As scientists, politicians and anglers wrangle over how to best manage the Gulf of Mexico’s sought-after red snapper population, questions and disagreements about how to count the fish — and which data is accurate — abound.
Some lawmakers, recreational anglers and the groups that represent them have said federal data used to determine red snapper season for recreational anglers is outdated. States are better equipped to manage the fishery in part because states have better real-time data, they argued.
But marine biologists reached this week said the science of fishery stock assessment — the measurement used to set the seasons — is based on the best science available.
There’s not a separate state data system and federal data system, per se, they said. Information collected by all sources — the national fisheries, university scientists and state parks and wildlife departments — is used to determine the stock size, said Steven Murawski, a marine biologist with the University of South Florida.
“It’s a very involved process,” Murawski said. “The whole process combines not only the federal government, but the states and other researchers.
“The states are already in it, it’s not either/or. There’s no magic bullet, but simply transferring it to the states doesn’t get you out of this box.”
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal law relating to fishery management, mandates fishery managers use the “best available science,” experts said.
By most accounts, the system follows best available practices, although there is room for improvement, said Greg Stunz, a marine biologist and head of the Center for Sportsfish Science and Conservation at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi.
How to best collect data on the fishery and what improvements are needed are topics slated for discussion during Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meetings this week in San Antonio, Stunz said. Stunz chairs the subcommittee on data collection for the council.
“Is the data perfect? No,” said Chris Dorsett, a marine biologist and vice president of Conservation Policy and Programs at Ocean Conservancy. “Is it robust enough to help advise natural management decision-making? Absolutely.”
Marine biologists rely on several different data sets to figure out how many red snapper are living in the Gulf of Mexico extending from the Florida Keys to Brownsville.
“There’s an old adage: Counting fish is like counting trees, except they’re underwater and they move,” Dorsett said. “It’s not simple and we’ll never have a 100 percent accurate account, but we do have ways to provide our best estimate.”
Scientists collect information based on fishery dependent and fishery independent data, Dorsett said.
Fishery dependent data is collected through recreational and commercial catches, Murawski said. This includes the catch by commercial anglers, including how many pounds are landed and the number of fish, as well as size distribution and population demographics, Murawski said.
Port interceptors collect information from recreational anglers arriving at dock about how many red snapper they have and the sizes, Dorsett said. Certain states also contact anglers by phone or mail to collect information, he said.
The other source for information is fishery independent data, which is collected primarily in areas of the Gulf that are less fished, Murawski said. Scientists put out long lines to collect snappers to survey, examine eggs in free-floating larvae and conduct trolling surveys, he said. This shows trends about the overall population, he said.
Scientists then analyze that data in a multistep process assessing the health of the population and using modeling to project what the population is likely to be several years out, Dorsett said. The data is peer reviewed and assessed by the council, he said.
Plenty of fish in the sea
After decades of overfishing, the red snapper stock was nearly depleted in the 1980s and 1990s, experts said. A wave of new regulations and a new management system implemented in 2007 has helped rebuild the stock, Dorsett said. The plan is to fully rebuild the stock by 2032, he said.
“The stock continues to show what the fishermen are seeing: the stock is continuing to rebuild,” Dorsett said.
The last fish assessment estimated there were about 39 million red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, Murawski said. To properly rebuild the stock, about 10 percent of those red snapper can be caught in a year, which is what the Gulf council’s allocations account for, Murawski said.
Areas for improvement
One of the big areas of complaint is that the data isn’t real-time and the assessment is usually made on the last season’s numbers, Murawski said. Scientists attempt to mitigate such issues by using projection models and have begun implementing technology, such as the I-Snapper phone application to collect data from anglers, he said.
There also could be improvements made to how recreational catch data is collected, Stunz said.
“As seasons become shorter and shorter, the methods become more variable because there’s just not enough time to collect the data you need,” Stunz said.
There could also be more surveying at artificial reefs, which are hotbeds of red snapper activity, and in undiscovered areas that could harbor some reefs, he said. His group at Texas A&M University submitted a proposal to apply for more funding to do some of this work, he said.
“It’s an evolving process,” Stunz said. “You start with the best science available and continuously identify where gaps are and build on that. That’s the phase we’re in right now.”