Floridians love grouper and snapper. We ought to. Our commercial fishermen rely on these fish to pay the bills, and recreational fishermen bring tourism dollars from near and far to catch them. Indeed, our state has become known for seafood delicacies like grouper, an iconic Caribbean fish. But sadly, all 10 species of fish that we are currently overfishing in the South Atlantic fall into the snapper-grouper category.
It would be a shame to see these populations shrink any more, putting further at risk a treasured part of Florida's cultural identity and a financial pillar of the state. Fishing of all species accounts for more than 75,000 jobs and $7.9 billion in annual income for Florida. The snapper-grouper fishery is particularly difficult to protect—mixed species complicate management, while the slow development of grouper to sexual maturity means that rebuilding a population could take years. Those charged with management of the fishery have attempted to solve the problem but past efforts have failed. A new, science-based approach, however, shows promise and should be supported.
Commercial and recreational fishing off Florida's east coast, including the Florida Keys and extending from three to 200 miles out, is managed by the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, one of eight regional fishery management groups in the country. Over the years the council has implemented bag limits, size limits, trip limits, commercial quotas and spawning season closures to stop overfishing. It also recently created eight deep-water marine protected areas to help preserve habitat for the fish.
Still, the keystone issues for management of these fisheries are the overall catch limits, how they are determined and how well they are monitored and enforced.
The most obvious solution is to limit fishery catches to sustainable levels. But how many fish should that be each year? Which species and what sizes? Sound science is the best way to learn the answers to these questions, and the South Atlantic council thankfully arrived at that conclusion at its recent meeting in Wilmington, N.C.
The council decided to change the way it sets catch limits to a more rigorous, science-based approach that includes developing a way to account for fish populations that do not have conventional stock assessments. Managers can use other decision-making tools and sources of information such as historic commercial and recreational catch, biology and life history characteristics to set limits that guard against overfishing. This is important because, the more we know, the better attuned our limits can be to reproductive factors and other issues that affect population size. The less we know about a fish stock, the more cautious about setting those limits we need to be.
The council's Scientific and Statistical Committee will hold a special meeting in March to flesh out the system, to be guided by how much is known about a fish stock, and establish a set of transparent, science-based rules for setting sustainable limits. Known as the tier system, this approach is showing promise in other parts of the country, and is the best tool we have to establish the catch limits that are most likely to rebuild and preserve Florida's snapper and grouper populations.
Now, more than ever, Florida cannot afford to risk losing one of its bedrock industries. If we do not fish sustainably, we will find ourselves poorer, both culturally and economically. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is on the right track to end overfishing with its tier system. Let's hope it follows through on protecting Florida's favorite fish.