Fishing is supposed to be a fun, relaxing activity. Conservation must be a natural part of that, too. Anglers just want to catch fish and, at the same time, ensure fish populations are preserved for the future. But it isn’t that simple in the Gulf of Mexico.
When it comes to red snapper fishing off the Louisiana coast, neither fishing or conservation seems to come without the price of controversy and turmoil, two of the very things that fishermen actually try to get away from. At the heart of seasons, limits and conservation efforts is the question of “how many snapper are there?”
At the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s latest meeting, held virtually on Nov. 3-Dec.1, one of the main topics of discussion was “The Great Red Snapper Count” and snapper counting results. Snapper counts are a collaboration between scientists and institutions and their corresponding states along the Gulf to provide responsible limits and seasons on the fish.
What’s confusing to Louisiana fishermen is that the numbers the Council looked at as estimates of the Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper population are three times those used by the federal authorities setting snapper quotas for recreational fishermen.
This latest study estimated there are 29 million 2-year-old-plus red snapper off Louisiana’s coast, second only to the 48 million estimated off Florida’s coast. Texas has 23 million, and there’s a count of 10 million combining Mississippi and Alabama waters.
Increased harvest numbers?
Those numbers are great news for red snapper fishermen. The question remains, will they be used to allow increased harvest numbers in 2021?
“This report is good news for the fishery and for anglers,” said Chris Schieble, Interim Director of Marine Fisheries for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “The Council discussed incorporating the Great Red Snapper Count into an interim analysis for red snapper that may be available in the spring and noted that red snapper catch limits are expected to increase because of this. LDWF biologists will likely present alternative management options to the Commission if indeed there is an increase in catch limits. We are very hopeful that any increase in red snapper quotas will result in increased access to the fishery by the anglers.”
The increase in numbers should lead to increased harvest numbers for everyone concerned with red snapper, Shieble said. “The current Gulf-wide harvest allocation based on the federal stock assessment is 15.5 million pounds, which is split between commercial and recreational sectors. We are hopeful the Great Red Snapper Count results will be utilized by the interim assessment in 2021 to increase the current harvest allocation (15.5 million pounds) so that all user groups get more access to red snapper.”
Hopeful but cautious
Sports fishermen and charter boat operators that target red snapper are hopeful of this same increase as well, but watch with a wary eye.
“We won’t know what it means until we see it in writing,” said Capt. Brett Ryan, who runs Offshore Sportfishing Charters out of Venice. “I think that these numbers show that the state is doing it’s job. Snapper has long been miscounted and I think that Louisiana having boots on the ground and seeing what’s coming in everywhere instead of just guessing on some number based on other things, it’s making a difference.”
Ryan also has a very unique perspective on snapper fishing that gives him a insight on numbers that few others have.
“I’m a scuba diver and a spear fisherman in addition to being a rod and reel guy,” he said. “I see the snapper down there. When we dive on spots like off Grand Isle and we see six boats tied up to the rig, we’ll ask them how the fishing is. They’ll tell us they are catching a few and we dive down there are there are so many snapper we can’t even shoot anything else because the snapper are so thick. They are just not always feeding.”
Schieble says the next step is for the data from the Great Red Snapper Count to be vetted by the Gulf Council’s Science and Statistical Committee. Once that happens, the Southeast Fisheries Science Center will incorporate any feedback provided by the SSC and will then provide a completed interim analysis to the SSC, hopefully at its March 2021 meeting.
Next, the SSC is expected to provide a revised fishing limit recommendations for consideration by the Council at its April 2021 meeting. The Council will then work to address changes to the catch limits based on the interim analysis at a future Council meeting. LDWF is expecting that the timing of any changes, due to the interim assessment, would likely come after the start of the season in May, but is hopeful it can be incorporated prior to the end of the fishing year.
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