The Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fishery - Managing the fishery while ending over fishing

Until recently, the Gulf of Mexico saltwater fishery was the last frontier for deep sea fishing enthusiasts.  The Gulf was a place where saltwater anglers could enjoy reef fishing for Snapper, Grouper, Amberjack and other federally managed fin fish species.  For years, these fish species had liberal bag limits and long seasons.  Most anytime of the year, anglers could catch and keep a lot of different varieties of reef fish.  Those days are now gone due to the to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) being forced to put an end to over fishing of certain fin fish species in the gulf.  The “end over fishing law” that is required by the Magunson Stevens Act.  What was once the last frontier, has now been corralled and is being tamed by the NMFS.  As uncomfortable as the plan has been for fishermen, the plan is working and is evident by the success the feds have had with the Red Snapper rebuilding plan in the gulf.

For the past 30 plus years, there were liberal bag limits on fin fish like shallow water Grouper, Amberjack, Triggerfish and Red Snapper.  These fish were recently deemed to be “over fished” and the NMFS was forced to step in and put a stop to over fishing of certain fin fish species.  They did so by shortening the federal fishing seasons, reducing the annual catch limits of the species and raised the size limit on some species.  They also reduced the bag limit for recreational anglers and took away the charter boat captain and crew bag limits.  These are just couple of ways the NMFS is reducing fishing effort and trying restore or manage the fisheries to what we call sustainable levels. 

Because of over fishing in the past, there are some species like the Gag and Red Grouper that will be closed for six months during the first half of the 2011 season.   If the stock assessment numbers come back this Spring showing a decline in the Gag and Red Grouper numbers, there could be an extension of the closure for that fishery.   There are a lot of recreational anglers in the eastern side of the gulf in Florida that would argue that shallow water Grouper numbers are just fine there and their seasons should remain open.  There are other areas in the northern Gulf where the Grouper has shown a decline and anglers can hardly catch a legal sized Gag or Red Grouper.  Either way, there are some strong arguments about regionalizing fishery management of the gulf.  The anglers in some parts of south Florida don’t want to be punished and have a season closed because of what is happening to fish stocks in the northern gulf..

The short federal seasons have recreational fishermen, including charter boat operators are up in arms about not being able to catch and keep the large number of fish like they used too.  The charter boat industry in the Gulf of Mexico has been hit very hard since 2007 with shortend federal fishing seasons, reduced bag limits on some fish species, a poor economy, high fuel prices and the recent Gulf Oil Spill.  It’s a wonder how any charter boat operators can stay in business anymore with all of these constant and changing issues?   One thing for sure, there is a group of charter boats in Orange Beach, Alabama that have switched over to and are adopting conservation minded marketing ideas and fishing techniques in order to change with the times and stay in business.   They are Intimidator Charters and Distraction Charters.  These charter fishing boats are considered visionaries and are the future of saltwater fishing.  They believe strongly in having a sustainable fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.  Instead of fussing and complaining about the way things are, these guys are going forward and are focussing on superior customer service, using light tackle and enhancing the overall experience people have while deep sea fishing.

In the next few paragraphs, I will explain to you how the Gulf of Mexico is divided into two user groups.  I will explain how fishing seasons and bag limits are set so you will hopefully understand the process and become involved so your voice can be heard.  If you enjoy deep sea fishing and are not involved in the fishery management process in today’s environment, you will only have yourself to blame when decisions about bag limits and seasonal closures don’t go your way.

Commercial Fishing and Recreational Fishing - Management tools and how things currently work in the Gulf of Mexico

There are two distinct recreational fishery participants in the Gulf.  They are the anglers who live near the coast and usually have their own boats.   These anglers are what we call private recs or privately owned recreational fishing boats.  Private rec fishermen take friends and family out to catch a mess of fish frequently because of their proximity to the offshore fishery.  The other group of recreational anglers are people that use charter boats for access to the fishery.  Some charter boat customers live near the coast but most of them are either tourist or corporate get away or company sponsored fishing trips.  These two user groups are what we call recreational anglers.

Commercial fishing or commercial fishermen is a totally different user group than recreational fishermen.  The only thing they have in common with recreational fishermen is that they share the Gulf of Mexico waters with each other.  They harvest fish and sell them to fish markets, seafood wholesalers, seafood processors and seafood retailers.   Commercial fishermen operate their businesses under strict guidelines as established by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  They stay within plus or minus 4 percent of their allowable harvest quotas each year by using tools like Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), Individual Transferrable Quotas (ITQ) and Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQ). 

As of January 6, 2011, recreational anglers do not have this type of management system in place to manage their fishery.  However, there is a big push to have charter fishing vessels or charter boats begin managing their fishery by using similar management tools as the commercial fishermen.   The success of the commercial fishery in the Gulf of Mexico has NOAA and the NMFS looking at a similar system for the Charter Boats as a preferred tool of management.  This process is creating a heated battle between private recreational fishermen and the charter for hire boats because of the allocation of the fish that will occur if sector separation happens.  Some call sector separation a privatization of a public resource.  Some call it catch shares.  Some anglers think it is a power grab by charter fishermen to try and steal fish away from the private rec boats.   Either way, change is on the table and all options about fishery management are being looked at objectively.  Some charter boats are members of the SOS Group and want sector separation away from the private rec fishermen.  Sector separation offers the NMFS an accountability tool so charter boats will not over fish their annual fishing quotas.  Because it is so hard to count the fish harvested by private recreational anglers, combined with the non compliance of federal fishing regulations by the State of Texas, this has led to short seasons for everyone else who fishes in the gulf.   Because of these user groups failing to count their fish and offering accurate and verifiable catch data, charter boats are being punished as well, by not having enough days during the year to generate enough revenue to provide a living for themselves.  We will save the rest of that story for a later time.  It is really complicated and there are a lot of people who are for and against sector separation.  One thing for sure, everyone is now calling for better data collection in hopes of not having to sector separate at this time.

The biggest problem with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery today, is the inability scientists have to accurately count the number of fish harvested by the truly recreational anglers that own their own boats.  There is a saltwater fishery registry that requires all saltwater anglers to identify themselves, but that is a couple of years away from being accurate.  The result is, all recreational anglers including charter boats, can’t plan their fishing trips until the annual fishing seasons of certain species are established each year.  One problem with delayed season announcements is charter boats can’t plan their fishing seasons and book their charters.  Some people want to target a specific fish species, so they plan their fishing trips when the season is going to be open.  A few years ago, consumers used book their fishing trips as early as December or January for the upcoming year.  They expected the season to be open for the fish they wanted to target.  An example is the Red Snapper season.  It used to open April 21 and close on October 31st each year.  Because of over fishing of the resource for years, it now opens on June 1 and nobody knows how long it will remain open.  In 2010, it was open 54 days.  The NMFS and the Gulf Council are doing their best to keep the opening date stable to charter boats can plan their seasons and bookings.  However, the June opening date makes it hard for charter fishermen to book trips during the Spring of each year.   

Setting the fishing seasons each year

Recreational fishermen have to rely on dock side intercepts and fishing interviews of anglers to try and get accurate data on who is fishing, when they are fishing and the number of fish harvested and released of each species.  The Southeast Fisheries Science Center or SSC, is the division of NOAA that conducts the research, supervision and support to the large marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico.   Gulf States like Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida all have their own state, data collection systems in place to help count the fish and fishing effort.  The SSC is the one who performs the fishery research, collect and report on statistical data and is the operation center for data management.   The SSC develops scientific information to study impact analyses and environmental assessments for management plans.  They take into consideration the “population dynamics, fishery economics, fishery engineering, food science and fishery biology.”   The SSC is the body that the Gulf Council relys upon for accurate information to help determine fishing seasons and lengths.   If you would like to get more involved and learn how the process operates, visit the Gulf Council Website for up to date information about the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries.

All  saltwater anglers have to rely upon the SSC and the Gulf Council to see when and if federally managed fishing seasons will open and close.  The problem with the ever changing fishing seasons is that Charter Fishing Boats and truly recreational anglers can’t plan because they never know how many days and when their fishing season will be open or closed.  It is like having a business model in place then someone coming along and saying do it again because we can’t give you the information you need until later.  The frustration among charter fishermen about not knowing how long or when a fishing season will be is extremely painful for them.  Not knowing when or how long a season is going to be, is causing a growing number of charter fishermen to want to go to a more stable fishery management model that is similar to the commercial fishing industry uses.  The Charter Boats are wanting to separate from the truly recreational fishermen and operate under a days a sea program or a catch share program.  Sector separation is a hot topic and many purely recreational anglers don’t want to see it because the charter boats will get an overwhelming percentage of the total allowable catch of certain species each year.  At this time, because the charter boats have landings history, they can justify taking a large percentage of the fish away from the private rec anglers.  This is a hornets nest and groups like Coastal Conservation Association or CCA are opposed to it. 

The key to any business is being able to plan their season to maximize days of fishing and bookings so we can stay in business and ultimately feed their families.  If you are interested in learning more about fishery management, I urge you to get involved and attend some Gulf Council meetings.   I will tell you that it takes more than attending one meeting to fully understand the dynamics of how fishery management works.  We look forward to seeing you there.