Red Snapper

Things sure have changed since my father, Captain Paul Nelson II, started charter fishing out of Ponce Inlet more than 50 years ago. In those days there were few regulations and most recreational fishing took place within 25 miles from shore. Through the 1970s and 1980s, advancements in technology and increased fishing pressure made the need for regulations evident, as near-shore waters were clearly being overfished.


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Photo: FWC Fish & Wildlife Research Institute

Ultimately, regulations were enacted that have since helped rebuild important stocks. According to my father, who has fished the same inlet for more than six decades, there are more red snapper off northeast Florida today than there were in the 1950s. That’s a bold statement, yet with many stocks appearing healthier than ever before it’s puzzling why restrictions are tighter than ever.

…contact your representatives in Congress and demand they pass laws to allow more flexibility in rebuilding fisheries—especially when crucial, accurate data is lacking.

To verify the conundrum, during the third week of February 2012 a headboat out of Ponce Inlet took 25 recreational anglers bottom fishing. During their first four drops the anglers amassed seven triggerfish, two mangrove snapper, one cobia and one gag grouper. Keeping them busy was over 75 red snapper and more than 70 black sea bass that had to be released. At times anglers couldn’t catch any additional species due to the abundance of red snapper. Repeat the same scenario a few more times and you’ll get a clear understanding of how the day unfolded. Everyone caught fish, but most of the passengers went home empty handed.

Just 20 years ago when a customer called to book a charter it was more or less a discussion about what was biting and where along the rail they would be fishing. Now when someone calls the first question is typically, “What can I keep?” Charter boat operators are finding it increasingly difficult to convince potential customers that during a 6-hour near-shore trip they might be able to keep a cobia, but probably nothing else.

Many of these same fishermen are wondering how there can be so many fish to catch, yet regulations make it unable for them to harvest a single red snapper? The truth is, current regulations across the South Atlantic region have been influenced by a number of different factors. The most important of which may very well have been enacted back in 2006, when fisheries laws were changed to reflect extremely short deadlines in an effort to protect fisheries designated as overfished.

Another major factor is the lack of accurate data on important species, particularly red snapper. Without proper and accurate data, stock assessments are extremely uncertain. In the case of red snapper, the difference between claimed fisheries science and what anglers are actually seeing on the water today is as wide as the ocean itself.

In January 2010, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council closed red snapper fishing because they claimed that the total weight of the stock had been reduced by over 97% in just 35 years. According to the science in SEDAR 24, in 1955 the overall stock weighed over 75 million pounds and by 1990 the stock was reduced to only 1.8 million pounds.

It’s important to note that when a stock assessment is calculated there are two types of data, fishery dependent and fishery independent. Fishery dependent data consists of landings by commercial and recreational fishermen. These landings are sampled for length and weight so that a computer model can recreate the stock on paper. Fishery dependent data is highly variable and relies on dozens of uncontrollable factors, making it extremely unreliable. However, if this is all that is available then scientists have no choice but to use “the best available science.”

Fishery independent data is collected by scientists in a controlled manner so there are few variables. In the Florida Keys, divers count the number of yellowtail and mutton in a particular area to get an estimate of abundance. In these assessments there are six or more additional sources of fishery independent data included in the studies. This type of data reduces uncertainty and may be one of the reasons anglers are permitted to harvest 10 yellowtail snapper or 10 mutton snapper per day, year-round. In regards to the South Atlantic red snapper assessment there has been no usable fishery independent data, which has forced scientists to create assessments with a great deal of uncertainty.

With the red snapper closure entering its third year, the state of Florida along with a number of private organizations is now trying to help improve the data. The first area of concern is to increase the number of headboat trips that are observed each year. Another stream of information that has been lacking is tagging data. With funding from non-profit fishing organizations the FWC started a tagging program in February 2011. In the first year of the program over 700 red snapper from Jacksonville to Cape Canaveral were measured and tagged, helping reveal critical data like mortality rates and migration routes.

Another area of improvement is with the aforementioned fishery independent data, particularly with a CRP (cooperative research program). One of the fishing methods used in the CRP is a short long-line that is repeatedly set for a precise amount of time with the same bait. The number of fish caught, number of hooks, and period of time are recorded to devise what is called a catch per unit effort, or CPUE. The fish that are caught can be used as biological samples to collect information about age and egg productivity. All of which helps improve scientific knowledge of red snapper, with the ultimate goal of improving the accuracy of future assessments.

The next red snapper assessment across the South Atlantic is scheduled for 2013. The goal is to have the most accurate data possible so that fisheries managers can make fair and educated decisions that promote a sustainable fishery. For now the only thing we can do is help get involved. Learn how the system works so that when regulations are passed you are not left in the dark on why or how it could have happened. Contact your state and federal representatives and let them know the importance of data collection for species like American red snapper.

In 2006, the law was changed to put arbitrary deadlines in effect to end overfishing. This it what’s holding scientists and managers hostage, and this law is one of the main reasons for closed fisheries. The next South Atlantic Council meeting in Florida will be held this June in Orlando. If you want to get involved attend a Q & A session or contact your representatives in Congress and demand they pass laws to allow more flexibility in rebuilding fisheries—especially when crucial, accurate data is lacking.