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Snapper Fishing So Good Quota Exceeded

September 1, 2011
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Fishing for red snapper off the Alabama Gulf Coast was so good earlier this summer, it apparently was too good, at least as far as the National Marine Fisheries Service is concerned.

In fact, the 48-day red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico was so successful, recreational anglers have likely exceeded their quota by about a million pounds, which could lead to an even shorter season in 2012.

The “problem” was there were just too many big fish out there in a biting mood.

I know! That logic fails me as well.

The recovery of the red snapper stocks in the Gulf has surprised marine scientists, who projected the average size of the fish caught in 2011 would be a little more than 5 pounds. What the data collected show is the average size of the red snapper was 6.1 pounds, which blew the doors off the 3.5-million-pound quota.

“Because the fish were so big, not only did we go over quota, we also burned through the 345,000 bonus pounds that we had from the last stock assessment,” said Bob Shipp, Chairman of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. “They don’t have the July landings finalized, but through June we had gone through 80 percent of the quota, which included the 345,000 pounds. So the projection is when they get the July landings and landings from Texas, which also come in late, that we’re going to come in between 4.4 and 4.8 millions pounds. That is about a million pounds over the recreational quota.

“If nothing changes and they had to project a 6-pound fish for next season, the 2012 season would likely be shorter still because the fish are bigger.”

Shipp did say there is one possible short-term solution. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, also known as NOAA Fisheries) is trying to generate as much data as it can before it convenes the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), the entity that sets annual quotas. If the new numbers support it, the SSC may have the latitude to release an additional 2 million pounds for the 2012 season.

“They don’t have to release the additional pounds, so we don’t know if they’re going to or not,” Shipp said. “Also in 2012, there is a standard stock assessment update, which will give a better picture of the condition of the stocks. Then in 2013, they’re going to do what is called a benchmark stock assessment, which allows them to bring in new computer models, some improved models. They’re going to have a lot more fishery-independent data, which is the most important data source. Hopefully, once they get that benchmark, we’ll have a much more realistic picture of the status of the stock. What people are seeing with their own eyes should finally come out in the science.

“There are two populations of red snapper – one that lives in cyberspace and one that lives in the Gulf of Mexico. And what lives in cyberspace doesn’t match up with what’s in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Shipp has offered an alternative to determining the snapper quota by pounds of fish to the number of fish taken. So far, his idea has been rejected.

“I brought that up again, and the stock assessment people don’t want to do that,” he said. “One of their reasons is they’re trying to get the total biomass of stock to a certain level that the model is shooting for. Their claim is if they went by numbers of fish, rather than weight of the fish, that we would take far too many big fish out of the system, and it would slow down the pace of reaching that goal.

“The ludicrous part of that is that goal is for the year 2032. Many people believe we have reached that goal because the fish are so big now. It just shows how far off the models are. By 2032, you’d be walking on the backs of a red snapper from Panama City to Dauphin Island at the rate they’re going now. They do think the increase will start to level off at some point though.”

Shipp also said it is true that such an increase in the red snapper population can upset the equilibrium on the reef habitat and start to impact other species of reef fish.

“That’s already happening,” he said. “Red snapper feed on vermilion snapper and other reef species. One of the good things about going to the benchmark is the new model has a density-dependent component. In other words, it will factor in that when the population gets so dense that it has to level off. The current model doesn’t have that. The National Marine Fisheries Service says it can’t do it before 2013. It doesn’t have enough new data.

“But, most of us would rather wait and have it done right, even if it costs us a year.”

Shipp holds out hope the new data will allow the Gulf Council to increase quotas substantially in a few years, although the “good ol’ days” are gone.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to seven fish (bag limit) year-round,” he said. “But, in my opinion, I do think the quota is going to start to increase and probably fairly rapidly after 2012, after we get the new stock assessment. And when I say quota, I’m talking about the cyber population. The computers will finally realize the snapper stocks are getting bigger.”

For Tom Steber, President of the Orange Beach Fishing Association and manager of the Zeke’s Landing charter fleet, the main issue is that cyberspace number.

“The whole time they’ve been collecting data, they haven’t collected data on the Alabama artificial reef program or the oil and gas rigs,” Steber said. “Where do you think a reef fish is living, out there on the sand bottom? They’re gathering information from natural bottom. If you take a camera out to one of the reefs, you’ll be amazed at how many fish are out there.”

Steber does not contest the projection that recreational anglers will exceed the quota by about a million pounds.

“There’s no question we went over,” he said. “They projected we caught an average 6.1-pound fish. Realistically, we were catching 8- to 10-pound fish. That’s how good the fishing was. The issue is not that we’re overfishing; the issue is the fish are there and they’re not counting the fish. Instead of a 3.5-million-pound quota, we ought to have a 15-million-pound quota. The fact is the red snapper are eating everything out there. You can hardly catch anything other than red snapper. And it’s not like they’re throwing back a bunch of fish. The charter captains don’t have to cull fish because they’re so big.”

Fortunately, Steber said attitudes about fishing in the Gulf of Mexico are changing from the fill-the-freezer mentality of yesteryear.

“When you have tourists and families coming down in the summer, they don’t care what they’re catching,” he said. “They just want to catch fish. And 90 percent of them don’t even want to keep the fish. They’re just down here for that fishing experience. In our world, we’ve got to keep nurturing that. From an economic standpoint, we need snapper season in April and May. In our particular case, snapper season ended on a Monday. On Tuesday, we did more business out of our charter office than we did any day during the summer. Part of the reason was we had more boats to send out. But it also told me that the tourists don’t care. They just want to go have a good time. That’s what we’ve got to promote – go out and enjoy a day of fishing.

“If you think about the fishery we have here, there is no better fishery anywhere in the world. There’s no other place in the world that the captain can guarantee you’re going to catch fish. If you can put a chinstrap on and go out in 20-foot seas, you’re going to catch fish.”

PHOTO: (By David Rainer) Carts full of huge red snapper were commonly seen on the docks at Orange Beach and Dauphin Island during the 48-day snapper season that ran from June 1 through July 18. In fact, snapper fishing was so good that the recreational sector went over its quota by about a million pounds, which may impact the length of the 2012 season.


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