Federal mandate could force massive Florida fishery closures

fwc red snapper handling
A statewide bottom-fishing closure for the snapper-grouper complex is a possibility.

The effects of extensive red snapper bycatch in federal South Atlantic waters, and attempts to rein it in within existing regulations, may lead to a massive economy-twisting fishery closure for bottom fishing off Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

“I can’t underscore how big of an issue this is,” said Jessica McCawley, Director of Marine Fisheries Management for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), at the Commission’s July meetings in Jacksonville.

McCawley also serves on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC), the regulatory body responsible for federal fisheries from North Carolina to the Florida Keys.

“I don’t know how many people are aware of the kind of magnitude of what we’re talking about here,” McCawley said. “We’re talking about 55 species (of the snapper-grouper complex) that you couldn’t fish for, or maybe there’s giant areas in federal waters that you couldn’t go to bottom-fish.”

There’s also the possibility of time-area closures, in which bottom-fishing could be open for one month and closed for the others.

A recurring statistical problem is there are so many red snapper that discards showing up in bycatch are causing the fishery to be “overfished,” a sort of regulatory catch-22. 

“When bottom-fishing in the South Atlantic, you’ll often encounter and likely have to discard multiple snapper-grouper species, including red snapper,” McCawley said. “Red snapper remains overfished and undergoing overfishing, even though the stock is at record-high abundance levels.”

It’s not as easy as just allowing fishers to keep some of what they unintentionally catch, as the framework of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act doesn’t allow for those kinds of quick pivots on policy.

The SAFMC is looking at different factors to decrease mortality outside of closures, which FWC strongly opposes. Those options include requiring single-hook rigs and prohibiting electric reels in the snapper-grouper complex, using outreach and education to inform fishers of best practices, and modifying seasons.

However, closures are on the table, despite what Florida representatives told the Council, and those will be reviewed at the next SAFMC meetings in September. 

“My understanding is we’re talking about, I guess, statewide bottom closure for this entire set of species, which is huge,” FWC Assistant Executive Director Thomas Eason said. 

A statewide bottom-fishing closure for the snapper-grouper complex is a possibility, as are more limited but still enormous closures along just the state’s East Coast, or in federal waters off Northeast Florida.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service is telling us that we have to reduce those discards by a pretty high percentage,” McCawley said. “So, since red snapper is overfished and undergoing overfishing, they are saying it has to be done immediately, but ‘immediately’ is not really defined.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service is also known as NOAA Fisheries.

The hope, she said, is that efforts on outreach and education to recreational anglers could be enough to turn the statistics in the right direction before policies move into something more drastic to deal with the discard problem.

There’s also hope the SAFMC will allow rule changes that more closely reflect Gulf of Mexico red snapper management, which is comparatively successful next to the continuing issues in the South Atlantic.

“If we had to have taken a vote at the Council meeting on this closure proposal, I think that it would’ve passed, in that the other states would’ve passed a closure off Florida,” McCawley said. “At this point, they’re just bringing back information back about where would the closures could be, trying to conduct some analysis.

“But since Florida is the heart of the whole snapper-grouper fishery and definitely the red snapper fishery, whether you chose hotspots, or what you would be looking at large areas off the coast of Florida.”

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook: facebook.com/wes.wolfe


  • YYep

    July 14, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    Unfortunately little green people will have the last say

  • Tom Sheffield

    July 16, 2022 at 4:41 pm

    This is really ashame. There needs to be less commercial fishing if it’s really that bad that recreational fishermen get one fish per day and only two days.
    Get real you need a whole lot of meeting with offshore fish clubs before this becomes law. Be honest I didn’t even bother . The people I know in NE Florida mayport only went one day because of weather or not at all.

  • Eugene Muckridge

    July 18, 2022 at 3:50 am

    Pencil pushers relying on false data to make claims on overfishing and bycatch problems. As soon as they propose something, it usually mean it’s going to happen. Killing an industry one false statement at a time. Most people in my area didn’t go just to spend hundreds in fuel for 1 fish

  • Michael

    July 18, 2022 at 1:05 pm

    The Red Snapper population is very high in the upper Gulf. It is also quite obvious that sharks and bottle nose dolphin are taking far more of the snapper than recreational fishermen are keeping. We witness sharks taking snapper and grouper as soon as they are released. We also land many fish that are partially eaten. Bull Sharks are overpopulated and increased bag limits and smaller lengths are in order. The Marine Mammal Protection Act should be revoked and structured to reasonable allow harvest limits based on Science. The Act is based solely on emotions with no scientific studies or input. The dolphin that follow boats and show up when fish are hooked. Harvest boats could follow fishing boats and selectively harvest the dolphin that target stealing fish.

  • Terry

    July 18, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    The overfishing if any is done by big ships but the government lets them keep raping the ocean fisherman are not the ones doing that

  • Jerry freeman

    July 19, 2022 at 9:52 am

    In the gulf the sharks have been so bad sometimes 4 out of 5 fish don’t make it to the boat! And the trigger have overrun other spots plus we have to fish for them in the worst and hottest part of the year so they can have the tourist draw….

  • YYep

    July 19, 2022 at 3:49 pm

    Let me see 4 while state of people moving to the Gulf and 29 million want to be fisherman

  • Steve warren

    July 20, 2022 at 1:50 pm

    This can be devastating there is no shortage of snapper in the Atlantic

  • Darrin

    July 20, 2022 at 6:34 pm

    What is our best way of getting Governor DeSantis involved in helping to keep our Florida fisheries open. We need a proper forum to present accurate data from local Captains who have been fishing these waters for many years. NOAA’s data has been skewed for years now. So tired of the politics

  • Charlie Crist

    July 22, 2022 at 10:50 am

    Listen guys, if we don’t let commercial fisherman have all the fish in our state, then they won’t be able to afford their crack, criminal defense attorneys and parole fees. How dare you be so narcissistic?!?!!? That’s not to mention your state representatives that are getting their pockets lined! I think you all need a lesson in who’s the boss around here.

  • Captain terry wildey

    July 27, 2022 at 8:59 am

    50 years I’ve made my living from fishing the east coast of Florida. First of all Shutting down any fishery just puts that much more impact on other species of fish. The economical impact would be devastating. Boat sales would dwindle, tackle shops will close, tourist that come here to fish for our abundant stock and yes it’s abundant, would go somewhere else. NOAA and Fwc seem to turn there back on real issues such as our out of control shark population and staggering Goliath grouper that are eat reefs clean of seabass. What’s going on! All they want to do is help the dive operation that train sharks to come to feed when they hear a boat stop. In what world is this a smart thing to do. What’s it going to take? Maybe when a senators grandson gets mauled an a shark dive?

Comments are closed.


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704

Sign up for Sunburn