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Home > Fisheries FAQs > Red Snapper FAQs > Management

Red Snapper FAQs: Management

Please send your questions and feedback to redsnapper@lsu.edu

Who Regulates Red Snapper and Other Fishes in the Gulf of Mexico?

The commercial and recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) off Louisiana are regulated by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in state waters (out to 3 nautical miles (nm)) and by the federal government in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ: from 3 to 200 nm). Alabama and Mississippi also enforce a 3 nm state waters limit, but state waters extend out 9 nm off Florida and Texas. Since red snapper are a relatively deep-water fish, most of the harvest off Louisiana comes from the EEZ. In nearly every instance, Louisiana state regulations applied to red snapper mirror the federal regulations, as they have historically, to make enforcement both simpler and fairer. The recent actions in Texas and Florida to establish more liberal red snapper regulations within their state waters have generated a great deal of controversy – in particular, because of those states’ 9-nm boundaries for state waters. However troubling these actions are, it should be noted that the 9-nm boundaries off Texas and in the Gulf waters of Florida were created under the conditions that existed when those states first were admitted to the Union.

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What is the Magnuson-Stevens Act?

The principle law governing both commercial and recreational fisheries in federal waters is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSFCMA) of 1976. The original intent of the MSFCMA was to establish authority over the EEZ to eliminate harvesting by foreign fishing fleets. While conservation of fish stocks was another goal, the MSFCMA also provided for significant expansion of U.S. offshore fishing capability. The result was, within 10 years, an over-harvest by the domestic fleet of certain fish species equal to that previously produced by the foreign fleets.

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What are the Fishery Management Councils?

The MSFCMA also created a management structure based on regional Fishery Management Councils having voting members, appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, that include:

  1. The principal State official with marine fishery management responsibility and expertise in each constituent State (Secretary of LDWF in Louisiana),
  2. The regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service for the geographic area concerned,
  3. Individuals who, by reason of their occupational or other experience, scientific expertise, or training, are knowledgeable regarding the conservation and management, or the commercial or recreational harvest, of the fishery resources of the geographical area concerned. The Secretary shall … ensure a fair and balanced apportionment … of the active participants (or their representatives) in the commercial and recreational fisheries under the jurisdiction of the Council.

The Councils receive management advice both from their advisory panels and from their scientific and statistical committees. Based on this information, the Councils are tasked with the production of fishery management plans (FMPs) that must protect resources while maintaining opportunities for commercial and recreational harvests. Plan implementation is the responsibility of the Secretary of Commerce, primarily via NOAA Fisheries Service. Thus, the Fisheries Service is faced with the unenviable task of applying the legal mandates of both Congress (the MSFCMA) and the Councils (the FMPs).

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What is the Sustainable Fisheries Act?

In 1996, the MSFCMA was reauthorized by Congress as the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), with the addition of new, specific standards to which FMPs must conform. The most recent reauthorization of the MSFCMA in 2007 includes standards that significantly impact red snapper management:

Standard 1: Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery for the United States fishing industry.

Standard 2: Conservation and management measures must be based upon the best scientific information available.

Standard 3: To the extent practicable, Individual stocks must be managed as a unit throughout their range to the extent practicable; interrelated stocks must be managed as a unit or in close coordination.

Standard 4: Conservation and management measures shall not discriminate between residents of different States. If it becomes necessary to allocate or assign fishing privileges among various United States fishermen, such allocation shall be (A) fair and equitable to all such fishermen; (B) reasonably calculated to promote conservation; and (C) carried out in such manner that no particular individual, corporation, or other entity acquires an excessive share of such privileges.

Standard 8: Conservation and management measures shall, consistent with the conservation requirements of this Act (including the prevention of overfishing and rebuilding of overfished stocks), take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities by utilizing economic and social data that meet the requirements of paragraph (2), in order to (A) provide for the sustained participation of such communities, and (B) to the extent practicable, minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities.

Standard 9: Conservation and management measures shall, to the extent practicable, (A) minimize bycatch and (B) to the extent bycatch cannot be avoided, minimize the mortality of such bycatch.

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What is the difference between overfished and overfishing?

The MSFCMA of 2007 further established requirements that each FMP include a definition of overfishing (too much fishing mortality - excess harvest/removal) and a plan for rebuilding overfished stocks (too few individuals - insufficient biomass); overfishing must be stopped within two years and a plan must be developed to rebuild overfished fisheries within 10 years. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act (MSRA) of 2007 included new mandate that FMPs must establish a mechanism for setting annual catch limits that immediately prevent overfishing. Catch limits that prevent overfishing also must be in place by 2010 for every stock currently under federal management.

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When were red snapper first managed?

The first FMP applied to red snapper in the GOM was completed in 1981; it described rapidly declining commercial and recreational harvests of red snapper. A 13-inch minimum size limit was the first GOM regulation in 1984. Since then, there have been more than 35 amendments to the federal FMP that includes red snapper in the GOM. In 1988, the first red snapper stock assessment showed that the species was both overfished and undergoing overfishing. That designation required action from both the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (Gulf Council) and NOAA Fisheries to develop a plan to both limit harvest and rebuild the population. The assessment concluded that fishing mortality (commercial and recreational harvest plus bycatch mortality) needed to be cut by 75 percent in order to recover the species by 2000. The Gulf Council, believing that the impacts to fishers from a 75 percent cut would be too severe, subsequently opted for measures that would reduce mortality by 20 percent, thus postponing additional restrictions to the future while making recovery of the red snapper in a timely fashion much less likely.

Photo: Zachary Aucoin proudly hold up his red snapper catch.
Young Zachary Aucoin caught this 30-lb snapper in 2004. The fish was 19-yrs-old, and was spawned during the year of the first Gulf red snapper Fishery Management Plan.

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What is the importance of shrimp trawl bycatch?

The 1988 red snapper assessment also described the significant contribution to total fishing mortality that comes from shrimp trawling bycatch mortality of young red snapper. The first bycatch reduction device (BRD) mandate for Gulf shrimp trawls came in 1998; the hope was that about three-quarters of juvenile red snapper would escape each net. Since then trials have demonstrated low efficiency (less than 15 percent) for juvenile red snapper escapement from trawls fitted with permitted BRD designs. Temporary closures of certain juvenile habitat to trawling has been under consideration, but both the recent reductions in trawling effort (due to hurricane damage to the fleet and fishing infrastructure, high fuel costs, and low cost imported shrimp) and the implementation of new BRD designs have allowed postponement of closure considerations, at least temporarily.

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How are red snapper harvests allocated between the commercial and recreational fisheries?

One early action in the effort to manage red snapper harvest established a criterion that remains in force to this day. In 1990 FMP Amendment 1 set the red snapper recreational/commercial catch allocation at 49%/51% based on 1979-1987 landings data. This allocation ratio remains unchanged, even though the directed fisheries have changed significantly over the subsequent years. Rapid growth of the recreational fishing sector occurred in the 1990’s during a period of economic growth; this was true especially in the for-hire or charter boat sector of the recreational fishery. For instance, catch data indicate that marine recreational fishing activity (number of fishing trips per year) increased by over 20% just in the years from 1996 to 2000, with nearly 1/3 of this growth occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, LDWF data show an increase of over 800% in Louisiana charter guide licenses between 1995 (when first required) and 2003. Most of these licenses are issued in the coastal parishes.

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Why are fishermen seeing so many red snapper when the assessments say they are in trouble?

For a long-lived species like red snapper, it's not just the numbers of individuals that are important to keep stock productivity high, it is equally important to maintain age/size structure. The current lack of old fish in the population has resulted from excess catch rates that occurred 15-35 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the stock was in a declining condition and the need for management was identified, overfishing created a “hole” in the age structure (similar to the redfish situation back in the 1980s) that we are experiencing now. Even though red snapper may begin spawning as early as age 2, small females produce only a fraction of the eggs that the old "sows" produce. Female red snapper do not reach full reproductive potential until they are about 15 years old and they remain highly productive for many years, perhaps until they are more than 40+ years old. Those big, old female egg producers are in much lower abundance now than is necessary for a healthy population because of overfishing that occurred 20-30 years ago.

Failure to reduce shrimp trawl bycatch mortality until relatively recently and high catch rates by the both the commercial and recreational fisheries have also made it less likely that enough individuals have been surviving to older ages. However, reductions in shrimp trawl bycatch (the 2005 hurricanes and low price of imported shrimp have reduced trawling effort by about 65% over the last 5 years) mean that we are seeing more 2 to 5 year old fish (i.e., the 20 inchers). So fishing is good, but not as good as it should be for bigger fish; thus the stock assessment is correct in its prediction that catches need to be reduced to rebuild the spawning stock. The most recent reductions in harvest are mostly due to the requirement in the 2007 Sustainable Fisheries Act to end overfishing by 2010 and past failures to achieve the necessary shrimp trawl bycatch reductions.

It should be noted that most species supporting the world’s fisheries have life histories similar to that of red snapper and have reacted the same way to overexploitation. These species are often very resistant to overfishing because fishing mortality is distributed over so many age classes that it takes some years to cut back the size and age structure. However, once this happens, these species can be very slow to recover. Particularly worrisome is that, in some cases, the fishery never recovers, as has happened with cod in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. Fishing for cod in these waters has been almost eliminated for more than 15 years and cod populations are not responding, possibly due in part to concurrent environmental shifts.

Another factor that Louisiana fishers need to remember is that Federal red snapper regulations span the entire Gulf of Mexico. This is law: Standard Three of the Sustainable Fisheries Act specifies that “To the extent practicable, individual stocks must be managed as a unit throughout their range to the extent practicable.” Thus, Gulf-wide management spans the hardest-fished areas (such as those near the busiest Florida ports) and the least-fished areas (like some of the hard-to-reach spots off Louisiana).

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Much more information on these topics can be found in:

Hood, P. B., A. J. Strelcheck, and P. Steele. 2007. A history of Red Snapper Management in the Gulf of Mexico. Pages 267-284 in W. F. Patterson, III, J. H. Cowan, Jr., G. R. Fitzhugh, and D. L. Nieland, editors. Red snapper ecology and fisheries in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. American Fisheries Society, Symposium 60, Bethesda, Maryland.

NOAA FishWatch – Fisheries Management

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act: Reauthorization Issues. Congressional Research Service, February 7, 2005. E. H. Buck. http://digital.library.unt.edu/govdocs/crs/permalink/meta-crs-10098:1

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act of 1996 www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/magact/

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act of 2007 www.gulfcouncil.org/Beta/GMFMCWeb/downloads/MSA07.pdf

The Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.

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Please send your questions and feedback to redsnapper@lsu.edu

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