As an avid recreational fisherman, it was a welcomed surprise last week to learn that seven days would be added to one of my favorite times of year: red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico. Historically, red snapper have been severely overfished in the Gulf but are now on their way back. As the fishery and the fishing improve, so is the technology to monitor catches — a critical component to ensure the health of this iconic species.
Way back in the golden era of recreational fishing, shortly after World War II, American prosperity grew and with it came dramatic technological advances in small outboard engines, fiberglass boats, fishing rods and reels. A new era of fishermen was born and the technology for counting catches needed to…well, catch up.
The freedom to fish alone or with a few friends at anytime during a set season and anywhere you can launch a boat or cast from shore is one of the timeless pleasures of recreational fishing. There’s nothing like getting outdoors and catching a few fish. With more fishermen taking more fish out of the water than ever before, we need to make sure fisheries are healthy and have the numbers to support themselves. Individually, sometimes it seems our catch is not equating to too much, yet collectively the numbers really add up. Each one of those days an individual fisherman puts a hook in the water adds up to millions of fishing trips per year. In fact, there were more than 23 million fishing trips last year in the Gulf!
With so many angler trips, the only way to collect fish data that is cost effective and unobtrusive is through a survey. These surveys look at things such as the kinds and numbers of fish caught, and are used to help determine the health of fish populations and what may be changing in the fishery. Estimates of the amount of fish caught by fishermen contribute to assessments that tell us the amount of fish that can be safely caught without harming the fishery.
Much like weather forecasting and political polling in elections, these estimates can change once all the information is in. As surveys continue to improve and we better understand ecologically, culturally and economically important aspects of fisheries, the estimates will improve too. This is exactly why there is now seven extra days to fish for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico this season. (The most recent red snapper health assessment is under review and we may see further increases to the 2013 fishing season. More on this after the fishery managers meet to discuss results in June.)
Even with limited federal funding, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), driven by a National Research Council report from 2006, was able to develop the promising Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). It took years of pilot projects and reviews before MRIP became operational in 2013. NMFS continues to evolve MRIP with continuous improvements and innovative projects.
Again, while it’s a welcome surprise that I have an additional seven days to hit Gulf waters to try my luck at catching red snapper (which has been phenomenal if I say so myself), I’d be remiss not to note that we need to expect to take the good and the bad. Improvements in the system don’t necessarily mean seasons will always get longer. Some may in fact have to shorten do to the greater precision of surveys. And, just as important, we must always keep in mind that recreational fishing is a growth sport and the advancement of models, surveys and estimates from past years of fishing don’t necessarily make an exact prediction for a coming year. In the end, we simply need to be conservation minded and cautiously approach fishing limits to keep the balance between the freedom to fish and sustainable fisheries.