3 times as many red snapper doesn’t mean tripled quotas

Catch limits for the popular fish will likely increase, but by how much is unclear.
Members of Congress say they expect relaxed catch limits for red snapper this year in light of a new study.
Members of Congress say they expect relaxed catch limits for red snapper this year in light of a new study. [ DAVID MASSEY ]
Published March 25, 2021|Updated March 25, 2021

NEW ORLEANS — Members of Congress say they expect relaxed catch limits for red snapper this year in light of a new study finding three times the number previously thought to swim in the Gulf of Mexico, but experts note that tripled quotas are extremely unlikely.

The Great Red Snapper Count announced Wednesday said there appear to be at least 110 million adult red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, rather than the previous federal estimate of 36 million.

“The preliminary results ... prove what Louisiana fishermen knew all along: red snapper stocks in the Gulf of Mexico are thriving,” said House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana, said Thursday that he’s hoping for a substantial increase in quotas for red snapper in the Gulf. “Anything less will be a disservice to the American public,” he said.

“I know some people will see this and think, ‘Oh, great! We can have three times the catch.’ But that’s just not likely,” Christopher Stallings, a University of South Florida fisheries scientist who was not involved in the study, said Thursday.

Nobody would guess at the likely size of any increases.

Fishery scientists from across the Gulf of Mexico will study the report and findings by independent reviewers, reporting to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council before a weeklong council meeting starting April 12. The council also will get recommendations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, council deputy director John Froeschke said.

NOAA hopes to have any new measures in place by early fall, regional spokeswoman Kim Amendola said in an email Wednesday.

A big quota increase could deplete the natural and artificial reefs where most fishing occurs, Clay Porch, director of NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami, said Tuesday.

Most of the newly reported population is on small spots dotted around the vast expanse of mud and sand bottom between fished reefs.

Those fish won’t move immediately to the reefs now fished, Porch said.

He said the data could also indicate that individual fish have fewer offspring than previously thought, which also would affect quotas.

Given earlier estimates, he said, biologists had thought red snapper produced lots of fertilized eggs.

“It turns out there’s not a small, highly resilient population — not a population of rabbits,” said Porch. Rather, he said, a small part was being fished, and the others may be producing many of the babies.

Will White, a fish population expert at Oregon State University, said he can’t talk specifically about red snapper quotas, but the report indicates that many of the newly reported red snapper are fairly small. Bigger, older fish lay far more eggs than smaller, younger fish do, he and Stallings said.

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Graves said the new study shows that previous estimates were “poorly advised.”

The $12 million Great Red Snapper Count involved more than 80 scientists led by 20 from 14 universities and NOAA. About $9.5 million was appropriated by Congress, with $2.5 million in matching funds.

It took cooperative research to a new level, Eric Brazer, deputy director of a commercial fishers’ group called the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, said in a news release Wednesday.

“For years, commercial fishermen have known that there was a big portion of the red snapper population ‘out in the mud’ ... that wasn’t being picked up by the NOAA Fisheries stock assessment,” he said. “But we don’t fault NOAA Fisheries for this — stock assessments are time-consuming and extremely expensive, especially when repeating them regularly to generate a good time series of data.”

Brazer noted that the report “is only a single snapshot in time for a single species” — something Stallings also emphasized.

“I think it’s important for the general public to understand this is not a stock assessment” — and stock assessments are what laws require fisheries managers to go by, Stallings said.

Brazer said his group hopes the program “will lead to additional conversations about how to improve data accuracy and precision while still keeping costs manageable.”

Two similar studies are in the works.

University of Florida fisheries scientist Will Patterson, who also was involved in the Gulf of Mexico report, will lead a $1.5 million, 30-month study to count red snapper in the South Atlantic, the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium announced Wednesday.

The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, which administered the Gulf red snapper count, is taking proposals for a project to estimate numbers of greater amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic. Congress has appropriated $9 million with a $2.7 million required match, it said.

By JANET McCONNAUGHEY, Associated Press