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Scientists: red snapper quotas must be cut to save species

Years of overfishing have left so few red snapper that almost none reach full maturity, scientists say.

To avoid eliminating the highly sought-after species, federal regulators said Monday they plan to cut the numbers of red snapper that may be caught by almost 30 percent next year.

Red Snapper are highly popular in the seafood industry for their delicate flavor and among anglers for their aggressive behavior.

Environmental and conservation groups have been pushing to curtail snapper fishing for more than a decade. But those who catch and make money off the fish have been reluctant to accept any new restrictions. They say regulators ignore the role of shrimpers, whose trawl nets accidentally kill millions of snapper a year.

The new restrictions would not go into effect until next spring and still face a public review process. They already are stirring heavy opposition from some influential fishing interest groups, highlighting an intense, ongoing battle over the Gulf of Mexico’s limited resources. In the case of red snapper, the battle has been at a stalemate since the current quota was set in 1996.

“We could have foreseen this 10 years ago and started into a more conservative management approach that would have made the cuts we’re having now less draconian,” said James Cowan, a coastal fisheries expert from Louisiana State University who served 13 years on a federal scientific advisory panel for red snapper. “I’m sensitive to the fact that it’s going to affect people’s livelihoods, but the decision was made 10 or 15 years ago to take the risky approach and … hope for the best, but we didn’t get the best.”

The annual quota on red snapper will drop by 2.6 million pounds to 6.5 million pounds, according to the new rules being developed by National Marine Fisheries Service. Recreational fishers would be allotted about half of the total quota, and would be limited to two fish per day. Commercial fishers would be barred from fishing once their portion of the quota was reached.

Seafood dealers have warned a cut in the quota would drive up red snapper prices in restaurants nationwide. Meanwhile, the shrimp industry, purported to be the driving force behind the decades-long decline of red snapper, appears to have been given a pass on any major new restrictions. For more than a decade, commercial and recreational fishing interests successfully fought off quota reductions, in part by arguing the shrimp industry was the greatest single source of red snapper deaths.

Attempts to cut down on shrimp trawl bycatch — the accidental snaring of young snapper and other fish in shrimpers nets — have been ineffective. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged or sunk hundreds of shrimp trawls, federal fisheries managers said further bycatch restrictions appeared unnecessary. As a result they turned their focus almost solely to recreational and commercial fishing practices.

Representatives of the Gulf of Mexico’s charter boat fleet warned Monday the government’s latest strategy could prove disastrous for the recreational fishing industry, which has an economic impact estimated at $1.6 billion annually. Red snapper is a staple of the for-hire fishing industry, particularly in Louisiana, where schools of the fish are relatively easy to find around the thousands of offshore oil rigs and other structures scattered along the coastline.

“How is somebody going to pay for a full day to go out and get two fish? It’s just not going to work,” said Larry Hooper, who runs a fishing guide service, Our Freedom Charters, out of Empire.