Long term should guide red snapper regulations

January 5, 2010 

Short-term pain for long-term gain is the best way to describe a plan to ban bottom fishing along the Continental Shelf from Charleston to south Florida.

The plan aims to save the popular but imperiled red snapper, which is at just 3 percent of its 1945 population level. Forty-percent of that 1945 level is thought to be a sustainable population.

The fish can live for more than 50 years and are often caught before their best spawning years. Today, few are older than 10.

Federal law required the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to take action by 2010 after population assessments concluded the red snapper was over-fished.

A ban in deep-sea areas would seem the shorter route to recovery. The more breeding population that is left in place, the more quickly the snapper's numbers would grow.

The bottom fishing ban comes because red snapper often don't survive if they are caught while fishermen target other species. The plan would prohibit bottom fishing for grouper in deep-sea spots. It leaves open popular locations closer to shore.

Deep-sea catches are particularly hazardous for red snapper, according to the Pew Environment Group, because many die when thrown back. Their internal organs can explode when they are pulled up quickly from their deep-sea habitat.

Few seem satisfied with the council's decision.

Many commercial and recreational anglers opposed closing the bottom, saying it wasn't needed and would drive them out of business. The bottom-fishing ban could remove local catches of the popular grouper fish.

Representatives of the Pew Environment Group say the council didn't go far enough. The decision reversed a committee decision that would have closed a larger area.

Holly Binns, manager for the Pew Environment Group's Campaign to End Overfishing in the Southeast, said in a statement that the change resulted in "a weakened measure that caters to short-term thinking and won't get the job done."

The closure is one of a number of regulations being considered to protect snapper-grouper species, which counts indicate have been depleted. But any rules adopted might not stay in place long.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing new guidelines for assessing fish stocks. The recent decision was based on 2008 stock assessments. The agency also is beginning a move to allocating catch shares -- giving anglers a specific number of fish they can catch rather than limits on individual species -- and limiting

the number of anglers who can fish.

In the Gulf of Mexico, red snapper are showing signs of recovery after a 5 million-pound quota was put in place in February 2008 for recreational and commercial fishers.

The Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council could decide as soon as February to expand that quota to 6.9 million pounds, a move some caution against, given the time it takes the species to grow to reproductive maturity.

Short-term complaints must be weighed against the long-term payoff. The red snapper population is unlikely to get back to sustainable levels unless major steps are taken. The sooner those steps are taken, the sooner the snapper can recover and the sooner limits can be lifted.

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