Rebuilding Red Snapper: What have fishery managers and fishermen done to rebuild red snapper?
In the late 1980s, managers began implementing various regulations to reduce fishing mortality and rebuild red snapper in response to these assessments(2). In addition to limiting the total number of fish that could be harvested annually, commercial and recreational fishermen were restricted by limiting the number of licenses issued (commercial and for-hire only), limiting the number of fish they could retain on a given fishing trip, restricting the size of fish they could retain and the type of gear they could use, and limiting when they could fish. Shrimp fishermen were required to install devices in their trawl nets to reduce discards of juvenile red snapper. These measures led to small, gradual improvements in the status of red snapper over a 15-year time period (1989-2004), but were not sufficient to end overfishing and make sufficient progress in rebuilding the population(13)(15). By 2005, red snapper spawning biomass had increased to only 4.2%, well below the target level of 26%(16).
In 2005, managers began developing a new plan to rebuild red snapper(15). At that time, regulations were designed to phase out overfishing of red snapper (by 2009 or 2010). The recreational and commercial catch limits were lowered by 45% from 9.12 million pounds in 2006 to 5.0 million pounds by 2008. The recreational bag limit was reduced from four to two fish to slow the rate of harvest and an individual fishing quota program (https://ifq.sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/ifqgt/) was implemented for the commercial sector.
The rebuilding plan also established a shrimp trawl fishing effort threshold to minimize the amount of red snapper caught in shrimp trawls between depths of 60-180 feet in the Western Gulf of Mexico(15). That threshold was designed to constrain effort to levels 67-74% less than observed during 2001-2003. Shrimp fishing effort has remained below that threshold since 2007. By reducing shrimp effort between depths of 60-180 feet, the number of juvenile red snapper caught and killed in shrimp trawls is reduced, thereby aiding rebuilding. If shrimp effort increases in the future, then rebuilding measures require fishery managers to close some areas in the Western Gulf to shrimp trawling to limit effort in areas of high juvenile red snapper abundance.
In 2009, scientists updated the 2005 red snapper assessment to evaluate if new management measures implemented to rebuild red snapper were working. That update assessment indicated red snapper abundance was increasing and less fish were being removed due to fishing(16). After decades of overfishing red snapper, overfishing ended in 2009.In 2013, a new benchmark stock assessment was completed(24). The assessment indicated overfishing was not occurring, the stock was rebuilding but remained overfished, and catch levels could be increased. Spawning biomass nearly tripled from 2005 to 2012.
Why Rebuild Red Snapper?
Before managers reduced catch limits in 2007 to allow for rebuilding, the combined commercial and recreational catch limit for red snapper was 9.12 million pounds, and the recreational red snapper season lasted for more than 6 months. But at that level, catch rates remained too high, which resulted in a depleted population. The rebuilding plan was designed to end overfishing of red snapper and ensure long-term harvest opportunities.
Currently, the red snapper population contains a disproportionate number of younger fish(16). A healthy population requires an appropriate mix of fish of different ages. Red snapper is a species with a long life span – they can reach over fifty years of age – and older red snapper females are the biggest egg producers(16). Since managers reduced catch limits seven years ago, none of the resulting young fish have yet reached their peak productive years. Continued restrictions are designed not only to increase abundance, but to also allow red snapper to reach older ages and larger sizes.
Currently, most fish landed in the Gulf of Mexico are fairly young and less than 10 years of age. As the stock rebuilds, the number of fish older than 10 years will greatly increase. A 5-year old red snapper produces about eight times as many eggs during a fishing season as a 3-year old red snapper and a 10-year old red snapper produces 33 times as many eggs as a 3-year old red snapper(18). The same is true if you consider the size of fish. A 20-inch red snapper produces three times as many eggs as a 16-inch red snapper, and a 32-inch red snapper produces 24 times as many eggs as a 16-inch red snapper(18).
Managers reduced the total catch limits for the commercial and recreational sectors combined to 5 million pounds in 2008 and 2009 but, since then, the limits have risen steadily as the stock rebuilds. In 2013, the combined catch limit was set at 11 million pounds – nearly 2 million pounds above where it was before the rebuilding plan started. The catch limit could have been increased to as much as 13.5 mp in 2013, but this catch level would have required reductions in the 2014 and 2015 catch levels because the number of young fish entering the fishery (recruits) has declined in recent years. To prevent reductions in future catch levels, the Gulf Council selected an 11 mp constant catch level over the next few years.
But the Recreational Fishing Season is Shorter?
While a growing red snapper population is good news for many people, it has unexpectedly – and somewhat counterintuitively – cost the charter boat industry and private anglers by reducing their opportunity to fish. That’s because the recreational fishing season has gotten progressively shorter even as the red snapper population grows.
Why are recreational fishing regulations becoming more and more restrictive even as the red snapper population increases? Because more fish means people are catching them faster. Today, recreational fishermen land fish at three to four times the rate they did in 2007 and many more fish are landed from state waters when the federal season is closed(20). At the same time, the fish are getting bigger. On average, each one weighs twice as much as before(20).
Overall, for each day of the season, recreational fishermen land eight times as many pounds of red snapper as they did before the population began to recover(20). So while the fish population is growing rapidly, the rate of catch is growing more rapidly. Catch limits increased by 120% from 2009-2013 compared to an 800% increase in recreational landings (lbs) per day. Even though managers have been able to raise the catch limit each year since 2010, they have had to progressively shorten the recreational season to stay within the increasing catch limits.
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