Monday, January 4, 2016

2016's Most Wanted Fish

Photo: Glen Balinger
We’ve taken another trip around the sun. The most distinctive feature of the new year for federal fisheries management is that we start fresh; our annual catch limits reset and we begin harvesting anew. As of 12:01 AM January 1, zero pounds of fish were harvested and our 2016 annual catch limits are at the starting line. Lets take a look back at last year to gain some perspective on what this reset really means.

An annual catch limit is the amount of fish that can be harvested from a stock or group of species that make up a stock complex, in a calendar year. For many of our “most wanted” fish species, once the annual catch limit is harvested, the fishery must be closed. In 2015, red grouper fishing was fantastic. Because they were so easy to catch, the recreational sector harvested nearly its entire annual catch limit by early fall, and the season had to be closed for the rest of the year. Similarly, amberjack, which has a conservative annual catch limit because the species is overfished and under a rebuilding plan, was closed to commercial fishermen in July and to recreational fishermen in September when each sector harvested its annual catch limit.

Photo: Mike Jennings
If we harvest more than the annual catch limit in a given year then we have to pay back the over harvest in the following fishing year or, prevent overharvest from happening again.  This is exactly why the recreational gray triggerfish season closed so early last year. In 2014 the recreational harvest of gray triggerfish far exceeded the annual catch limit. To account for the overage, the excess catch was subtracted from the 2015 annual catch limit. This left the recreational sector with 54,307 pounds to harvest and forced the federal fishing season closure in early February. 

Many of our most popular fish in the Gulf have more than one annual catch limit. In some cases the stock annual catch limit is subdivided to create separate commercial and recreational annual catch limits. This ensures that if one sector exceeds its annual catch limit then that sector will be responsible for the consequences (as long as the sector overage doesn’t cause the entire stock annual catch limit to be exceeded.)

This year, red snapper experienced two interesting shifts in the subdivision of the stock annual catch limit. First, the Council shifted the allocation among commercial and recreational sectors. Fifty one percent of the red snapper allocation was harvested commercially with the remaining 49% going to the recreational sector. In August of 2015, the Council decided to increase the recreational allocation to 51.5% and allocate the remaining 48.5% to the commercial sector (this rule has not yet been implemented, but is expected to become final in 2016).  Second, the Council decided to subdivide the recreational allocation among two sub-sectors of the recreational fishery. For-hire red snapper anglers (charters and headboats) were allocated 42.3% of the recreational annual catch limit, and private recreational anglers were allocated 57.7%.

Photo: Mark Miller
Moving ahead to our upcoming fishing year with fresh, unharvested annual catch limits. According to the 2015 landings data we have so far, it looks like, with a few exceptions, we did a pretty good job of staying within our harvest limits. This means few species will have adjusted annual catch limits to compensate for last year’s overages.

The commercial greater amberjack annual catch limit was exceeded, and that sector will have to pay back its overage this year. Fortunately, the overage was less than 3%, so it will be a small reduction. Similarly, the tilefish stock annual catch limit was exceeded by nearly 3% and will be reduced by the same amount for the 2016 fishing year.

Unfortunately, recreational gray triggerfish experienced another significant overage, which isn’t surprising because the 2015 adjusted annual catch limit was so low. As a result, this year’s annual catch limit will be adjusted to account to that overage, so we can expect another abbreviated recreational gray triggerfish season in 2016.

Here is a chart showing the unadjusted Annual Catch Limits and allocations for our most popular fish in the Gulf of Mexico for 2016. 

All of us at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council look forward to the 2016 fishing year. Many of our fish stocks are improving and we’re working together to find management solutions that allow us to sustainably manage our Gulf fisheries while providing the best commercial and recreational fishing opportunities possible.