The Path Is Clear
State management of our fisheries is the off ramp from fisheries chaos.

By Ted Venker
Conservation Director
Coastal Conservation Association

Three recent events indicate that federal fisheries management is finally lurching toward its only logical conclusion. Plagued by suspect data and erratic regulations for decades, it appears that even NOAA Fisheries may be embracing state management as an off ramp from the chaos.

Gulf Gag Grouper

In January, NOAA Fisheries released preliminary gag grouper catch estimates for the 49-day 2023 recreational season in the Gulf of Mexico. The total gag grouper catch – using the discredited Marine Recreational Information Program-Fishing Effort Survey (MRIP-FES) – was estimated at 1,677,591 pounds and was broken down into:

  • Private Angler: 1,399,513 pounds gross weight
  • Charter:162,832 pounds gross weight
  • Shore:106,602 pounds gross weight
  • Headboat – 8,644 pounds gross weight

The 2023 gag grouper catch limit for private anglers was 403,759 pounds, so a catch estimate that exceeded that limit by more than four times set off alarm bells and a storm of protest.  It was particularly absurd because it reported 106,000 pounds of gag grouper caught from shore. NOAA Fisheries pledged to review the MRIP-FES numbers and, if warranted, adjust the final catch estimates. About a month later, in February 2024, NOAA announced that the Private Angler catch total was revised from 1.4 million pounds to 708,000 pounds, citing “outliers” in the data. With the estimate still more than twice the allowed catch limit, a train wreck was still on the horizon.

Fortunately, the State of Florida’s reef fish survey (SRFS) was collecting data on gag grouper, and the SRFS Private Angler gag catch estimate was 240,000 pounds. Using the SRFS estimate and dropping the outlandish shore harvest, recreational anglers caught 411,476 pounds, including charter and headboat catches, during the 49-day season, a very slight overage suggesting very minor reductions in the 2024 season.

The State of Florida had already been approved to begin state management of gag in 2024 using the SRFS system, but at its meeting in April the Gulf Council announced it was dropping the shore estimate entirely and converting the 2023 annual catch limit into SRFS units, effectively implementing state management of gag retroactively to get out of their current mess.

When the dust cleared and the conversions were made, albeit somewhat mysteriously, the 2024 gag season went from non-existent to likely about half as long as last year.  But had it not been for a more reliable and efficient state data collection program casting a floodlight on the utter failure of MRIP-FES, we would have been facing yet another federal fisheries management calamity.

Gulf Red Snapper

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced a record 103-day Gulf red snapper recreational season in 2024, the longest Florida season since the Gulf states were delegated management of red snapper in 2018. Prior to that, under federal management, the season had dipped to a record low projection of just three days in 2017.

“I am proud to announce that this snapper season will be the longest season since our State took over red snapper management in the Gulf,” Gov. DeSantis said. 

The contrast between state and federal management is particularly keen in Florida. While the governor is proudly touting the state’s work in the Gulf of Mexico, just across the state in the South Atlantic, red snapper seasons remains the exclusive purview of NOAA Fisheries, and the season there is hovering around just one or two days, at best, despite a red snapper population that is estimated to be larger than at any time under management.

That contrast is not lost on Gov. DeSantis who says he would “love to take over the management of the Atlantic red snapper and not have the federal government do this paltry two day like they’ve done. I mean, that’s just not acceptable.”

We couldn’t agree more.

State managers in the South Atlantic are dealing with the erratic nature of NOAA’s recreational data in a number of species, but support for taking on the responsibility of establishing their own recreational data systems is not as widespread as it was in the Gulf, primarily due to funding concerns. Hopefully, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia will be encouraged by Gov. DeSantis’ commitment and begin taking steps to improve management of their recreational constituency.

Congressional Shot Across the Bow

Finally, in April, an impressive, bipartisan collection of two dozen Representatives and Senators sent a pointed letter to NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Janet Coit expressing their displeasure with both the agency’s recreational data program and its stock assessment process. The letter urged action in both areas “to find a viable path forward to improve the data used for management and rebuild confidence and trust with the American public.”

Regarding the recreational data program, the elected officials said, “The more precise, accurate, and timely state surveys in the Gulf of Mexico can provide the critical information on recreational landings needed to meet the requirements of federal fisheries management. While we are encouraged that NMFS has committed to reviewing MRIP-FES and working with the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission and the states to resolve differences and prioritize state surveys, we are disappointed in NMFS’ lack of urgency in making the transition.”

The letter also called attention to NOAA’s dismissal of the Great Red Snapper Count, an independent assessment of the red snapper population in the Gulf of Mexico funded by Congress that showed at least three times as many snapper as NOAA’s previous assessments, and its continued failure to produce timely stock assessments on other species.

“The continued insistence on using poor models and questionable data over more accurate, comprehensive, absolute abundance estimates—as well as the consistent inability to complete stock assessments on time—calls into question whether NMFS should be conducting stock assessments at all,” the letter states.

In just the last few weeks, the state management model has provided record access for red snapper and prevented an inexplicable disaster for gag grouper, while NOAA’s continued failures drew a scathing rebuke from 24 members of Congress. The path to a more logical, competent future in fisheries management, led by the states, seems, finally, to be at hand. NOAA should either board that train or get off the track.