The snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, an historical perspective and management implications
By Dr. Bob Shipp*

During the last decade, no resource issue has dominated our attention more than the controversy over the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery. The complexity of the issue has drawn in combatants from all quarters. Every user group along the entire Gulf has become entangled in this tar baby in one way or another. Recreational fishermen have seen their season and bag limits slashed; the commercial guys have seen their fishery turn into a classic (and dangerous) derby. Shrimpers have been chastised as the ultimate culprits because their trawls fatally amass millions of young snapper recruits as part of their bycatch. Some conservation groups have called for a total cessation of snapper harvest, believing the stocks are on the verge of collapse. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), for more than a decade, has been echoing this concern, while the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has tried to walk the precarious tightrope between the fears of impending disaster of the snapper population on one hand, and the economic demise of either or both the snapper and shrimp fisheries on the other.

While William Daly was serving as secretary of commerce, he is reported to have said that the red snapper-shrimp controversy was the most vexing problem he had faced. (To be certain worse things befell him during the Florida recounts.)

It's time to draw back. It's time to put the whole issue in a different perspective. And I think the most satisfying tactic would be to put the fishery in an historic and ecological perspective to gain an appreciation of what's happened in the fishery, why, and where it's likely to go in the future.

But first, we need to look at the two extreme views of where the snapper stocks are today. One view is that they are severely overfished, and it will take draconian measures to rebuild the stocks to their full potential. This was the position taken by NMFS during most of the last decade, and strongly supported by some of the very involved conservation organizations, organizations like Center for Marine Conservation and the Gulf Restoration Network. A contrary view is that of many fishermen, claiming there are more snapper now than they've ever seen, and the stocks could easily sustain an increased quota.

Is it possible that both these views are correct? Could the stocks be "overfished" and at the same time larger than ever in history. Intuitively, this may seem impossible. But when one looks at the history of the fishery and the dynamic habitat changes that have occurred over the last century, a new perspective emerges which, with some semantic fine tuning, may embrace both viewpoints.

The snapper fishery began in earnest, before the civil war. New England vessels, called smacks (because they carried baffled live boxes in which the water smacked the sides) came to the Pensacola region in the 1850s. The "snapper banks" south and east of Pensacola supported the harvest from this virgin fishery in the early days. With the advent of ice a few decades later, the complexion of the fishery changed, and more vessels entered the fleet.

The early catches off Pensacola and Mobile, from very limited hard bottom, were dominated by large (10 pound +) fish. Harvest peaked around 1880, at about 2 million pounds annually. The fishery then began to expand to the southeast, toward Tampa. There were several expeditions to the western gulf in search of new snapper bottom, but none was successful. However, important new productive bottom was discovered off Vera Cruz, Mexico.

The US Fish Commission in 1887 issued a report on the snapper fishery through the year 1885. This summary was authored by a Capt. J. W. Collins. There are several passages which give a clear picture of the origins of this most important fishery, especially the nature of the catch, its early expansion, indications of localized overfishing, and explorations in search of new snapper grounds. Following are several direct quotations from the report, with my annotations, based on the content of the entire report and our current knowledge of the fishery.

• "The total amount of fish taken by this fleet we are unable to obtain, but judging by what statistical data as are at hand, it cannot fall far short of 2,000,000 pounds."

• "Localities that were remarkable for the abundance of fish on them only a year or two ago are now of comparatively little importance. The best evidence that can be adduced in support of this theory is the fact that vessels are continually obliged to extend their cruises further off in order to meet with success, and at present we are told that it would be of little use to attempt to catch fish on grounds where they could be taken in great numbers in the early days of the business."

Thus we see that within just a few years of its inception, localized overharvest had already become a problem, likely due to the limited habitat off Pensacola. So the fishery began to expand in other directions. A great deal of success was found as the vessels moved down the coast, first off Cape San Blas then toward Tampa and the Keys. But interestingly, precious few snapper were found off the Texas coast.

• "It may not be out of place to say that quite extended researches have been made west of the Mississippi in search of snapper banks. As early as the fall of 1880 two smacks, from Noank, Conn., which were fishing in the Gulf, made a cruise off Galveston in search of grounds, but found no bottom suitable for red snapper to live on. Mr. Sewall C. Cobb also tells us that he spent the entire month of July, in 1883, seeking for red snappers, and sounding along the coast, from the southwest pass of the Mississippi to a point off the center of Padre Island Texas, a distance of about 450 miles. The bottom, over all this extent of ground, was mostly mud and broken shells, and totally devoid of fish life, so far as he was able to tell"

• "In the summer of 1884 the Pensacola Ice Company sent another schooner off Galveston for red snapper, but the voyage was a failure, the vessel not getting enough to pay her provision bill."

So new bottom was actively sought in the western Gulf off the U.S. coast, but failed to locate snapper. However, if one suspects the methodology was simply inadequate to find them, remember that this same technology was very successful in easily locating the snapper bottom from Vera Cruz to Yucatan.

Data for following 30 years are very sparse, but commercial catch records are available from the 1920s on. Their precision and accuracy are suspect, but probably give a good ball park estimate. Nevertheless, the fishery continued to be centered of Florida and Mexico.

• 1923, Jordan and Evermann: " its [the snapper fishery] centre of abundance is in the Gulf of Mexico, in rather deep water on the rocky banks off the west coast of Florida and the coasts of Campeche and Yucatan."

• 1933, Louisiana Dept. of Conservation: "The center of the snapper fishery is in Florida…the total catch in 1929 was 9,987,000 pounds….the center of this fishery lies east of Louisiana."

Maximum commercial harvest during this period was around 8 to 10 million pounds. That is the same as the current total quota for both recreational and commercial. And the annual commercial harvest of red snapper (4.5 million pounds) is now taken with less and less effort, which translates to a greater catch per unit effort, strongly suggesting the stocks are increasing. Current stock assessments indicate that the total biomass of the stocks could be a billion pounds or more, and the annual maximum sustainable yield (MSY) could be between 45 and 60 million pounds.

But, ff MSY has never been taken, but is calculated to be five times what has ever been taken, how could the stocks be overfished, and/or what has changed in the history of this fishery?

As a case study, and in an attempt to understand what has happened, consider Alabama as a microcosm of the Gulf. Off Alabama, approximately 3,100 km2 have been designated as a permit area for artificial reef deployment. It is estimated that over 20,000 artificial reefs have been deployed in this area.

Previous trawling efforts in the 1970s (before reef permitting) in this area demonstrated that the bottom fish fauna was dominated by small, economically unimportant fish species, primarily flatfishes, searobins, sea basses, and porgies. Beginning in the1980s, the reef deployment began in earnest. Reef material is now primarily cement modules, but previously materials included automobiles, buses, railroad freight cars, liberty ships, bridge rubble, and army tanks. Today this area is the most productive area for the recreational harvest of red snapper in the entire Gulf, producing about one third of the recreational harvest, though the area is less than 5% of the US Gulf shelf bottom.

Studies are currently underway to determine the optimal reef design for selected species, especially red snapper. And concurrent tagging studies (6,000 + tagged and released snapper in the ongoing study) demonstrate that the area serves as a center of emigration of snappers to other areas, especially the eastern Gulf off the Florida coast. Movement of subadult and adult red snapper is especially frequent during periods of tropical cyclones. Data suggest that these cyclones continually redistribute snapper stocks, either from direct impact or displacement and/or covering of hard bottom habitat. One can surmise that hurricanes also would have replenished depleted areas in the 1880s if there had existed massive undiscovered snapper populations in adjacent areas.

In the western Gulf, since 1946, more than 4,000 oil and gas rigs have been deployed. These provide ideal red snapper habitat for snapper stocks. Remember such habitat was isolated or totally lacking, based on reports from the early exploratory cruises, and well into the first half of the 20th century, little if any snapper catches were from the western Gulf. Now more than 60% of the total harvest is from that area. Coincidentally, the eastern Gulf now produces nearly the same tonnage of snappers (@ 2,000,000 pounds) as it did when the fishery began.

The management implications of this increase in habitat of snapper are as follows;

1. Snapper stocks may not be in an "overfished" state, but rather in a state of "unrealized harvest potential" due to a dramatic increase in available habitat during the last half- century.
2. Ecosystem management must consider impact of a potential five fold increase of snapper stocks (based on model projections) on other interactive species.
3. Research on Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs) should refocus toward reduced shrimp loss or reduced mortality of other (forage?) species, rather than solely snapper mortality.
4. "Building" is more appropriate than "rebuilding" in reference to snapper stocks, and the term "recovery" in reference to the stocks may be a misnomer
5. The current "rebuilding" plan should approved by the Gulf Council should be continued for at least five years.
6. Previously determined "rebuilding" target years (e.g. 2033) may be irrelevant.

In addition, there are several research priorities which appear to result from this perspective:

1. Bioenergetic studies/carrying capacity of reef fish ecosystems.
2. Assessment of deep water (> 50 fathoms) populations of snapper.
3. Better understanding of interrelationships of reef species (e.g. red snapper, gray trigger fish, vermilion snapper).
4. Review of harvest and trawling data prior to reef development in the western Gulf.
5. Harvest selectivity due to socioeconomic considerations.

So the two extreme views or "hypotheses" (stocks are overfished, stocks are larger than ever) may both be valid, but only if the term "overfished" does not require the interpretation that the current stocks are depressed due to overharvest of snapper in the past. If "overfished" is used as per the congressional language to be a "rate of fishing" it may well be that the stocks are not in an overfished condition, and the stocks are building to levels far beyond the historical condition of even the virgin stock.

*Dr. Shipp is chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences, University of South Alabama, science advisor to the Alabama CCA, and served nine years (twice chairman) of the gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council