Outdoor Corner: Snapper Time

Lyle Johnson

Well, what do you know? Somebody in the United States Government made a mistake! On the scale of what’s going on in our country and how our government is an expert on messing up, what we’re going to talk about is way down on the scale. Nevertheless, it is a screw-up of Titanic proportions.

Hopefully we’ll have many more photos like this with youngsters smiling after catching red snapper in the Gulf with the discovery of many more snapper.

For years the federal government (aka Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council) was in charge of the count of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. Everybody knew the count was inaccurate to say the least, but the angler’s hands were tied as far as input went.

We all knew from the amount of snapper we caught and had to release that the days allotted to fish and limit number of fish allowed were skewed. Lots of snapper would be caught and turned back even if they were legal size to allow for the keeping of larger fish. We just couldn’t convince anybody with authority that could make a difference.

The state of Louisiana finally instituted the LA Creel program that was revolutionary and gave the most accurate count of red snapper at the time. After that data was proven, the management system was delegated to the Gulf States to manage their reef fish.

Let’s go back in time a little. The red snapper population rapidly declined from 1950 through the late 1980s as commercial and recreational landings and shrimp effort increased.  Red Snapper is part of shrimp trawling bycatch that usually ends up with the fish dying.

The population reached its lowest level in 1990, when spawning potential declined to just 2 percent — well below the level necessary to sustain the red snapper population. By 2005, red snapper spawning biomass had increased to only 4.7 percent, well below the target level of 26 percent.

In 2005, managers began developing a new plan to rebuild red snapper.  At that time, regulations were designed to end overfishing of red snapper by 2009 or 2010.  In 2007, the recreational and commercial quotas were lowered by 45 percent, from 9.12 million pounds in 2006 to 5.0 million pounds by 2008.

Then the recreational bag limit was reduced from five to two fish per person to slow the rate of harvest, and the commercial minimum size limit was reduced to minimize discard mortality.

The first size limit imposed on recreational anglers was a 13-inch minimum, then changed to 16-inch, which remains today. Then the feds began to impose shorter seasons for the recreational angler.

For 2015, the private angler component had a 10-day federal water season, and the federally permitted for-hire component had a 44-day federal water season.  For 2016, the private angler component was reduced to a nine-day federal water season, which was extended two days because of a tropical storm.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the state stepped up to the plate big time and extended the state water season on the weekends out to the state line of 12 miles.

Two years ago, after it was proven that the states had better data, they were given the opportunity to manage reef fish instead of the feds. Not that they liked giving up all that power, so it came with great reluctance.

Low and behold, the U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico are home to 110 million red snapper, about three times more than previously estimated, according to an unprecedented new population assessment led by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI) at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Previous estimates put the population at about 36 million red snapper — having an absolute abundance estimate may potentially change the way the Gulf of Mexico fishery is assessed by federal and state officials.

The findings are contained in a more than 300-page report issued today by researchers leading the Great Red Snapper Count, a three-year independent red snapper population assessment that brought together more than 80 scientists from 12 institutions of higher learning, with participation from state and federal agencies.

Chance Babin killed this gobbler in St. Martin parish at 7:15 on opening morning April 2. He made a 20yd shot and the bird sported 7/8” spurs and 8” beard.

The study was led by Dr. Greg Stunz, HRI’s Chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health and director of the institute’s Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation. Through a competitive grant process, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, which administered the project, awarded $9.5 million in federal funds to the research team.

With matching institutional funds, the project totaled $12 million. “We are thrilled to report on the results of the Great Red Snapper Count. A team led by the top fishery scientists from around the Gulf and beyond have been tirelessly working and have successfully determined the total number of red snapper in the region,” Stunz said.

Red snapper is one of the most popular fish species in the U.S. Because the stock was once considered overfished, anglers saw dramatic reductions in both the fishing seasons and bag limits for decades. Challenges in obtaining abundance data on the number of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico were considered part of the issue, which prompted Congress to commission this independent study.

While scientists found large numbers of snapper on previously well-known snapper habitats such as artificial reefs and natural banks, the Great Red Snapper Count made a major new discovery: what scientists called a “cryptic biomass” of red snapper in the Gulf.  

Red snapper are reef fish, and while they occur Gulf-wide, previous population counts had focused mostly on fishery data collected from known, popular reef and bank locations.

The Great Red Snapper Count sought to better understand snapper population on the previously uncharacterized and unmapped bottom habitat that makes up the vast majority of the Gulf, where scientists have suspected there might be more fish going uncounted.

What they found was that this previously unassessed habitat harbors extraordinarily high number of red snapper, far more than anticipated. How did they count a popular fish species spread out over thousands of square miles of open ocean? Well, it wasn’t quick or easy.

Researchers across the Gulf recorded thousands of hours of video captured through state-of-the-art ROV camera-based surveys, conducted hydroacoustic surveys, and logged hundreds of boat hours on traditional sampling, tagging, and other fieldwork.

They also engaged anglers in a tremendously popular high-reward tagging program, where tagged snapper were reported for a cash prize. Astonishingly, 30 percent of the tagged fish were ultimately returned.

For more about the Great Red Snapper Count including project and partner information, fact sheets, videos, and to download a copy of the report, visit SnapperCount.org.

This information probably came a little late to have any effect on the 2021 season, but I guess late is better than never. Who woulda’ though it, the fishing public knew more than the government! So, until next time, remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard on some red snapper. Have fun in the outdoors, be safe and may God truly bless you!