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For the next two years, a team of researchers studying red snapper — the sweet and nutty star of seafood menus that also happens to be at the center of a heated regulatory battle — will do the seemingly impossible: count the number of fish swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.
The $10 million study, meant to provide an independent tally for fishermen around the Gulf, may ultimately provide the largest fish survey ever performed and devise more accurate counting tools for the complex job of assessing fish stocks. It’s also a stab at resolving the ongoing dispute over strict snapper rules that critics say favor commercial fishermen, allowing a few powerful ones to control lucrative catch limits traded like shares in the stock market.
“It’s a very touchy subject,” said Bob Spaeth, former owner of the Madeira Beach Seafood Co. on Florida’s Gulf Coast and executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association. “We have some unintended consequences.”
Red snapper once filled the Gulf and supplied an industry that made fried, grilled or blackened snapper a staple at seafood restaurants and markets. But by the 1980s, the population had dropped to unsustainable numbers, with an absence of long-lived adults, which can live to age 50. That spawned years of shifting regulations, scrutinized stock assessments and debates between commercial and recreational fishermen who were regulated differently.
Meanwhile, prices soared and counterfeit fish abounded. In 2004, students at the University of North Carolina playing around with new DNA techniques discovered that 77 percent of fish sold as snapper was actually something else.
“It became just a real conundrum. And it’s not a scientific issue. It’s a management issue,” said University of Florida fishery scientist Will Patterson, who is assembling a fleet of remote-controlled underwater vehicles and other tools as part of the research team that includes Texas A&M, Louisiana State, the University of Southern Alabama, University of Southern Mississippi and National Marine Fisheries Service.
Under existing rules, state and federal waters have different seasons and catch limits. That’s created an imbalance between commercial fishermen, who are restricted to federal waters, and recreational anglers and charter boats.
Commercial fishermen are limited to federal waters, where the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council sets limits. For years, snapper season was limited to the first week of the month during spring and fall, sending boats scrambling to grab as many fish as possible. In 2007, with little progress made in increasing the population, the Council turned to assigning individual fishing quotas for commercial fishermen. But that led to quotas being hoarded by a small number of fishermen, who then sold the limits like shares at a high price.
“The problem is there’s like 20 people that own most of the red snapper [quotas] and because of the regulations, any new red snapper that would be allocated would go to those people,” Spaeth said.
As rules tightened in federal waters, states under pressure from local recreational anglers began extending the season. Texas, where the population is older and larger, keeps it season open year-round. Extended state seasons led federal managers to tighten rules to keep the population healthy. This year, federal waters were open to recreational anglers for just three days.
“It’s kind of this weird circle,” Patterson said. “If there was a hard quota, the season had to close and annual catch limits had to be set below the overfishing threshold. There had to be some buffers.”
Outraged recreational anglers convinced the Trump administration to step in and order the season extended, despite the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration citing the highest catch rate in ten years.
Spaeth says that should serve as a sign of snapper recovery.
“They have overpopulated the bottom,” he said. “My theory is there’s a piece of the bottom, a coral reef or whatever, and there’s only so much and it has a carrying capacity, like so many rooms in a hotel. And it looks like the red snapper are parked in the hotel and none of the other fish can get in.”
But NOAA reports younger fish continue to outnumber older fish, with most of the population under age 10, meaning fewer eggs are being produced. A bigger, 10-year-old fish produces 33 times more eggs than a three-year-old during the season, the agency said. Determining the make-up of the population would help regulators considering easing restrictions.
For the study, Patterson and colleague Robert Ahrens, a fishery scientist who designed the survey, will use a combination of counting methods that include underwater cameras, acoustic sensors, mark-and-capture surveys and old-fashioned line fishing to create fish indexes for different habitats. Models will be created to predict populations and account for the size of the area being covered, but only after survey methods are tested for accuracy, Ahrens said.
“The hope coming out of this is we’ll get a number that will help people think more about red snapper, and along with that we’ll develop some new methods and technologies that later down the road will be useful” for monitoring other fish, he said.
Patterson suspects their findings won’t differ much from current population counts. Scientists have repeatedly looked at counts in different ways, he said, and always wound up with similar numbers, never finding any signs of bias that influenced numbers. Whether the count changes the assessment is not as important as the survey itself, he said, which is intended to provide a more rigorous, and less debatable, outcome.
“We’re doing our best to collect unbiased information,” Patterson said. “The legacy of this funding is going to be much greater than just establishing the red snapper biomass.”