For nearly three decades, Ocean Conservancy has been fighting to protect red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. The stock was formally declared as overfished in the late 1980s. Despite this long and rocky road, 2015 has been a landmark year for red snapper—the stock continues to rebuild as a result of shared sacrifices and innovative management strategies.
In April 2015, NOAA approved a management measure that will improve conservation and recreational fishing opportunities in the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. This management measure divides the recreational red snapper quota between charter-for-hire and private recreational fishermen (known as ‘sector separation’ because it splits the recreational sector into two sub-sectors).
Sector separation allows fishery managers to develop individually tailored strategies for the needs of the unique charter-for-hire and private recreational components, which in turn will prevent continued catch-limit overages and foster continued rebuilding of this iconic Gulf species.
Anglers all over the Gulf of Mexico will spend their weekend getting ready for Monday, June 1, the first day of the 2015 Gulf of Mexico recreational red snapper fishing season. Thanks to the hard work of fishermen, managers and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, fishermen will be able to catch more red snapper this year than the past 8 years. While we are seeing increases in the allowable catch of red snapper, recreational fishermen have witnessed red snapper fishing seasons shrink year after year. This year the private boat-owning public can fish for a short 10 days while anglers fishing with charter-for-hire captains get 44 days. The charter-for-hire season is a solid increase over the 2014 season, which allowed only 9 fishing days for both components of the recreational fishing sector, but the short 10-day private recreational remains problematic. While there is no arguing that the longer charter-for-hire fleet is fantastic news for captains and their charters, the short private boat-owner’s season illustrates the need for management innovation for the private recreational fishing component that will help anglers access and enjoy the fruits of a healthy and growing Gulf red snapper population.
As detailed in Ocean Conservancy’s booklet Restoring the Gulf Beyond the Shore, we are a major champion for projects that restore the offshore species in the Gulf, as well as the underwater habitats that they call home.
The prognosis for the long-term recovery of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico brightened considerably last Thursday with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s passage of a measure known as “Amendment 40”—also known to fishermen as “Sector Separation.” Amendment 40 will allow separate management of private recreational anglers and for-hire charter vessels that fish for red snapper.
Although the red snapper fishery in the Gulf is managed as a single stock, the reality is that fishermen from the Florida Keys to South Texas face different situations and fish for different reasons. A for-hire captain who takes customers out of Southwest Florida and deep into federal waters may have a different set of concerns or needs than the weekend recreational angler who has a boat and likes to go red snapper fishing with friends and family but might not venture far from their home marina in the Florida Panhandle, Louisiana, or Texas. It is because of these vastly different situations among fishermen that a new management strategy was needed to address individual concerns, while also ensuring that conservation and rebuilding of the stock remains paramount.
A scientist measures a juvenile tiger shark during a population survey. Photo: Claudia Friess / Ocean Conservancy
More than 70 species of shark occur in the Gulf of Mexico and along the U.S. Atlantic coast. Of those, we catch over a dozen large and small coastal species during the bottom longline population survey I’m participating in with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Here are five of the species we commonly spot:
Atlantic Sharpnose Shark This small shark is the most commonly caught species during our survey because it is ubiquitous in this region. In the right depths, it is not uncommon for us to catch around 50 of these small sharks per set of 100 hooks.
Population status: Due to their abundance in the western North Atlantic, their population status is not considered to be of great concern. Apart from humans, Atlantic sharpnose sharks also have other, larger sharks to fear as predators.
Hammerhead shark caught for a population survey. Photo: Claudia Friess / Ocean Conservancy
While most people out on the water are trying to avoid sharks, I’m on a boat that’s looking for them. We’re trying to find out which shark species are doing well and which ones are in trouble.
The answer: it’s complicated. But one important piece of evidence is the information collected on scientific surveys of population abundance, like the one I’m on right now.
It’s my third year as a volunteer on the science crew with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I am currently on the NOAA ship OREGON II, a 170-foot research vessel with its home port in Pascagoula, Miss.
This is the first leg of the annual shark and red snapper bottom longline survey. The survey is conducted in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico from South Texas to the Florida Keys and along the East Coast up to Cape Hatteras, N.C. That’s a total of four legs lasting two weeks each.
Thanks to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, our nation now benefits from dozens of rebuilt fish populations. But even as we have seen remarkable progress made, we have also seen an increase in political challenges that threaten this crucial law.
This vital US. fishing law is due to be reauthorized this year, and this morning the Senate will hold a hearing to discuss the progress made under the law and next steps for U.S. fisheries management.