If you were blindfolded on the top of a cliff, how close would you dare get to the edge?
That's the question facing federal fishery managers who must determine how many fish can be taken from the Gulf of Mexico without harming species and unbalancing the ecosystem.
For years, managers have stood at the cliff's edge and allowed fishing at levels that didn't leave much room for error. That has had devastating consequences for several species that plummeted to unhealthy levels, requiring significant fishing restrictions.
Fishery managers now have a chance to step back from the precipice. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is required by law to develop science-based limits on the amount of fish caught annually for more than 50 species, ranging from cobia to all groupers and snappers.
The council is developing rules for setting those limits and has scheduled a series of public hearings in multiple cities throughout the gulf region -- including Key West, at 6 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Harvey Government Center, and Marathon at 6 p.m. Sept. 22 at Banana Bay.
The process for setting up a system to determine fishing limits may not intrigue most people. But maintaining healthy fish populations is critical for the health of the gulf -- a substantial source of the nation's seafood, an outdoor recreation destination and an economic engine for the entire Southeast.
The council's actions will affect the survival of fish species that draw tourists from around the world.
Sound science must guide the process. The more researchers know about a fish, such as how many are caught each year, how often they reproduce and how long they live, the safer it is to set rules with a smaller margin of error. But for some species, scientists don't have detailed information about fish populations and may not have up-to-date statistics on how many are being caught. In those cases, a larger margin of error is in order.
In the past, smart fishery management decisions have yielded success for both people and fish. For example, the king mackerel is a prized catch for many fishermen. But in the early 1980s, scientists knew the fish was in danger of being depleted. Based on scientific research, federal fishery managers made some highly controversial decisions. In 1985, they slashed the allowable catch from 14.4 million to 5.2 million pounds. The next year, managers imposed recreational size and bag limits.
After two decades of careful management, king mackerel have increased from a low of about 4 million fish in 1984 to 17.2 million fish in 2006. Today, the king mackerel is an example of how an overfished species can recover and support a vibrant fishing industry if managers implement science-based fish rebuilding plans.
We need more of this courageous and forward-looking management to avoid a future crisis of declining fish populations. The best policies will avoid problems that have plagued some species, such as the gulf's red snapper.
For decades, red snapper were chronically overfished. Too many adult fish were taken and young fish were severely depleted because they were frequently caught by accident in shrimp trawls. In 2007, fishery managers finally set scientifically recommended limits on red snapper catch.
But during the last two years, anglers have hauled in over a million more pounds each year than allowed.
Fishery managers were forced to shorten the recreational fishing season to get better control -- a hardship particularly for charter boat captains who were forced to cancel fishing trips for tourists counting on landing red snapper, and a source of frustration for private anglers for whom the fish is a favorite catch.
This dilemma occurred because managers set the fishing limit at the precise amount that is safe for the fish population. They didn't include a sufficient margin of error despite the difficulty in controlling just how many fish are caught.
Future plans must be crafted more wisely. We need to step back from the edge of the cliff and take a safer approach.