The Pink Prize

Mention red snapper, and perhaps no species across the Southeast evokes as much emotion. The reason this particular reef dweller is surrounded by controversy is because it is hard to convince Florida anglers that the fishery is in need of serious help when red snapper appear to be increasingly abundant. Yet other than a brief open season in the Gulf of Mexico, recreational anglers are prohibited from harvesting even a single fish, and we’re becoming increasingly agitated.


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Photo: © Diane Rome Peebles

A Gulf Coast headboat skipper recently reported that he made a drop on some proven numbers looking for grouper. Instead of gags, his two-dozen anglers immediately connected with hungry red snapper. The aggressive fish were unavoidable, and the captain claims it is an occurrence that is becoming increasingly problematic. To the disappointment of his paying passengers, each of the pink prizes was carefully boated, vented and released, yet a number of fish floated away where predation by hungry scavengers certainly took its toll. The puzzled passengers questioned how such an action could possibly help rebuild stocks.

Since, numerous modified management plans have been enacted, leaving one of Florida’s most popular and economically valuable fisheries where it is today—in shambles.

The story reminded me of a gentleman I recently met at a boat show. He, too, had a similar point of view. Hank is the owner of a mid-size Contender and dumps a boatload of money into the economy for fuel, bait, tackle and accessories. He bottom fishes often and enjoys the reward of bringing home fresh fish. In recent years, sow reds have taken up residence on nearly every deep-water wreck that Hank drops on, yet he is not permitted to harvest a single fish. Hank questioned how taking home one fish could possibly impact the overall fishery?

To address these valid questions, I went straight to the source. But before we hear what the lawmakers had to say let’s make sure we all understand the current situation. Red snapper stocks have been in trouble for years. This slow growing species has been targeted commercially for over 150 years, and I should add relentlessly. When a depressing 2006 stock assessment claimed red snapper were severely overfished and continuing to experience overfishing, emergency measures to protect remaining stocks were immediately put into effect. Since, numerous modified management plans have been enacted, leaving one of Florida’s most popular and economically valuable fisheries where it is today—in shambles.

In state waters surrounding Florida, red snapper are managed by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. When Gulf anglers travel beyond 9 miles from shore, the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council lays the law. Three miles off Atlantic beaches and responsibility lies with the South Atlantic Management Council. Both Councils fall under the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service and must abide by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act.

The Councils develop fishery management plans and recommend regulations to the U.S. Department of Commerce based on stock assessments conducted by the SouthEast Data, Assessment, and Review program (SEDAR), scientific data and public comment. Because it is such an economically viable species, red snapper symposiums are the most highly attended and heated of all public fishery meetings. Once all of the data has been compiled and reviewed, NOAA Fisheries Service reviews Council recommendations and has the authority under the Department of Commerce to approve the regulations. If it sounds like red snapper management is confusing, that is because it is. It is also important to note that historically, SEDAR stock assessments and collected data on the overall health and status of the red snapper fishery has been questionable at best, leaving many frustrated charter boat operators, struggling tackle shop owners and disappointed recreational anglers wondering what the real deal is.

Because the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission only manages fisheries in state waters, FWC has a vested interest in how fisheries are managed in federal waters and serves on both the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Councils. This explains why it is common for all three agencies to enact consistent regulations, though they sometimes take different approaches to meet the same goals. As far as we’re concerned, as of July 2011, FWC regulations note that red snapper season is closed from July 19, 2011, through May 31, 2012. That’s more than 10 months. The regulations chart does not indicate a closed season for red snapper in Atlantic state waters, which is in fact closed indefinitely.

Federal regulations are more concise and while both Councils claim that their ultimate goal is a healthy, stable fishery that is open for recreational anglers to enjoy, for the immediate future you and I will not be bringing home any red snapper anytime soon. Kim Iverson, Public Information Officer for the South Atlantic Council verified that in order to provide maximum protection for a fishery that needs series help, red snapper are completely off limits to both recreational anglers and commercial fishermen in the South Atlantic region.

In the Gulf of Mexico the situation is different with a quota of just over seven million pounds, of which 49% is allocated to the recreational sector and 51% to the commercial sector. The recreational fishery is open from June 19 through a predetermined date when the quota is expected to be met, approximately 50 days. During open season anglers are permitted to harvest two fish per day with a minimum size limit of 16 inches. Upcoming seasons may be shorter than in year’s past because the average size of fish is increasing.

The commercial balance of the quota in the Gulf is divided into IFQs (Individual Fish Quotas), which commercial fishermen can fill whenever they desire. This is why you may see a commercial harvest of red snapper between August and May when the recreational season is closed.

When I questioned the Councils about the increase in red snapper that we all see, both Kim Iverson and Steven Atran, Fishery Biologist at the Gulf Council, claimed that it’s clear that conservation efforts are working and the red snapper fishery is indeed in better shape than it was just a few short years ago. Anglers are seeing more quantity and quality, both positive signs and a good indication that the fishery is recovering.

While the news is encouraging, until the next benchmark stock assessment is completed and all of the data reviewed sometime in 2014, other than the brief open season in the Gulf red snapper will remain off limits. In the interim, the Councils claim additional measures are being implemented to ensure future stock assessments are accurate. One is increased Fishery Independent Monitoring with a heavier emphasis on red snapper. The second is by the NMFS Southeast Scientific Center with increased red snapper research into deeper water where larger red snapper roam.

When presenting the Councils with legitimate questions, responses were clear and concise. Regarding our west coast headboat, “Even though we are seeing about a 30% mortality rate with incidentally caught red snapper, 70% of released fish are surviving and that 70% does more good for the fishery than the 30% mortality does bad,” commented Atran.

Regarding our buddy Hank who wants to know why he can’t keep a single fish, “One fish won’t change the overall health of any fishery, however thousands of anglers taking thousands of fish daily will certainly damper recovery rates,’” said Iverson.

In conclusion, I am not sure anyone knows the right answer. You do the math. Are 7,000 red snapper averageing 10 pounds each really landed everyday by Gulf anglers during open season? How does anyone really know if allowing a limited harvest of one or two fish per day will really dampen conservation efforts? And if so, to what extent? As it stands the Councils estimate it will take until 2032 for stocks to fully recover.

On the flip side, while I certainly do not agree with the Councils’ every point of view, slamming the door shut on of fishery certainly helps rebuild stocks. We are seeing it with our eyes every time we hit the water.I guess the bottom line is that while you and I may never again load a fish box with these tasty fish, maybe our children will.

Red Snapper Facts

Max. Age: 57 years
State Record: 46 lb. 8 oz

  • Largest red snapper are NOT always the oldest red snapper.
  • Charter boats and headboats fishing state waters must abide by federal regulations.
  • Red snapper have been successfully reared in aquaculture facilities and released for the enhancement of wild stocks.