More Management Issues With Gulf Red Snapper

Red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico has pitted the States versus the Feds.

red snapper
Red snapper are a popular target for anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, but management of the species can be contentious. John Frazier

Surprise, surprise! There are more problems with red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn’t seem possible, but it is true.

While I can grasp the reasoning behind this complicated issue, I will admit to not understanding all the details. I did ok in math, but the finer points of statistical analysis escape me.

A few years ago, the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council approved Amendment 50A-State Management Program for Recreational Red Snapper. The idea behind this amendment to the Reef Fish Plan was to give the states the authority to manage their own red snapper quotas.

In theory, this change would give the states the ability to set seasons and limits for their red snapper quota and give their recreational anglers better access to this resource. Included was a proviso that if a state exceeded its quota in one year that its quota for the following year would be reduced by the overage.

Marine Recreational Information Program Snafu

So far, so good. However, the problem became obvious when each state’s data collection methodology had to be compared to the other states and the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). MRIP is the state-regional-federal partnership that implements a national network of recreational fishing surveys to estimate total recreational catch, and this data is used a benchmark for all the states. This is where the process gets a little hazy, as the numbers collected by the various entities often didn’t jive.

Fishery managers knew that they would have to design a process that would come up with a data set that could be measured against MRIP, but red snapper had turned into a very hot issue. There was a hope that state management would lengthen the private angler seasons that had been reduced to just days. While some thought had been given to the calibration of the different state data programs, there was likely some sense of “just get it done and we’ll deal with the details later.” Later is now.

Martha Guyas, Southeast Fisheries Policy Director for the American Sportfishing Association, had some thoughts on this, “A few years ago when the concept of state management was approved by the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council, there was very little discussion about how the state data and MRIP data would be calibrated (comparing the different data sets so that they all could be measured against each other). The state recreational data programs have been running for several years now, but we still need a better understanding of what is driving the differences in recreational data coming from MRIP and the states.”

Some concerns were also expressed by Bob Gill, current member and former Chair of the Gulf of Mexico Council, “It certainly is a complex mess. The NOAA Offices of Science & Technology (OS&T) approach to calibration was a simple ratio of state to Federal Effort Survey (FES) results for the years when they were run simultaneously with Coastal Household Telephone Survey (CHTS). OS&T is technically excellent. The more fundamental problem is the lack of understanding of private recreational effort and landings. We don’t know their universe of anglers, much less how many trips they take or what they land with any reasonable degree of certainty.

“Historically, it (calibration) has not been on the table to address in any meaningful way. We have lately, mostly at the last Council meeting, started to discuss the issue, which is a positive sign. But getting to an answer is going to be very difficult. We’ve gotten ourselves into a Gordian Knot we don’t know how to unravel.”

Battle Over Red Snapper Quotas

red snapper
Red snapper are prized throughout their range. John Frazier

Since all the states have to stay within a total quota, the calibration is a zero-sum game. When one state wins, another loses. Calibration whacked Mississippi’s quota as well as Alabama’s. The other states benefited somewhat. While there may be a legal battle over the current calibration, there is likely more to come.

In 2024, the latest red snapper assessment will be released. By then the historical MRIP catch data will have been analyzed to see if it over- or under-stated the recreational landings. If there is a big difference, then this whole issue will be back on the front burner and at full boil.

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