Though Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Populations Have Increased Challenges Remain In Successfully Recovering The Species

story by TRey Iles, LDWF Public Information  

David Nieland remembers how hard it was in the 1990s to find red snapper. Nieland, a biologist manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said it took almost the entire day to catch the daily limit of red snapper back then, which went from a seven-fish, 13-inch limit in 1990 to five fish and 15 inches in 1995 and four fish and 14 inches in 1998.

“It was difficult,’’ said Nieland, who was a fisheries biologist for the LSU Coastal Fisheries Institute in the 1990s. “You had to fish real hard and real long to get the limit’’

Fast forward to 2017 and Nieland said that is no longer the case. Red snapper, declared overfished by the federal government in 1988, have made an impressive comeback in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s certainly good news. But it comes with a caveat that can’t be ignored.

“There are a lot of (red snapper) out there, a lot of nice fish out there,’’ Nieland said. “There is no comparison to how it was in the 1990s. But probably 85 percent of the fish caught these days in commercial, recreational and charter fisheries are 2 to 7 years old. In a species that can live to almost 60 years old, that’s not ideal.’’

The reasons why are many, but reproduction tops the list. A newly mature female red snapper can spawn as few as 30,000 eggs in a season. An older, larger female, however, can produce as many as 75 million eggs in a season.

“Once red snapper hit 10 years old or so, they don’t grow as much,’’ Nieland said. “That’s when they’re putting all their energy into producing eggs. And there aren’t very many in the 10-plus age class now. Some scientists believe that big fish make better quality eggs than the small ones do. They might have better hatch rates, better fertilization rates and their young might grow faster. We’re not getting these fish, what we used to call sow snappers. I haven’t even heard anyone use the term sow snapper in years.

“And that’s just one data point. There is a whole lot more that goes into it than just numbers and statistics.’’

As the red snapper continues on the road to recovery, LDWF is working to make sure anglers have quality access to the growing resource while maintaining measures that ensure the species will thrive at the same time.

It’s a delicate balancing act to be sure. But LDWF’s management of red snapper is a priority. The agency has initiated a multi-pronged approach to alleviate the concerns of both anglers and non-anglers.

One of those is to secure state management of the recreational fishery in both state and federal waters, which reach out to 200 nautical miles. LDWF representatives made a motion during the April 2017 meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the federal entity that currently regulates red snapper harvest, to manage its recreational harvest out to 200 nautical miles for 2019, 2020 and 2021. If approved, this would increase Louisiana’s recreational anglers’ access to red snapper. The Gulf Council continues to discuss this potential management approach, and it has been mimicked by both Mississippi and Alabama.

“Our goal is responsible and reasonable management of red snapper,’’ LDWF Secretary Jack Montoucet said. “If we can show we have a better way of doing things and stay within established conservation standards, we stand a better chance of gaining control of fishing for red snapper in the future. With the cooperation of our anglers, we can make this happen.’’

Good science is the key to managing the resource and that begins with the most reliable and current data. Louisiana has led the way in collecting recreational landings data with its LA Creel program.

Nieland came to work for LDWF in March 2017 and said he becomes more impressed every time he sees LA Creel in action.

LA Creel uses dockside sampling and e-mail and phone surveys of recreational anglers to estimate recreational harvest. It was developed in 2013 to more accurately account for recreational fishing effort for saltwater finfish.

LDWF biologists are on the dock every day, sampling catch and surveying anglers. Because of this intensive coverage, LA Creel provides more precise landings estimates and allows LDWF to more accurately count species such as red snapper as they are landed.

Recreational landings estimates are available just two weeks after these data are collected. These near real-time data allow managers to flexibly and appropriately manage the fishing season. The LDWF Secretary can adjust regulations within 72 hours if necessary.

This increased sampling frequency reduces statistical error, producing more reliable and precise landings estimates. More reliable and precise data leads to better stock assessments and provides a solid foundation for sound management of state fisheries.

With much more intense sampling, LA Creel has much tighter confidence intervals and provides more reliable, timely data than the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), the federal recreational landings data collection program.

The LA Creel data assist LDWF fisheries biologists in better monitoring fish stocks, which is important when determining the best management strategies. The program has received partial accreditation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, as a replacement for MRIP.

LA Creel also allows LDWF to analyze landings estimates by area within the state and to accurately count species such as red snapper as they are landed. It means that the program can monitor trends in harvests in different basins, unlike MRIP which provided one number for harvest across the state. So as the coast continues to change with marsh loss, widening of passes, and coastal protection projects increasing, those changes in the fisheries can be monitored on a basin level, rather than looking at a state-wide change.

Habitat is another important part of the LDWF’s red snapper management approach.

While state and federal scientists sample red snapper populations near oil and gas platforms, artificial reefs and natural hard bottom areas in Louisiana waters, this sampling doesn’t provide conclusive enough data to give an accurate assessment of the stock in Louisiana waters alone.

LDWF has proposed augmenting current sampling by performing three years of additional sampling. These efforts would be coordinated with NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center. These data would not only include red snapper but also other reef fish to bolster NOAA’s overall counts for the Gulf.

LDWF is also working to secure artificial reefs as red snapper habitat. Fewer oil and gas structures have been donated to the Louisiana Artificial Reef Program the last few years because of a moratorium on accepting Special Artificial Reef Sites, or SARS. But in April of this year, the moratorium was lifted. This will allow LDWF greater flexibility to use decommissioned structures in place, instead of having to move them into what is known as a planning area.

In addition, LDWF is researching options on restructuring the state red snapper season to where it most benefits recreational fishermen. For example, the department may consider an April or May opening when recreational red snapper fishing is more popular. Some options are trade-offs. For instance, reducing the season length could allow an increase in the daily bag limit above the current two fish per day. Though this would mean a reduction in total fishing days, it could result in having the option to increase the harvest of fishing trips on open days. This was proposed in January 2017, although the Commission decided to set the state-waters season to open on Feb. 1 and run seven days per week at two fish per angler per day.

These measures proposed by LDWF seek to conserve and sustain the red snapper resource while also increase to the quality of access to those who enjoy angling for the species.

“I believe the steps we’re taking have put us on the path to a robust recovery,’’ Nieland said. “I’m encouraged because we have a lot of red snapper. We just have to continue to work to make sure the stock increases and ages well.’’

For more information about LDWF’s management of red snapper, go to tats in the deeper shelf waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

What to know about Red Snapper

  • Red snapper can live for up to 60 years but few actually survive that long. Individuals older than 20 years are currently scarce in the Gulf of Mexico population.
  • Female red snapper mature and start spawning between the ages of 2 to 6 years old. Males generally mature at younger ages than females.
  • Spawning season begins in May and ends in September. Peak spawning is in May, June and July.
  • A small, young red snapper female may spawn 30,000 eggs in a season but an older larger female may produce as many as 75 million eggs in a season.
  • Red snapper grow very quickly to about 30 inches in length during their first 10 years after which they grow slowly for the remainder of their lives.
  • Red snapper live in three different habitats during the course of their lives. Snapper from 1 to 2 years old inhabit shoreward mud/sand bottom areas. At about 3 years old, they move to structure, such as natural and artificial reefs, oil and gas platforms and shipwrecks. At about 10 years old they tend to move to remote, more isolated habitats in the deeper shelf waters of the Gulf of Mexico.





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