02/27/2009 - Remember the old photographs of fishermen proudly posed next to red snapper just as tall as they were? Those days are long gone.
Red snapper populations off the southern U.S. Atlantic Coast have plummeted to less than 3 percent of 1950 levels, according to recent fishery surveys and new scientific information released by the Southeast Fisheries Science Center. The big, older fish, so prized by fishermen and so needed to sustain the population, are practically nonexistent. Since 1960, fishing rates have been 14 times higher than the fishery can withstand.
Fortunately, we can still correct this dire situation, but we must act quickly.
On Thursday, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which manages fisheries in federal waters off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and the east coast of Florida, is expected to consider halting red snapper fishing for up to six months, with an optional six-month extension. The measure is intended to protect the red snapper population until the end of the year, when a long-term, scientifically sound plan to help the species recover is expected to be implemented.
Similar action has proven successful in the past. In the mid-1980s, decades of overfishing caused the Atlantic striped bass population to crash. A fishery that once yielded annual catches between 6 million and 8 million pounds shrank to just 220,000 pounds in 1989.
Faced with the potential disappearance of the species from coastal waters, state and federal fishery managers united behind a plan to temporarily halt striped bass fishing. It worked. By 1995, the fish had officially recovered and today they are thriving. The painful closure—now widely viewed as a worthwhile sacrifice—led to one of fishery management's greatest success stories.
The current choice by the South Atlantic council could be the most controversial decision made in years. However, the council should demonstrate the wisdom and courage to take the necessary action that will allow this species to recover. To do otherwise risks long term disaster for the fishery.
From North Carolina to Florida, red snapper remain a popular catch for tourists and locals who head out on private boats, charters and other recreational trips. Florida is known as the snapper capital, and North Florida is a hot spot.
But we are witnessing an astonishing decline of this species and fishery. During 2006, recreational and commercial fishing caught a total of about 150,000 pounds of snapper in waters off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, down from a 1966 high of nearly 900,000 pounds—partly a result of fishing limits but also a sign of how few older, large snapper remain.
It's true that recent reports show red snapper are sighted more frequently during fishing trips than in previous years, an observation supported by the science. But most of those fish are young and small, an alarming trend recently identified by the South Atlantic Council's scientists. Snapper normally live up to 65 years, but recent surveys found few fish older than 3. It seems that older fish—the best spawners—are being removed before they can replenish the population.
If the council doesn't act now, red snapper in the south Atlantic could become so rare they would be commercially extinct. That means they won't be worth fishing for. Without a sustainable red snapper fishery, consumers will have to rely on imports and fishermen could be out of business. Tourists will go elsewhere to pursue their prized catch, dealing another blow to ailing local economies.
Conservationists, fishermen and policymakers all want the same thing: a healthy red snapper population that provides jobs, food and recreation. We simply need some prudent decisions and a lot of patience to get there.
This will be a tough decision, with serious impact on many communities. But the time to act is long overdue. The red snapper fishery needs well thought-out, science-based limits and a closure that allows us to step back and consider the long-term big picture: a picture that could once again show a proud angler posing next to a prized catch as tall as he is.
Holly Binns is project manager of the Pew Environment Group's Campaign to Ending Overfishing in the Southeast.
This op-ed also appeared in the Florida Times Union, and Florida Today.com.