly negatively impacting the recovery of these stocks.

Figure 9 of Schirripa and Legault (1997) showed a substantial increase in the percentage of released red snapper by the recreational sector from about 1987 to 1996. They also noted a very significant increase in 1990 with the implementation of the 13-inch TL minimum size limit. Subsequent increases to 14 inches TL in 1994 and to 15 inches TL in 1995 have resulted in an average annual release percentage for the period 1990 through 1997 of nearly 53 percent, and the 1997 level was the highest on record at 62 percent. Observer studies (Goodyear 1995) indicated that in 1995 the commercial sector was discarding about 41 percent of their catch.

Schirripa and Legault (1997) also assumed a 33 percent and 20 percent release mortality for the commercial and recreational fisheries, respectively. Recent data (Karen Burns, personal communication) indicated that hooking mortality is more likely near 50 percent for the recreational fishery and may increase with the depth of water fished due to fishermen’s decreased ability to detect strikes. Although Burns’ study included a very limited sample of a headboat, the majority of public testimony supports a release mortality higher than 20 percent. Additionally, although there are no data on release mortality for the commercial fishery, the majority of public testimony fromcommercial fishermen implies a near 100 percent mortality on undersized red snapper. If an increasing portion of the recreational red snapper catch is being released and the release mortality is significantly higher than that being factored into recent analyses (50 percent vs. 20 percent), the potentially negative effects of the present 15-inch minimum size limit are much worse than current estimates would suggest.

The Council included alternatives to reduce the commercial minimum size limit to 13 or 14 inches TL in its Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA) Generic Amendment. This action was based on the premise that release mortality was much higher than the 33 percent level used for stock assessment purposes. It was justified on the basis that the commercial fishery is usually conducted in deeper waters using hydraulically or electrically assisted bandit gear with multiple hooks that retrieve fish much faster than ordinary hook-and-line gear. The nature of this fishery causes increased incidences of embolisms and other fishing-related mortality. These alternatives were removed from the SFA Generic Amendment because the Council believed that it was imperative that the 14-inch minimum size limit be implemented for the upcoming fishing year, and subsequently adopted it as a proposed action for this year’s regulatory amendment and as a part of this emergency request.

In referring to a potential increase in the minimum size limit from the current 15 inches TL, Schirripa (personal communication) indicated that unless size limits were sufficiently large enough to significantly reduce the bag limit, the likely result would be an increase in the total number of fish being killed in order to obtain a bag limit of larger-sized fish. This scenario may have been occurring since 1990 as the minimum size limit has increased from 13 inches TL to 15 inches TL. If so, a reduction in the minimum size limit would be expected to reduce fishing mortality and bring about a faster recovery of the red snapper stock. Such action is further justified by the fact that the number of fish caught that are below the current 15-inch TL minimum size limit approximately doubled from 1996 to 1997 (SEP 1998).

In public testimony, numerous recreational fishermen and charterboat operators indicated that they were killing large numbers of undersized fish in order to get a bag limit of legal-sized red snapper. They believed that a lower size limit of 13 to 14 inches TL would result in anglers keeping many fish that they are presently required to discard, resulting in an overall reduction in mortality. Most also testified that they were able to capture their bag limit. Based on this recent and previous testimony and the aforementioned studies that indicate there is little, if any, biological benefit from a 15-inch TL minimum size limit as opposed to a 14-inch TL limit, the Council believes that a reduction in the minimum size limit is appropriate to avoid potential negative impacts to the recovery of the red snapper stock (as discussed above) and to ameliorate the current negative social and economic impacts of this regulation. Additionally, the Council believes that it is imperative that this action be taken in combination with the following requested actions in order to effectively manage the recreational sector of this fishery, and that they be implemented prior to January 1, 1999.

Set the recreational bag limit for red snapper at 4 fish per person for recreational fishermen and a zero-fish bag limit for the captain and crew of for-hire vessels.

In most instances, the use of bag limits to control the harvest by the recreational sector has been favored over quota closures. The SEP (1998) noted that a lower bag limit with a longer season yields more economic benefits that a higher bag limit with a closure, provided that the bag limit is not low enough to discourage taking recreational fishing trips. A 4-fish bag limit, as opposed to the previous 5-fish bag limit, was implemented by NMFS through an interim rule in April 1998 in an effort to reduce the recreational catch and help avoid a quota closure in 1998 as occurred on November 27, 1997. By itself, this measure was not sufficiently effective to prevent the September 29, 1998 closure, partly because it was not implemented until nearly 3 months into the fishing year. Additionally, other factors that have not been fully analyzed may have contributed to the even earlier closure in 1998, e.g. weather and other environmental conditions, availability of fish by size and area, effort, etc.

By implementing the 4-fish bag limit for recreational fishermen in conjunction with a zero-fish bag limit for the captain and crew of for-hire vessels and a 14-inch TL minimum size limit, the Council believes that a significant reduction in the recreational harvest can be realized. These actions coupled with the March 1 opening of the recreational fishing season, as discussed below, and the other measures included in the soon-to-be-submitted regulatory amendment may result in extending the recreational fishing season through the end of 1999. However, these measures must be implemented prior to January 1, 1999 or the season will open with the previously approved 5-fish bag limit and 15-inch minimum size limit. With a January 1 opening and a 5-fish bag limit, it is highly probable that the recreational fishery would be forced to close by mid summer under the 9.12 million pound TAC, resulting in significant adverse economic impacts on the recreational sector, particularly the charter and head boat components. The implementation of these actions through an emergency rule is the only way to ensure that they will be in effect before the currently scheduled start of the recreational season. It is also the only avenue to provide appropriate notice to recreational fishermen, thus avoiding enforcement and other problems associated with inadequate notice.

Implement a March 1 starting date of the recreational red snapper fishing season.

The purpose of this measure is to reduce recreational fishing effort via a seasonal closure during the least desirable fishing months. Fishermen in some areas may be more affected than others; however, the Council chose these months for closure based on the preponderance of public testimony. The most recent 4-year average landings during this (January-February) period show that such a closure would result in a reduction in landings of about 11 percent. Although this reduction is slightly less than the same 4-year average percentage for a November-December closure of 17 percent, this measure in combination with the other proposals discussed above should provide for the least disruption to current recreational fishing practices for red snapper. Additionally, a January-Februaryclosure should have a positive effect on vessel safety, similar to the January closure of the commercial fishery.

For these reasons, the Council believes that an emergency rule to implement these actions is needed to avoid the near-certain biological impacts of increased mortality caused by the release of increasing numbers of dead or moribund, undersized fish that could potentially affect the long-term recovery of this stock. An emergency action is also warranted to prevent or ameliorate the social and economic upheaval that has occurred in the last two years with unplanned and untimely closures of the recreational fishery. Furthermore, these actions need to be approved as soon as possible in order to provide adequate notice to other regulatory agencies, fishing organizations, and the public; and, they need to be in place at the beginning of the fishing year in order to evaluate their effect on not only extending the recreational fishing season but also on any decrease in the release mortality from lowering the minimum size limit to 14 inches TL.

In summary, since the current review, approval, and implementation process by NMFS generally takes several months to a year, the emergency action is the only procedure that would allow for implementation of these much needed management measures prior to the start of the commercial and recreational fishing seasons.

We greatly appreciate your consideration of this recommendation, and if you have any questions or comments, please advise us.


Hal Osburn



Goodyear, C. P. 1992. Red snapper in U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Contribution: MIA 91/91-170. National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Center, Miami, Florida. 156 p.

Goodyear, C. P. 1995. Red snapper in U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Contribution: MIA 95/96-05. National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Center, Miami, Florida. 171 p.

Parma, A. M. and R. B. Deriso. 1990. Dynamics of age and size composition in a population subject to size-selective mortality: effects of phenotypic variability in growth. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 47:74-289.

Schirripa, M.J. and C.M. Legault. 1997. Status of the red snapper in U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico updated through 1996. National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Miami Laboratory. Contribution MIA-97/98-5. 37 p.

Schirripa, M.J. Personal communication. National Marine Fisheries Service, 75 Virginia Beach Drive, Miami, Florida 33149.

SEP. 1998. Report of the socioeconomic panel meeting on reef fish. Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, 3018 U.S. Highway 301, North, Tampa, Florida 33619-2266. 32 pp.


Back to Gulf Council Home Page