Hunting and fishing are big business in the Gulf states (we’re talking Gulf of Mexico here), and so it comes as no surprise that state agencies charged with managing natural resources in those states often aggressively advocate on behalf of sportsmen when science, politics, conservation, and recreational interests intersect. A prime example of this dynamic is recent legal action undertaken by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which filed suit against NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in federal court. The objective of the suit is to block the regional administrator’s ability to reduce the recreational red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) season in federal waters off the coasts of Louisiana.
At issue is the health of red snapper stock and whether or not current stock assessments indicate a recreational season commensurate with recreational anglers’ desires is in the best interests of the species. Red snapper are a relatively long-lived species with a potential lifespan of more than half a century. Given that adult fish do not reach sexual maturity until they are more than a decade old, stock sustainability relies heavily not just on the number of fish present in the fishery but also on the age of those fish. While fisheries biologists in the Gulf of Mexico generally agree that red snapper stock are recovering nicely, they worry many of the numerous fish frequently reported in anecdotal reports by anglers are, in fact, immature fish.
Last year the recreational red snapper season in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico was set at 46 days, contrasted with a year-round season in Texas waters and an 88-day season in Louisiana waters. In February of this year, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council implemented (by a vote) an emergency rule that would allow the NMFS regional administrator to reduce the recreational red snapper season in federal waters off Texas to as few as 12 days. In federal waters off Louisiana, the season could be cut back to nine days under the emergency rule. As NOAA announced earlier this month, the 2013 red snapper season, which begins 1 June 2013, is projected to be the shortest on record “and could be even shorter off those states that implement less restrictive regulations in their waters.”
The provision for emergency rulemaking is generally considered to be an essential tool for fisheries managers to manage fisheries in real time based on the most current data. The emergency rule requested by the Gulf Council in February could allow for implementation of “state‐specific closure authority” of federal waters off states not adopting state recreational regulations consistent with federal recreational red snapper regulations. Florida, Texas and Louisiana have all indicated they are unwilling to mirror federal regulations, which, given the retail value of the red snapper fishery in these states, is perhaps not difficult to understand. Fisheries agents in Texas have estimated reducing the red snapper season in state waters could cost the State as much as $12 million. In Louisiana, the lost retail sales secondary to the red snapper fishery have been estimated at around $8 million.
In an interesting twist, on 18 April during its meeting in Gulfport, Mississippi, the Gulf Council essentially reversed its decision on the emergency rule by a vote of 8-7. A revised document included a number of “preferred alternatives,” including the establishment of “a regional management program that delegates authority to a state or states to set management measures for the harvest of an assigned portion of the recreational red snapper quota.” Other proposed regional management guidelines include establishing regions representing each Gulf state and allowing those individual regions to set recreational red snapper season start and end dates, set recreational bag limits (to 4 fish per angler per day), and set recreational minimum size limits (from 14 inches to 18 inches TL).
With the reversal of the Council’s request, as well as several pieces of new pending legislation aimed at giving more management authority to the states, it remains to be seen how the NMFS will respond.