Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council

Minority Report to Proposed Red Snapper 1999 Management Measures

December 15, 1998

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

Dear Dr. Kemmerer:

We the undersigned submit this letter as a minority report in disagreement with the proposed Regulatory Amendment to the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) to adjust the red snapper size limit from 15 inches to 14 inches in both the commercial and recreational fisheries, and to eliminate a bag limit for captain and crew in the for-hire sector of the recreational fishery.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Council) asked that the regulatory amendment provisions, which included a March 1 start date for the fishery, be implemented on an emergency basis. In the event that you cannot consider this minority report in your implementation of the emergency regulation, we request that the emergency regulation relate only to the season i.e., extending the start date to March 1 because this is the only one of the three provisions that truly must be "on line" by January 1, 1999. Excluding the size and bag limit provisions from the emergency measure allows scientists, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the public additional time to assess their effect on the fishery, and avoids the confusion that would arise if an emergency action was ultimately rejected by the NMFS after its emergency implementation.

We are particularly concerned that the Council rejected a motion to delay a decision on this amendment until a more thorough analysis could be conducted on the repercussions of lowering the size limit, even after receiving assurances from NMFS that such an analysis could be completed in a timely manner. We feel strongly that such an analysis, as was available to us when we decided against raising the size limit, should have been available in order for the Council to make an informed decision. Even the most rudimentary of analyses conducted by Mr. Steven Atran during the meeting indicated that lowering the size limit would not accomplish what the Council and the fishermen had hoped. Thus, the amendment is in clear violation of National Standard 2, which requires that conservation and management measures be based on the best scientific information available. The Council chose to proceed without fully analyzing all data that were available and could indicate possible outcomes of the proposed rule.

The rationale driving this particular management engine was concern expressed by the recreational fishermen (charterboat and headboat captains) about the September (within year) closure of the recreational fishing season due to early fulfillment of the quota. They felt that the closure hurt them financially because it meant canceling trips planned for the fall, which was ostensibly their busier season. They indicated repeatedly in public testimony that they would rather alter the management strategy in some manner to ensure a longer season.

One option for lengthening the season, which the Council as a whole readily accepted, was the later (March 1) start date for the fishing season. Unfortunately, an additional option to decrease the minimum size, which was discussed and ultimately chosen by the Council (in a 9 to 8 vote), could do just the opposite. The proposed minimum size reduction rule, in fact, could not only shorten the season, but could increase the overfishing likelihood, and thus contribute to greater losses in long term productivity in the red snapper fishery, increasing the probable need for more severe restrictions in the future. While it is important to lengthen the fishing season to the extent practicable for the benefit of the recreational fisheries, it is vital to avoid any measure that may interfere with the rebuilding plan.

Members of the recreational fishing organization, Gulf Association of Finfish Fishermen (GAFF), indicated that they had regulatory releases on the order of 50 percent, that is, for every legal-sized fish they caught, an undersized fish was returned to the water. They also indicated that individuals were filling their bag limits roughly 75 to 90 percent of the time. The NMFS data only partially support this, indicating that only headboat clients consistently fill their bag limits. One could conclude from the data that the private and smaller for-hire boats could increase their landings with a smaller size limit. The effect of creating a new target fishery was not considered, yet it does exist. Vessels stopping to incidentally catch a few red snapper could begin targeting limits if the reduced size makes it feasible.

The support of the lowered size limit was based on genuine concern over the high release mortality that fishermen (both commercial and recreational) see on a daily basis when they are on the water. The fishermen clearly indicated that they felt a lower size limit would both decrease the level of release mortality and reduce pressure on larger fish (since smaller ones would be retained, assuming no high grading).

While we applaud the Council's concern for the resource, and we want to make every effort to support their need for an extended season, we respectfully submit that they have considered only one aspect of such a regulatory change. If a minimum size is intended to prolong the fishing season, then it needs to be large enough to significantly reduce the probability of filling the bag limit. While it is true that keeping smaller fish will reduce the release mortality (again, assuming a very low incidence of high grading), it will, in effect, increase overall mortality. At the smaller size, more fishermen will fill their bag limits, meaning that roughly 10 to 25 percent more fish will be landed. Based on the weight of the fish in this size range, this means that a greater amount of biomass will be landed in a shorter period of time. Even assuming a 20 to 30 percent release mortality, the reality is that reducing the size limit means more, not fewer, fish will be caught, the quota would be met faster, not more slowly, and the fishery will in fact close even earlier in 1999 than it did in 1998. This was clearly supported by the quick analysis run by Mr. Atran. Unfortunately, the Council has chosen a management strategy that, in the long run, could be a disservice to the fishermen of the Gulf of Mexico and will, in fact, be in clear violation of National Standard 8. This standard requires that conservation and management take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities in order to provide for the sustained participation of such communities and to the extent practicable, minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities. The fishermen made it quite clear that they need a longer season. That will not be accomplished with a reduced size limit.

When the council canceled the increase in minimum size from 15 inches to 16 inches scheduled for the beginning of 1998, there was scientific support, indicating that keeping the 15 inch limit would not adversely affect the rebuilding schedule, and that further increases in size limit could increase bycatch mortality. Similar scientific support for a reduction to 14 inches is not available at this time. In fact, many participants have credited the minimum size limit with the improved abundance of red snapper they observe when they fish. The impact on the rebuilding program of a change such as the reduced minimum size may be hard to measure. Therefore, making such a change can create an additional confusing factor that reduces the ability to gauge the effect of the TAC and bycatch reduction on rebuilding success. Public perception that rebuilding is a serious goal is an important factor to the success of the rebuilding program. Such a perception aids peer pressure compliance. A reduction in minimum size without clear scientific support would erode this confidence.

We also object to the zero bag limit for captain and crew of for-hire vessels. A motion for this reduction failed in an earlier Council session the day before passage of this motion, when it was linked to the minimum size limit. Zero bag limit was not an issue under discussion, nor was it addressed by the Advisory Panel, Scientific and Statistical Committee, Socioeconomic Panel, GAFF, or in specific public testimony. No scientific analysis was available at the time this decision was voted upon and no rationale has been offered for its implementation.

To determine the magnitude of the savings provided by zero bag limit for captain and crew, we must first realize the savings of the later start date. Schirripa (1998) projected that delaying the opening until March 1, 1999, produced a savings on the order of 724,000 pounds, or a gain of 25 fishing days. This would extend the season from September 9th to October 4th. Now, following Holiman (1998), a zero bag limit on captain and crew produced a savings of 140,000 pounds, which, using Schirripa's extrapolation, provides only 5 extra days of recreational season, pushing the season from October 4th to October 9th.

Five days of additional fishing season will translate into fewer actual fishing days. For example, assume that a given charter operator is not booked 100 percent. If he/she has a fairly good October, with 70 percent booking, then time reductions due to the weather, boat maintenance, breakdowns, etc., only allow fishing roughly 70 percent (= 2) of those days for actual fishing. Thus the 2 month delay in starting the season yields a 25 day extension to the season, whereas denying the captain and crew their bag limit would add only about 2 fishing days.

The zero bag limit also places an unfair and unequal burden on the smaller for-hire vessels, relative to party boats, private boats, and both the commercial and industrial sectors, contrary to National Standard 4. (A commercial snapper boat or for-hire industrial vessel in the oil and gas industry can catch captain and crew bag limits and have them counted against the recreational quota, so the argument that the captain and crew can be at zero limit because of their status clearly discriminates only against for-hire recreational captains and crew.) The captain and crew of charter vessels under hire, like the captain and crew of any other vessel, should be entitled to harvest recreational bag limits during open season.

The vast majority of the for-hire sector in the charter industry is not comprised of headboats, but, rather "six pack" charterboats. Enacting a zero bag limit for these vessels, in essence, lowers the total catch of the vessel by around 20 percent per day. The reduced bag limit, from 5 to 4 fish, lowers it by an additional 20 percent. Thus, on opening day these charter boats experience a 40 percent reduction over the previous year. It is not clear how this change will affect how the fishery is executed; but if we assume that charter boats will not lower their dollar rate by a corresponding percentage, then captains will likely target larger fish in order to satisfy customers. This targeting, together with high-grading, will place even more stress on that portion of the population that is already severely depleted.

We strongly urge NMFS to reject the management measures proposed by the Council as being inconsistent with the National Standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The intent of these regulations is to assist the for-hire sector without negatively affecting an already overfished snapper population. The motion fails to accomplish this.

We thank you for your time and consideration in allowing us the opportunity to express our views. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch with any of us.

Sincerely yours,

Felicia C. Coleman (FL) Maumus F. Claverie, Jr. (LA) Myron J. Fischer (LA)
Alex M. Jernigan (FL) Russell Nelson (FL) Irby Basco (TX)
Karen Foote (LA)

 

 

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