Thursday, February 21, 2013

More Fish, Less Fishing?

Photo: Kathy Hoak
Why does the recreational red snapper season keep getting shorter even though we are seeing more red snapper than ever before?
We know you’re seeing more snapper than ever before, and this is a great indicator that the rebuilding plan is working, but it does not mean that the stock is in good health or rebuilt.

Why not?
The health of the red snapper stock is not based only on the number of fish or biomass (weight) of red snapper in the Gulf. On the surface it may seem to be the practical way to make that judgment but, it’s really not the best indication of a fish stocks sustainability, or ability to reproduce for years to come. The red snapper stock is measured in terms of egg production, known as spawning potential. Larger, older fish produce many more eggs than smaller, younger fish; so counting egg production to predict the health and sustainability of a stock is more accurate than counting numbers of fish.

(Collins, Fitzhugh, et al. 2001)

Check out this graph. It shows how red snapper batch fecundity (the number of eggs in millions produced by each fish during a spawn) changes as the fish get older. As you can see the number of eggs produced by a red snapper really takes off at about 8 years.

To put this spawning ability into perspective:
Artwork: Dianne Rome Peebles

One 24-inch female red snapper (about a 8 year old fish) produces as many eggs as 212 17-inch females (about 5 years old).                    (FWC)

So, What Does This Mean?
Age and spawning success is a big part of why you’re seeing more and more fish. Unfortunately, the science isn’t giving the green light to dramatically increase the harvest. The average size of a red snapper harvested this year will weigh approximately 7.70 pounds, which is about a 7-year-old fish. It is great that fish are getting bigger and we need that trend to continue because the stock won’t be reproductively successful (considered healthy/sustainable) until we have more older, bigger fish around to spawn.

Photo: Mike Jennings
When will we see an increase in the amount of red snapper we can harvest?
We already have. Beginning in 2009 the science has indicated that the red snapper population is indeed rebuilding. Each year the Gulf Council has recommended an annual increase in the red snapper quota (the number of pounds of red snapper that can be harvested).

If the quota is going up every year, why does the season keep getting shorter?
There are a couple of reasons for the shrinking red snapper season. As the stock begins to rebuild we are seeing more fish than we have in recent memory, and these fish are getting bigger as time passes. Additionally, as the red snapper stock rebuilds their geographical range increases and fishermen catch them in places they have not typically been found. The more fish there are, the easier it is to catch them, and the quota is harvested faster. Even though the number of annual red snapper fishing trips has gone down, those trips are more successful, with more anglers bringing home their bag limit of big red snapper.

This year the National Marine Fisheries Service is predicting that an average of 18,922 red snapper will be landed each day during the open season, which is over three times more than the 6000 red snapper landed per day in 2007.

Photo: Mark Miller
As the stock grows, the average size of red snapper is also increasing and there are more large fish to catch. Anglers are catching more pounds of fish per trip, even though they are keeping the same number of fish. Since fish quotas are set in pounds, the quota is filled faster with fewer individual fish. The National Maine Fisheries Service predicts that average size of red snapper harvested this year will weigh 7.70 pounds, which is about twice the weight of the typical red snapper caught in 2007.

Where do we go from here?
A benchmark stock assessment is underway and expected to be completed in June of this year. Once we have the results of the assessment the Councils scientific advisors (the Scientific and Statistical Committee) will recommend harvest levels based on the new science and Council will recommend fishery management measures to achieve those harvest goals.