Fishing & Boating News

FMP for the Reef Fish Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico

by: Don J. Green, Blue Water News

(November 20,1997 - San Marcos, Texas) Editor's note: Little did the offshore sport fisherman think in late 1996 when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that this very reauthorization would--in the future--directly impact fishing opportunities. What has been observed recently is only the beginning as relates to fishing in federal waters off the coasts of the United States. It probably comes as a surprise to most fishermen that from November 27th, this year through December 31st, they will be unable to fish the Gulf for red snapper. How can this be, they ask when they can so consummately pull the required five legal fishes from the water is such short periods of time. That--exactly--is the reason. If there is any species on earth more ignorant that red snapper, it has't yet shown up. Taking fish in such large numbers can eventually result in what is termed as "overfishing"; this, in spite of the fact that red snapper begin their spawning cycle at around two years.

Overfishing, according to Magnuson-Stevens, has a bite. The sport 'guy', who all these years had virtually 'open seas' when it came to fish-catching responsibilities, just got bitten.

The intricate manner in which the federal government arrives the state of the fishery off the US coasts is complicated and --quite naturally--controversial. Mathematical equations and geometric formulas are the hallmarks of determining stock status. These translate into regulatory instruments called fishery management plans. One such currently in place is known as the management plan for the Reef Fish of the Gulf of Mexico.

A review:

Why! are they doing this to us, cry the weekend anglers seeking Gulf of Mexico red snapper?
Same plaintiff cry comes from:
...the commercial industry.
...headboat and charter operators.
This, according to sources, is the federal government's vendetta between itself and US fishermen. Little reason prevails among the complaining persons. Facts are that the docks are loaded with red snapper carcasses taked by fishermen despite a five-fish, 15-inch limit. That is the crux of the problem. Too many more fishes are harvested than can be biologically reproduced by this species.

The problem partly is 'open seas' that is fishing for a resource without restriction. It is not new. When it occurs one has what the scientists deem "overfishing". It is the step before 'endangered'. Avoiding this calamity in waters under federal control is the implementaton of fishery management plans.

The Reef Fish Plan was first issued in 1984. It established a set of regulations:
...prohibitions on use of fish traps, roller trawls, spear guns
...set size limit of 13 inches for red snapper
...set keeper limit
...and established reporting requirements.

There are over 50 species of fishes addressed by the Reef Fish document. Gaining most attention is the red snapper, although other fishes--notably amberjack, Nassau grouper and Jewfish--are commanding attention. A total of 14 amendments have to date been added to the original documents. Some impose additional limits. Others lessen restrictions. Amendments in brief are:
...One-set recreational bag limits of seven red snapper and five grouper; set commercial quota in millions of pounds and the rebuilding of the red snapper stock by year 2000; eastablished a boundary line at 20 fathom curve for longline fishery
...Two-prohibit harvest of Jewfish.
...Three-change rebuilding red snapper stock target date to 2007; changed status of speckled hind (grouper), set quotas, addressed the problem of bycatch by shrimpers
...Four-establish moritorium in issues of reef fishing permits for commercials; changed time of year that total allowable catch is set.
...Five-set additional restrictions on use of fish traps, raised red snapper minimum size limit to 14 inches in 1994 then gradually increase to 16 inches over a five year period; allocated 3.06 MP to commercials and 2.94; change target year to achieve a 20 percent spawning ratio potential from 2007 to 2009; establish an emergency endorsement which permitted commercials to harvest greater quantities of fish; closes mutton snapper fishing for two months in Dry Tortugas.
...Six-extend provisions of the emergency rule for the remainder of 1993 and 1994
...Seven-establish federal reef fish dealer permits
...Eight-establish an individual transferable quota system; this never became operational since the US Congress refused to allocate funds for system operation
...Nine-provide for collection of red snapper data
...Eleven-regulate commercial sales by operators having permits; set a new reef fish permit moritorium until December 31, 2000
...Twelve-reduce the recreational bag limit to one fish for greater amberjack; set an aggregate reef fish bag limit of 20 fishes for unregulated species.
...Thirteen-extend the commercial red snapper endorsement system through 1997.
...Fourteen-provide for a 10-year phase out of fish trap fishery; prohibit the use of fish traps in areas west of Cape Blas, Florida.
...Fifteen-this is a proposed amendment; if passed it would affect commercial trip limits and endorsements; split the season; remove sea basses, grunts and porgies from the FMP and also certain species from the aggregate-catch limit.

Anglers fishing commercially long have been pictured as a Snidley Whiplash-bad guy with black hat who terrified 'our loving little Nel.' Turns out that, while their hands not always were lily white, the commercials also have not always been as black-hearted as portrayed.

Move over! the white-hat sport fisherman needs to occupy space. Travel backward to 1993 for an eye opener. Recreational anglers that year were allocated 2.94 MPs of red snapper. They exceeded that quota by nearly 90 percent--2.94 MP plus an additional 2.2 That was due to the fact that each fisherman could still catch seven fish per trip. This caused the regulators to recommend that keeper limit be dropped to five fishes of 15 inches or more total length. Another inch in length increase is in the books. It is possible that the automatic increase to 16 inches set to go into effect January 1, 1998 will not take place. The Gulf Council during its November meeting in Florida passed a resolution that seeks to retain the 15 inch limit for '98. The resolve will be submitted to the NMFS for decision. Bowing again to statistics offers by the powerful, self-serving fishing industry, Council members seem convinced that release mortality of red snapper caught commerically may be higher than previously estimated due to the greater depths fished and faster retrieval by the industry.

Total catch for '95 again was set at 6.00 MP with 3.06 MP going to the commercial industry and 2.94 to recreationals.

Cancel those kind phrases said about Snidley. Anyone who believes that industry fingerprints were not on the proposal to increase the 1996 red snapper total allowable catch, is a candidate for the purchase of an Arizona bridge. The Council voted to set the TAC at 9.12 MP and divided the 'take' in the usual 51.49 percentile. Some 4.47 MP was reserved for the sport fishing man. As if not satisfied by the in roads made against reef fishing, the industry next pushed vigorously to reduce snapper size limit from 15 to 14 inches. A vote on this proposal failed by a 7 to 7 vote. 1996 saw no change in the 9.12 MP catch allocated for anglers fishing for red snapper. The same set of quotas were retained for '97. This year the commercial quota changed slightly. It was split between two seasons; first began on February 1 and continued until a 3.06 MP level was reached. Season number two began on September 2nd, ran for a couple of weeks, had a break picked up again October and was closed October 6th when the figure was reached.

Among its many features, Magnuson-Stevens requires the agency to initiate an independent peer review of the Gulf red snapper stock. This review, among other features, will determine the quota program. Sources at the Gulf Council and NMFS say that the assessment has been completed, but that the final report has not yet been submitted. The report is expected before January 1st, 1998 and will directly affect next year's commercial and sport fishg quotas.

Blue Water news has learned that a 1998 total allowable catch of 6.00 MP is quite likely. This being the case and, if recreational individual bag limits are not reduced, it is highly possible that another closure affecting sport fishing will take place in 1998.

Visualize a triangle where all resistance has to be overcome, if certain families of reef fishes are to return to normalcy. Two sides have been addressed, commercial and recreational fishing. The third side, and perhaps the most insidious, is the problem to fish survival posed by the shrimping industry.

The very nature of the industry's operation makes solving this problem a difficult one. Dragging nets across the bottom of an ocean floor not only sweeps in shrimp but also thousands of juvenile fishes. The juveniles are brought to deck and rightly discarded--most, however, are near death. Bycatch is unavoidable--and wasteful. One can argue that discarded bycatch returns to the water as food for other inhabitants. True; but this does not negate the fact that where the shrimper's net has gone that habitat has been wiped virtually clean.

Oppositon from the industry long has been vocal when government proposes new measures. Required use of turtle excluder devices is an example. Nothing today indicates that any messages from our blessed Virgin have been delivered to precipitate attitude reversals among the 'shrimping crowd'.

In still another measure to protect reef fishes, the Council on November 14th, 1996 gave final approval to an ammendment--entitled 'bycatch'-- to the FMP for Shrimp Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico Shrimpers. With a few exceptions, shrimpers now are required to install a certified Bycatch Reduction Device--called BRDs. Installation is mandatory when trawling in federal waters inside the 100-fathom contour (curve).

The device under testing has been certified to reduce mortality of juvenile fishes by a minimum of 44 percent. Two types of gear are acceptable.
...fisheye 30 mesh positioned on top of a 120 mesh cod end bag of one and 5.8 inch mesh
...5-inch Andrews TED.

Traveling to Iditarod, Alaska in mid-winter is faster than getting this, or any, amendment through federal bureaucracy. First a series of Council hearings were held, then series (second) of NMFS hearings covering the same subject also were held. This was followed by notice in the Federal Register of intent to file. Usually 45 days must elapse after Fed Register filing. In the 'Case of BRDs",
...Gulf Council finalized it 16 November, 1996.
...NMFS filed in the Fed Register 1 July 1997
...amendment approved by NMFS on 30 July 1997.

Be on the look ot department: In addition to a Blue Water speculative summary which earlier noted that the TAC for red snapper in 1998 probably will be reduced, now perking in the coffe pot is amendment 16 to the Reef Fish FMP. This amendment related to the phase out of fish traps in the Gulf. The proposal was not taken kindly by certain fish trappers who made their presence widely known at the most recent, racy Gulf Council meeting. Never-the-less, it appears that trapping for fishes eventually will take its place along with Didus ineptus--once an inhabitant of the Island of Maritius.