Although it won’t be set in stone (printed in Federal Register) until after the April meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the 2012 red snapper season is almost certain to be the shortest on record at about 40 days.
At the most recent meeting, held at the Riverview Plaza in Mobile, the council approved and took final action on a regulatory amendment that increases the red snapper catch limits for 2012 to 8.08 million pounds and 8.69 million pounds for 2013. The quota is split 51 percent for the commercial sector and 49 percent for the recreational sector. However, if the quota is exceeded in 2012, the quota for 2013 will not increase.
With the recreational quota right at 4 million pounds, that translates into an estimate of the 40-day season, said Bob Shipp, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama and a member of the Gulf Council. Shipp said a cushion is figured into the quotas to ensure overfishing does not occur.
“The overfishing limit – the point where it’s a 50-50 chance that a fishery would be overfished if you went beyond that – is 10 million pounds,” Shipp said. “They put in a 20-percent buffer to account for uncertainty. So that’s where we get the 8 million pounds instead of 10 million pounds. So the recreational sector ends up with about 4 million pounds. The rough estimate is that the recreational sector catches about 100,000 pounds of red snapper per day. So with this quota, you’ll get about 40 days. Now we’ll refine that data at the April meeting to get an exact number. Last year the season was 48 days.
“This is going to cause a great deal of frustration, because everybody knows there are plenty of red snapper in the Gulf. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s very frustrating. But the Magnuson-Stevens Act gives the Scientific and Statistical Committee a mandate to tell us the maximum amount of quota we can have, and that’s what they gave us.”
Shipp said the current computer models project that eventually the red snapper quota could be as much as 16 million pounds. That projected quota could increase more after a significant stock assessment and adoption of new computer models are accepted in 2013.
“Some of us think we’re already at that,” he said of the 16-million-pound projection. “When we get the new models, I think we’ll go beyond that.
“Let’s say we got to 14 million pounds and it was allocated 50-50, the recreational sector would get a 70-day season, which would have sounded horrible 10 years ago. But, now. … My own personal projection is we’ll get to 20 million pounds, which would project to a 100-day season, but that’s several years away.”
What has happened recently is that the red snapper stocks have been rebuilding so quickly that anglers have been catching larger and larger fish with little effort, which means each angler’s two-fish limit consumes more of the overall quota.
Bob Gill of Florida, the current chairman of the Gulf Council, said the council is not exactly in a Catch-22 situation, but it’s close.
“That’s part of it,” Gill said of the increased average size of the snapper. “But I think the bigger part of it is the increase in effort. As the seasons get shorter, folks cram more and more into that suitcase, and the suitcase bulges out. So it’s a combination of both. You have more people fishing, catching bigger fish. The stock will be rising, but you’ve got more people fishing. What is the solution? I don’t know. In that sense, it’s a Catch-22.”
For greater amberjack, the Gulf Council delayed taking final action on this amendment until its April meeting in Corpus Christi, Texas. The council selected preferred alternatives that would set the annual catch limit at 1.78 million pounds whole weight and establish an annual catch target of 1.539 million pounds whole weight. The preferred alternatives also retain a June-July recreational closure and the 30-inch recreational minimum size limit, although Shipp thinks that will come up for debate in April. The commercial closure of March-May would be retained, and a 2000-pound commercial trip limit would be established.
“There is still some sentiment to bump up the minimum size on amberjack a little bit,” he said. “If you went to 32 inches, you could probably get another 15 to 30 days to fish, which means it would be open most of the year. If you go to 34 or 36 inches, it would be open year-round.
“Another plus with the larger size is they don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 35 inches. So you’re killing them before they have a chance to spawn at 30 inches. There is a concern about dead discards if you go up on the minimum size, but we don’t believe you have the release mortality with amberjack like you do with snapper because amberjacks don’t have that big gas bladder. But after a long fight, especially the big ones, the amberjack can be stressed. There are groups, including us, who plan to go out this year and see exactly what the release mortality really is. If release mortality is not high, you want to let them get to the size where they’ve spawned at least one time.”
One species that has not fared well in recent years is gray triggerfish, which share habitat with other bottom species, including the voracious red snapper.
“Everybody agrees that gray triggerfish stocks are going down,” Shipp said. “Some of us don’t think it’s from overfishing but from predation from other species like snapper that are eating the triggerfish eggs. Regardless, we are going to have to reduce the quota on gray triggerfish. Those stocks are in trouble.”
NOAA Fisheries’ current estimate is that the triggerfish quota will likely be reached in June, according to Shipp.
For gag grouper, which has been under severe catch restraints, the recreational gag season has been set for July 1-October 31 with a recreational annual catch limit of 1.232 million pounds in 2012. The bag limit will stay two gags in the four-grouper aggregate bag limit.