Historical Overview (1800s-present): How has the red snapper fishery changed over time?historical picture and map

Red snapper have been harvested from the Gulf of Mexico (Gulf) since at least the 1840s(1).  The fishery began in the northeastern Gulf, centered around Pensacola, Florida(1)(2).  During the early development of the fishery, harvest was limited to vessels known as “smacks”(3) that fished close to port.  When ice and trains became readily available to store and transport red snapper, vessels began to make longer voyages and landings increased(2)

Fishery scientists and fishermen first observed localized depletion of red snapper off Florida in the late 19th century(1)(4).  Early catches were dominated by large fish, often averaging 10 pounds or more; but, as depletion occurred, the availability of fish near shore declined and vessels extended their trips farther from port to catch fish(1).  Beginning in the late 1800s, vessels began harvesting red snapper from Campeche Bank off Mexico(5) and by the early 1900s U.S. commercial landings exceeded  7 million pounds, although few were from the Western Gulf(6).  It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that fishing activity increased in the Western Gulf as rock ridges and snapper banks were discovered(7).   

1880-1960 Commercial Landings Graph

Commercial landings fluctuated between 2 and 5 million pounds up until the 1950s as vessels shifted effort from U.S. waters to Campeche Bank in the early 1900s(6).  After World War II there was a large increase in the size of the commercial fleet(7) and technological innovations, such as fathometers, reels, and wire fishing line opened up new fishing grounds(8) resulting in a large increase in landings in the western Gulf(6)


During this period, the shrimp fishery also rapidly expanded.  Markets increased for pink and brown shrimp as new fishing grounds were discovered and vessels began using double-rig trawls, which greatly increased the amount of shrimp that could be caught per unit of effort(9).  The number of days spent shrimping more than doubled between the 1960s and 1990s.  Because juvenile red snapper (age 0-1) are accidentally captured in shrimp trawls, the shrimp trawl fishery became a significant source of red snapper mortality.



Prior to World War II, recreational fishing in the Gulf was fairly limited.  But after the war, increased tourism along the Gulf coast coupled with the mass production of fiberglass boats and improvements in motor technology and navigational equipment led to increases in recreational fishing(11).  This increased demand for recreational fishing opportunities spawned a large party boat fishery that primarily targeted red snapper(12).  Annual recreational landings quickly grew from less than 500,000 pounds prior to 1950 to over 5 million pounds by the late 1990s(13).  Today, recreational anglers account for more than half of the total Gulf red snapper landings and discard large amounts of red snapper at sea due to restrictions on harvest and retention.

Status of Red Snapper (1988-2005):  How has the health of the red snapper population changed over time?

Fishery managers are required by law to prevent overfishing and rebuild depleted fish populations.  Overfishing refers to the rate at which fish are removed from a population.  Scientists conduct stock assessments to determine the status of fish populations and how many fish can safely be removed from populations without causing them to decline over the long term.  If overfishing occurs, eventually too many fish will be removed from a population and it will become depleted or overfished (population abundance is too low), resulting in smaller catches.  

Fishery scientists and managers define rates of fishing mortality (rate that fish are removed from a population by fishing) to allow a fish population to produce the maximum amount of harvest over time or to rebuild a fish population if it has become depleted.  Fishery scientists and managers also define various targets and thresholds for population abundance.  For example, they define the minimum abundance level necessary to prevent the population from declining over the long term and the abundance level that would allow the population to produce the maximum harvest over the long term.  The latter is used as the “rebuilding target” when populations become depleted or overfished. 

In the case of Gulf red snapper, the rebuilding target is based on spawning potential.  Spawning potential refers to the number of eggs a fish produces over its lifetime in a fished population compared to the number of eggs produced by a fish in an unfished population.  The target spawning potential for Gulf red snapper is 26%, which means fishery regulations are designed to increase the population to a level where it is producing about one quarter of the eggs that would be produced by an unfished population.   

NOAA Fisheries has conducted ten assessments of Gulf red snapper since the late 1980s(2).  The first assessment was conducted in 1988 and concluded red snapper was overfished and undergoing overfishing(14).  Six additional assessments were conducted in the 1990s and another in 2005; all reached the same conclusions - too many fish were being killed by directed fisheries and shrimp trawlers(2).  The most recent assessment was completed in September 2015 (http://sedarweb.org/docs/suar/SEDARUpdateRedSnapper2014_FINAL_9.15.2015.pdf) and determined the stock was no longer undergoing overfishing.

The red snapper population was rapidly depleted from 1950 through the late 1980s as commercial and recreational landings and shrimp effort increased(13)(16).  The population reached its lowest level in 1990, when spawning potential declined to just 2.0%—well below the level necessary to sustain the red snapper population(16).  By 2013, spawning potential was about 24%, over halfway to the rebuilding target(24)

Rebuilding Red Snapper:  What have fishery managers and fishermen done to rebuild red snapper?

In the late 1980s, NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) began implementing various regulations to reduce fishing mortality and rebuild the red snapper population(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 bycatch 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 4.7%, well below the target level of 26%(16)


Management Measures Graphs

In 2005, managers began developing a new plan to rebuild red snapper(15).  At that time, regulations were designed to end 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://portal.southeast.fisheries.noaa.gov/cs/main.html#) was implemented for the commercial sector.

Juvenile Abundance MapThe 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(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 at these depths, 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).  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.  The update of this assessment in 2015 indicated that spawning biomass tripled from 2005 to 2013. 

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 six 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.

Proportion of Juveniles Graph

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 nine 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 are 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).

Catch Levels Graph


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.  For 2016, the total catch limits for the commercial and recreational sectors combined was 14 million pounds.




But the Recreational Fishing Season is Shorter?

Although a growing red snapper population is good news for many people, it has unexpectedly – and somewhat counterintuitively – reduced fishing opportunities for the charter boat industry and private anglers.  That’s because the recreational fishing season has gotten progressively shorter even as the red snapper population grows. 

Overall, for each day of the season, recreational fishermen landed six times as many pounds of red snapper in 2013 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.  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.

Even with short seasons, the recreational sector exceeded its quota every year from 2007 to 2013, except for 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon MC252 oil spill.  Then, in 2014, a Federal District Court found that NOAA Fisheries failed to require adequate accountability to prohibit the retention of fish after the recreational quota had been harvested and address any overages.  To address the Court decision, managers established a red snapper recreational annual catch target (ACT) to help maintain landings within the recreational quota.  NOAA Fisheries started projecting the federal red snapper recreational season based on the ACT, which is set at 80% of the quota.  In addition, a new accountability measure requires that, if the recreational quota is exceeded, the overage would be subtracted from the following year’s quota and ACT.  With implementation of the ACT, recreational landings did not exceed the quota in 2014 or 2015.

However, adjusting the season to the ACT reduced the red snapper recreational season even more.  In response, several Gulf states opened state waters to recreational red snapper harvest for extended periods when federal waters were closed.  Catches from these extended state seasons must be counted against the recreational sector’s quota, which further reduces the federal season length.  These state water seasons provide a benefit to private anglers, but federally permitted for-hire vessels are prohibited from fishing in open state waters if federal waters are closed.  

In an attempt to alleviate the problem for federally permitted for-hire vessels, separate components of the recreational sector were established in 2015, each with their own sub-quotas and sub-ACTs.  The red snapper federal for-hire and private angler recreational fishing seasons open each year on June 1 and close when their respective ACTs are projected to be reached.  NOAA Fisheries anticipates separate quotas will improve management of the overall recreational sector and decrease the likelihood of future recreational quota overruns that may jeopardize red snapper stock rebuilding. 

Distinct recreational components changed the way NOAA Fisheries calculates the season length for each component.  State-water landings outside the federal red snapper recreational fishing season can be assigned to the private angler component.  Also, the average weight of red snapper harvested, which is different for the two components, can be calculated separately.  For 2015, the private angler component had a 10-day federal water season, and the federally permitted for-hire component had a 44-day federal water season.  For 2016, the private angler component had a 9-day federal water season, which was extended two days because of a tropical storm, and the federally permitted for-hire component had a 46-day season.

How Do We Improve the Situation? Other Options for the Future 

Season Length and Bag Limit RelationshipSo, how do we improve the situation for federally permitted for-hire vessels and private anglers?  Several short and long-term options are currently being considered by the Gulf Council.  Increasing the recreational catch limit will provide the most immediate benefit to the recreational sector, allowing for more days of fishing.  The recreational catch limit is greater now than ever before. 

Part of the quota increase for 2016 stems from the Gulf Council making a change to allowable catch allocations between the commercial and recreational sectors.  Historically, allowable catch limits have been allocated 51% to the commercial sector and 49% to the recreational sector, based on landings data for each sector during 1979-1987(22).  The new allocations are 48.5% for the commercial sector and 51.5% for the recreational sector.  This shift in allocation is based on the increase in the total allowable harvest resulting from the calibration of historical recreational catch estimates.  


After the recreational sector was split into the two components, members of the for-hire component requested that the Gulf Council consider various catch shared-based management strategies for headboats and charter boats.  This concept is designed to increase accuracy of catch and effort reporting, and improve accountability for the two for-hire fleets. 

The Gulf Council previously developed a regional management strategy, which would allocate the recreational catch limit among the states, then authorize each state to set their own bag limits, size limits, and determine when fishing could occur.  However, agreement on state by state allocations of the red snapper quota was not reached, resulting in the Gulf Council postponing action on this concept.  In June 2016, the Gulf Council re-initiated discussions of this concept for the private angler component, as well as other possible management measures, including alternative or split recreational seasons, changes in the bag limit, transfer of unharvested quota to the following year, and a fish tag program.  

Other options considered by the Gulf Council have included: a days-at-sea program for the for-hire sector, inter-sector trading, sector separation, a fish tag program, and a for-hire individual fishing quota (IFQ) program.  Days-at-sea or IFQ programs would allow those participating in the program a certain number of days to fish per year or a certain number of fish to catch per year.  NOAA Fisheries recently approved a two-year pilot study by a limited group of headboats to examine the feasibility of an allocation-based management program, where boats will be issued a certain quantity of red snapper and gag, based on their historical catches of these species.  Along the same lines, the Gulf Council is still considering an option to establish separate recreational sub-quotas, with a certain quantity of fish for the private fishermen and a separate quantity for the for-hire sector.  Similarly, inter-sector trading would allow charter boat permit holders and potentially private anglers to trade quota with commercial red snapper fishermen to increase the amount of fish available to the recreational sector.  Finally, a tag program might be like those used for hunting and would limit the amount of fish harvested while providing recreational fishermen greater flexibility in when fish could be caught.

Boats on the Water PictureWhat is Next?

Constituents are encouraged to provide input to the Gulf Council and NOAA Fisheries on issues related to red snapper recreational fishing opportunities.  Now is the time for fishermen, scientists, and managers to work together to develop creative solutions that keep the recovery of Gulf red snapper on track while providing increased opportunities for recreational anglers to catch red snapper now and for years to come.  


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