Delicious but contentious tale of red snapper

Published May 31, 2015

"I love the smell of fresh snapper fried light." — Jimmy Buffett, singer, songwriter

Twenty-five years ago, you could head offshore to deep water, drop anchor, fish all day and never catch a red snapper. Today you can run 50 miles west, pitch bait over the side and hook 100 or more of these prized sport fish on one spot.

Why, then, will local anglers have just 10 days to fish for the Gulf of Mexico's most fought-over finfish? The answer has more to do with people and politics than fish.

Long before grouper became the rock star of Tampa Bay area restaurants, Floridians ate red snapper. In the early 1900s it was a mainstay of Ybor City's legendary Columbia restaurant.

But after World War II, migration and the baby boom swelled Florida's population with fishermen. Inexpensive fiberglass boats, better motors and advances in navigational technology allowed them to catch more red snapper.

The gulf's commercial shrimp industry also took off, sinking the stocks of snapper because millions of the juvenile sport fish died each year in shrimp trawls.

Federal fishery managers stepped in with regulations and quotas to rebuild the snapper stocks, but this led to disputes between the government and sport fishermen.

In 2000, the red snapper season in federal waters was 194 days, with recreational anglers allowed to catch 4.5 million pounds.

Since then, the recreational season has gotten shorter and shorter. And federal fishery managers say anglers often caught more than they were supposed to, even in 2011, after a devastating oil spill left large portions of the Gulf of Mexico unfishable.

Pleasure vs. profit

Depending on the year, roughly 40 to 60 percent of all red snapper caught by recreational anglers is landed in Florida, which can truly claim the title "Sport Fishing Capital of the World."

With 2.4 million saltwater fishermen, the state's $7.6 billion — yes, that is billion with a "b" — saltwater recreational fishing industry ranks first in the nation. Recreational anglers outnumber their commercial counterparts by about 188 to 1.

But the commercial sector changed the way it did business, moving to an individual fishing quota program, which divvied up a portion of a public resource among private interests.

Snapper "shares" can now be bought and sold by Wall Street brokers just like pork bellies and orange juice.

For decades, Florida's recreational anglers have believed that the federal fishery management system favors the commercial sector. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service is overseen by the Commerce Department.

Red snapper stocks are currently split nearly evenly, with 51 percent going to the commercial fleet and 49 percent set aside for sportsmen.

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A controversial new federal program called sector separation, however, has sport fishermen fighting among themselves. The recreational sector has been divided again, with the "private" boat anglers getting 56 percent of the quota while the "for hire" charter boats get 44 percent.

Here's the rub: Because there are more recreational fishermen than charter boat captains, the private anglers can fish only from June 1-11, while their charter boating brethren can keep fishing until July 15.

States' rights

A decade ago, state fishery managers typically followed the federal lead when it came to the management of offshore species such as king mackerel, amberjack and the various species of grouper. But in recent years, fueled in part by the Tea Party movement and general angler dissatisfaction with the federal process, state fishery managers have increasingly gone their own way.

Texas has a 365-day red snapper season in its state waters. Florida's lasts 70 days. Florida's season opened May 23, the Saturday before Memorial Day, and runs through July 12, reopening for Saturdays and Sundays in September, October and into November.

Sound good? Only if you live in northwest Florida, where red snapper can be readily found inside state waters, which extend 9 miles offshore. But if you fish off the west-central coast, you have to run 40 miles out to the deeper federal waters to find red snapper.

Federal officials are frustrated as well, because every time one of the five gulf states — Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — makes a change, they must tweak the rules to preserve the overall stock.

Piscatorial politics

Last year members of fishing, boating and conservation organizations delivered what could be dubbed a "state of the fishery" report to Congress detailing the economic impact of the nation's $70 billion saltwater fishing industry.

Their voices were heard. The recently released National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy will assure that the sport fishing interests be integrated in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's planning, budgeting and decision-making processes.

Fishermen have also found new allies in Congress. Republican Rep. David Jolly — whose district includes Madeira Beach, the grouper capital of the world — has championed gulf fisheries and recently secured $10 million that could help get better data on the recreational fishing community's impact on red snapper stocks.

The policy shift could not have come at a better time. Florida recently passed New York as the third-most populous state. Florida's population of 19.9 million is expected to grow by 22 percent by 2030, about the time the gulf's red snapper stocks are expected to be nearly rebuilt.

If current trends hold, this could put another 500,000 fishermen on the water.

And today's offshore anglers aren't good. They're great. Advances in technology — including go-fast boats and state-of-the-art electronics — combined with widespread dissemination of information via the Internet have made the new breed of angler deadly efficient.

Slow progress

Fishery managers say snapper stocks are on the road to recovery but still have a long way to go.

Sure, recreational and commercial fishermen see plenty of fish, but red snapper can live to be 50 years old. The older fish produce more eggs, which is why the stocks should be managed more like a slow-growing forest than a crop of corn.

Scientists are concerned that some years, classes of snapper might be weak. One could compare it to building a successful football program. You might have a great group of seniors and promising juniors, but unless you have solid sophomores and freshmen coming up through the ranks, you've got some hard seasons ahead.

What is the course for the future? Some suggest that anglers look to hunters for the answer.

A century ago, when elk, bighorn sheep and white-tailed deer had all but disappeared, hunters such as President Theodore Roosevelt rallied fellow sportsmen. Their efforts led to what is now called the North American Wildlife Conservation Model.

The model's two basic tenets are that fish and wildlife belong to all Americans and the resource should be managed with sustainability in mind. Hunting groups including Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have long histories of habitat protection. The more wetlands and forest you have, the more there are of ducks, turkey, elk, etc.

Fishermen should follow their lead. Snook, tarpon, grouper and many other species spend part of their life cycle in the estuary. But Tampa Bay has lost more than 44 percent of its wetlands in the past 100 years.

Less habitat translates to fewer fish. Managing fishery stocks is a tricky business. There are no easy answers.

But when it comes to red snapper, fishermen owe it to future generations to think in terms of years, perhaps even decades, not just one season at a time.