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No change for now in managing the overfished Gulf red snapper

Fisheries managers on Thursday backed away from taking immediate action to stem overfishing of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, drawing rancor from environmental groups.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils overseeing U.S. fishermen, voted 10-5 to delay cutting the volume of red snapper commercial and sport fishermen can catch. The council said it needs more data on how hurricanes Katrina and Rita affected red snapper, a favorite dish at Louisiana restaurants.

Charter boat fishermen lobbied the council to reassess the data based on a report now being compiled by the industry. They argued against new restrictions because, they said, the hurricanes’ destruction of much of the Gulf shrimp fleet has taken some pressure off depletion of red snapper schools.

Shrimp trawls dragging the Gulf are frequently blamed for killing red snappers as they take in their catch. However, fishermen say fewer snappers are being taken as a byproduct in their nets because fewer boats are plying the Gulf. The council is assessing how many boats were taken out of the industry, but it’s believed to number in the hundreds.

Commercial and sport fishermen are allowed to catch 9 million pounds of red snapper a year, but experts say illegal fishing boosts the actually catch to as much as 12 million pounds.

“There’s more fish out in this Gulf of Mexico than there were back in the 1980s,” said Ron Woodruff, a charter boat operator, in a telephone interview from Orange Beach, Ala., as he rigged his boat, the “Class Act.”

“I’m not saying it’s totally healthy, but I’m saying the data they’re using right now is flawed,” Woodruff said of the red snapper stock.

Marine scientists, however, see it differently.

The pinkish-skinned red snapper has been severely overfished, they say, and the stock is down an estimated 97 percent from levels of 100 years ago. Red snapper has been on the federal government’s overfished list for years.

“We’ve got years and years of data, and the overfishing is well-documented and scientifically endorsed,” said Chris Dorsett with The Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based marine advocacy group. “The councils need to follow the advice of its scientists. This is fishery management 101.”

For months, the council has been debating a plan to rebuild the red snapper stock, under mandate of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The council took testimony this week in Baton Rouge from scientists, fishermen and environmental groups. A decision on specific strategies is expected to be delayed until at least the end of the year.

Those measures could include cutting the volume of fish that can be caught and reducing the number of days charter boat fishermen can take red snapper.

At this week’s meeting, which ended Thursday, Roy Crabtree, southeast regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the agency will issue its own rules because of the postponement. Faced with lawsuits from fishermen and conservationists, NMFS is under pressure to take action on the iconic Gulf fish.

The council’s inaction also will color national discussions on how best to manage the nation’s fish stocks. Fisheries management legislation known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act is awaiting reauthorization in Congress.

“This is a story we will be telling up in D.C., and why the Magnuson Act needs more stringent controls on the councils,” Dorsett said.

The Gulf council is widely viewed by environmentalists as a recalcitrant body unwilling to give up its power to government agencies and panels of scientists.

“They’ve essentially forced the hand of the feds,” said Aaron Viles of the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group. “There’s no way they will allow an absence of management to continue.”

Two major reports in recent years, one from the Pew Oceans Commission and the other from U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, said the regional councils need more oversight.