Given Enough Time, Overfished Red Snapper Can Rebound

Publication: The Post and Courier

Author: Holly Binns


09/02/2009 - Would you pick fruit from an orchard before it’s ripe? Probably not. We all know the best reward comes from patiently waiting for nature to finish its work.

The choice is no different when it comes to some of our dwindling fish species. If we give the young, smaller fish a chance to grow older, they will reach their best spawning years and yield a bountiful harvest.

This is the strategy we must employ to save the chronically overfished red snapper -- an iconic Southeast species and an important fish for the South Carolina tourism industry. Although red snapper can live up to 54 years, only a small percentage are older than 10. They are being caught before they have the best chance of replenishing their population, which has plummeted to just 3 percent of historic levels.

Later this month, federal fishery managers will meet in Charleston to discuss the best options for a long-term plan to help red snapper recover. The payoff of a rebuilt population could be dramatic, producing more robust fishing than we have today in less than 10 years. Over the longer term, scientific predictions show catches could skyrocket 25-fold, from about 78,000 pounds in 2006 to nearly 2 million pounds by 2036.

The road to recovery starts with a six-month moratorium on red snapper fishing. It was approved in March by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which manages fisheries in federal waters from North Carolina to Florida. The moratorium is awaiting final approval from the Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the federal agency in charge of fishery policies.

Options for the long-term recovery plan could extend the moratorium beyond the initial six months, but a closure alone won’t be enough. Vast numbers of red snapper die after they are thrown back into the water because they don’t meet the legal size limit or they are caught accidentally when fishermen target other species, such as gag grouper and vermilion snapper. The snapper die from the decreased pressure while being dragged up quickly from their deep-ocean habitat.

Therefore, the South Atlantic Council also has proposed closing certain areas of the ocean to bottom fishing. Although total recovery could take 35 years, controlled red snapper fishing could resume much earlier and closed ocean areas could re-open as the fish acquire a good head start towards recovery.

Sound science must form the basis of any long-term plan to help ensure a healthy ocean ecosystem and to prevent red snapper from spiraling toward a point where it can no longer sustain a commercially profitable fishery.

Congress strengthened the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act -- the law governing our nation’s fisheries -- in 2007. This reauthorization emphasized the role of the council’s science advisers in setting biological limits on the number of fish caught annually.

Yet some species have plunged to critically low levels from chronic overfishing that has spanned decades. Managers failed to set effective fishing limits so Congress required an end to overfishing by deadlines in 2010 and 2011. The South Atlantic Council has made some courageous moves toward that end, and even in the face of opposition from some fishing interests, they must continue on this path.

The scientific case for the red snapper recovery plan is based on careful research conducted during the last several years by some of the country’s best fishery scientists. They assembled data from fishermen and other sources, collected samples of fish, ran complex computer models and considered testimony from independent researchers, fishermen and university scientists. Their findings passed rigorous peer review.

Although the price of smart, science-based decisions now may mean short-term economic losses for some fishing interests, the long-term cost of collapsed fish populations would be far greater.

If we just let the fruit ripen, everyone can enjoy the bounty for years to come.

Holly Binns is project manager of the Pew Environment Group's Campaign to Ending Overfishing in the Southeast.

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