New red snapper rebuilding plan approved for Gulf of Mexico

Published 4:09 pm Friday, June 8, 2007

Recreational and commercial boats must cut the number of red snapper brought to shore and shrimpers must bring up less in their trawls to keep one of the Gulf of Mexico’s most popular catches from dying out, federal regulators decided Thursday.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council reduced the recreational catch limit from four fish to two per person, and set a limit for all commercial boats at 5 million for the year instead of 9.1 million as in past years.

The two-fish recreational catch limit had already been put into effect on a temporary basis this year. And the commercial catch had been put at 6.5 million pounds before the current season began.

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“I think we’ve really turned a corner in management of this species. We’re finally on the right track,” said Chris Dorsett, Gulf of Mexico fish conservation director for the Ocean Conservancy, one of three groups which took the council to court over its previous plan.

The plan also requires anyone going after redfish to use circle hooks, which have points curved inward so they are less likely to hook in a fish’s stomach, and which commercial fisheries have used for decades. Commercial and sports fishers also must use tools to improve the survival of fish too small to keep: de-hooking tools and hypodermic-like venting tools to deflate the fish’s air bladders so they can easily swim back to the deep waters where they lurk.

After the species was declared overfished in 1997, the council set limits on the number and size of red snapper that sport and commercial fishermen could take. Conservationists said the limits were far too low to rebuild the species by 2032 — the last possible deadline.

A federal judge agreed, striking down the plan earlier this year. Regulators had until the end of this year to approve a new plan.

The Gulf Restoration Network, which went to court with the conservancy, tempered its praise.

“We think on balance it’s a step in the right direction,” campaign director Aaron Viles said.

The quotas wouldn’t have to be this drastic if the council had acted earlier, he said: “Red snapper stands as the example of how you do not manage a species. You don’t ignore the science for 10 years; you don’t deny it; you don’t delay it.”

Charter captains and shrimpers have said the rules could put them out of business.

Shrimpers must cut the amount of red snapper that come up in their nets as part of the “bycatch” — anything other than shrimp — by 74 percent from the average for the 2001-2003 seasons. The limit will drop to 67 percent in 2011.

“The regulations adopted by the Council today will be very onerous on the U.S. shrimp industry, which is already struggling against low-priced shrimp imports, high fuel prices, and hurricane recovery,” Deborah Long, spokeswoman for the Southern Shrimp Alliance, said in an e-mailed statement.

She said shrimpers already have cut the red snapper bycatch by 65 percent, 15 percent beyond the figure required under the 1999 management plan for red snapper.

The Orange Beach Fishing Association, a charter captains’ group based in Orange Beach, Ala., had no immediate comment.

Steve Foust, who runs Aquastar Charters out of Pensacola, Fla., said the two-fish limit this season has cut his business by 30 percent.

“We still have tourism business, with people on vacation who don’t know what to expect or what fish are even in the ocean,” he said. “But our bread and butter — sportsmen who know where they’re coming from — they’re out of here.”

He didn’t believe studies which show the species could die out without more drastic measures. “There’s plenty of smapper. All you’ve got to do get on a boat and get a scuba tank and jump down there and you’ll see them.”

Viles criticized the plan because it assumes that the hurricanes of 2005 have cut recreational fishing by 10 percent, though he said fisheries data don’t show any reduction. He also disparaged the lower bycatch limit for shrimpers in 2011.

He said the reason is that bycatch reduction devices don’t work well, so about the only way to reduce bycatch is to stop fishing.