The end of the line is approaching to finalize a proposal that could save the imperiled red snapper.
After years of study, fishery managers will vote next week in Orlando on a long-term plan to rebuild an iconic species that has plummeted to just 3 percent of healthy population levels. Red snapper have been severely overfished for more than 40 years, and it's past time to act.
The plan includes halting red-snapper fishing until the species begins to recover. It also calls for closing an area of the ocean to fishing for some other snapper and grouper species that, like red snapper, dwell near the bottom. Red snapper are often caught accidentally when fishermen target these species.
Some fishermen continue to protest. But recently, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing policy in federal waters from North Carolina to Florida, has taken steps to lessen the closure's economic impacts and find the least-restrictive solutions while protecting red snapper.
First, managers have reduced the closed-area size from more than 10,000 square miles to 6,161 square miles, from Cape Canaveral to north Georgia.
Second, in response to fishermen who claim red snapper are more numerous than scientists believe, the council launched a new, in-depth study to be completed later this year. At that time, council members could adjust the proposed closed area based on the findings.
Meanwhile, some members of Congress are sponsoring the Coastal Jobs Creation Act to help unemployed fishermen nationwide while overfished species recover.
The legislation would devote $80 million annually through 2015 to creating jobs for fishermen to perform cooperative research with scientists, remove marine debris, revitalize ports and participate in projects to restore fish populations and ecosystems. These types of projects are needed in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill — a tragedy that underscores the need to keep fish populations healthy so they can survive unexpected events. The spill only lends urgency to protecting all marine resources, including red snapper.
The legislation and the revised red snapper proposal represent a reasonable compromise to address fishermen's concerns and protect a declining species.
It's important to put this debate in perspective. While red snapper are a popular catch at North Florida and south Georgia hotspots, the fish are just 4 percent of recreational catch and only 1 percent of commercial catch in the Southeast region. Most fishermen will be able to target dozens of other species.
Offshore charter-boat operators along the Central and North Florida coast will be most affected by the red-snapper proposal because many target snapper and grouper. Yet they represent just 2 percent of 23.8 million southeast fishing trips taken in 2006, according to the latest data from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Our nation has recognized the importance of ending overfishing. The 2006 strengthening of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act closed loopholes that had allowed overfishing of many species to continue unchecked. Its requirements for science-based catch limits and strict deadlines already are helping Gulf of Mexico red snapper, which appear to be recovering.
South Atlantic red snapper could see similar success. Scientists project that red-snapper catch, most recently landed at 553,000 pounds annually, could reach 860,000 pounds within 10 years under the recovery plan. But it will only work if we allow young red snapper to reach their best spawning years. Although fishermen report seeing more red snapper, they are too young to breed enough to boost the population.
Even though the price of smart, science-based decisions might mean some immediate sacrifice, the long-term economic cost of collapsed fisheries would be far greater. The public deserves a plan that will rebuild red snapper, promote a healthy ocean ecosystem and secure fishing and tourism opportunities for everyone.