Scientists: Red snapper recovering in Gulf

Published 4:21 am Sunday, December 6, 2009

Fishermen are reeling in bigger and more mature red snapper — a sign that the overfished species is beginning to recover and tight regulations can be relaxed a bit, according to a new analysis.

Based on results of this year’s annual survey of red snapper, released Wednesday in New Orleans, a panel of scientists recommended allowing fishermen to catch more of the fish starting next year. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing limits, will vote on the recommendation in February.

Roy Crabtree, the regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the assessment showed that overfishing has ended, but not that “red snapper has been rebuilt or recovered.”

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He said fishermen could expect quotas and catch limits on red snapper to be increased.

The “findings show indications that some recovery has occurred in the red snapper population,” said Chris Dorsett, a conservation expert with the Ocean Conservancy, a national marine advocacy group.

He added: “This is great news for the Gulf environment and the economy.”

Glen Brooks, the Cortez, Fla.-based president of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association, said it was common knowledge among fishermen that red snapper were making a comeback.

“We believe the population is real healthy. The fishermen see things a couple of years before the scientists see it with their model assessments,” Brooks said. “On the west coast of Florida, if you caught two, three snapper a trip, it was pretty good. Now, you can load a boat up with the suckers. They have definitely come back pretty strong.”

Not everyone agrees.

James Cowan, a fisheries oceanographer at Louisiana State University, warned that the recent data likely reflected a temporary rebound. He said the scientific panel based its recommendations on “the least conservative” model runs. Cowan sits on the advisory panel and voted against increasing catch limits.

“We’re still killing the young too quickly. We need the fish to live long enough to produce a bunch of eggs,” Cowan said. “These guys don’t reach maximum egg potential until they’re 15 years old.”

“This has happened before,” he said. “Everybody gets amped up, we increase catches and we realize after that we can’t support that fishing rate.”

Red snapper can live for more than 50 years, but for the past 20 years the Gulf has been populated by smaller and younger fish, most of them under five years, Dorsett said. He said “rebuilding that age class structure was critically important” to maintaining the species.

Red snapper is regulated under a plan that restricts how many million pounds of the fish can be caught each year by commercial and recreational fishermen. There also are rules to stop fishermen from discarding red snapper they don’t use and from catching them in shrimp nets.

On the Net:

Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council:

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