This afternoon, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council moved to set the controversial total red snapper quota equal to the acceptable biological catch (ABC)* of 14.30 million pounds (mp) for 2015. This quota would represent an increase of 3.3 mp over the current quota. Under this plan, one of three the Council considered during today’s meeting, the 2015 quota will be divided between the commercial fishery at 7.26 mp and the recreational fishery at 7.04 mp. The total recreational annual catch target (ACT)** will be 5.632 million pounds. The quotas would then decrease in 2016 and again in 2017 as shown below.
In addition to so-called Alternative 2, which was the option the Council backed unanimously in the end, there were two other alternatives. The first, Alternative 1, would have maintained the red snapper quotas as defined in the July 2013 Framework Actions. This would mean a total quota of 11 mp with 5.61 mp going to the commercial fishery and 5.39 mp going to the recreational quota.
Alternative 3, which gathered some support late in today’s Council meeting following public testimony, would increase the 2015 quota to 13.74 mp instead of 14.30 mp. In addition, rather than decreasing the quota each year over the next two years, Alternative 3 would have implemented a constant catch scenario, which some council members favored. Ultimately, Alternative 3 failed to override Alternative 2 by a council vote of 11 to 6. The three alternatives are summarized below:
Support for Alternative 3 was based on two main arguments. First, several fisheries managers indicated that decreasing quotas in 2016 and then again in 2017 sends the wrong message. “We’ve got a fishery that’s improving yet we gonna have a number that goes down, and to me that’s just a negative,” said council member Corky Perret of Mississippi in today’s meeting. “If the number were going up from 15 to 16 to 17 it’d be one thing, but to start at a higher and then go lower–to me it’s a negative. We’re not talking about a whole lot of difference, but I do prefer to see a constant catch rather than a declining catch in a fishery that is supposedly being better managed and is improving.”
In both public testimony and public comment, several individuals indicated that Alternative 3 was their preferred alternative because it was “a precautionary approach” and was in the best interest of the stock based on the best available science. “[Alternative 3] offers the greatest conservation benefit for the stock,” said J.P. Brooker, a policy analyst for the Ocean Conservancy’s Fish Conservation Program. “Alternative 3 will facilitate rebuilding and may result in decreasing the rebuilding timeframe for the stock and will reduce the chances of overfishing. From a conservation perspective, these benefits will aid the longterm health and resiliency of Gulf Red Snapper.”
Eric Brazer, Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance Deputy Director, also advocated for Alternative 3. “We feel a constant catch helps us hedge our bets against the uncertainty that we talked about earlier,” he said, alluding to the first part of the council meeting during which Dr. William Patterson, III discussed the uncertainties in the fishery data.
Regarding uncertainties in the data, critics contend that final landings estimates will not be available for at least another four months, meaning that current decision making is based only on provisional landings estimates. Further, there are lingering questions regarding the red snapper fishery data coming out of Texas. Despite these and other uncertainties concerning the fishery, the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) determined previously that the red snapper Southeast Data, Assessment and Review (SEDAR) assessment of the fishery using provisional landings estimates represents the best available science and is suitable for management advice. Based on previous years’ data, changes between provisional and final landings estimates have typically been 5% or less.
Despite the increase in quota, many recreational fishers are criticizing the Council’s actions. “Gulf Council has no idea what they’re doing when it comes to the public resource other than how to break the law and give everything to the commercials,” wrote Brian Wyatt on the Council’s Facebook page following the decision. “Follow the money people. Its all about someone getting fat pockets while taking away our public (not commercial) owned resource.”
Today’s actions by the Council is subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will determine the length of the 2014 red snapper season in Federal waters in the coming weeks. The Gulf states will then set their own seasons in state waters, which may once again spark a controversy between federal fisheries managers and states that elect to have a non-compliant red snapper season in state waters.
* Acceptable Biological Catch or ABC is a scientific calculation of the sustainable harvest level of a fishery as determined by fisheries biologists.
** Annual Catch Target or ACT serves as a management target and is set below the Annual
Catch Limit (ACL) to account for management uncertainty and to insure that ACLs are not exceeded.