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.”