Most avid offshore fishermen know the triggerfish as a pest that takes baits meant for red snapper and other more desirable bottom species – sometimes even mangling baits drifted for kingfish just below the surface. “Triggers” will also attack and eat hooked snapper, and a diver friend of mine was once seriously bitten while trying to protect a speared snapper from a crowd of hungry triggers. At times when I was still actively chartering it was necessary to just leave a rig or wreck because it was impossible to get baits down past the layer of ravenous triggerfish. If you chose to “stay and fight”, however, triggers are actually hard – if unimaginative – fighters. While difficult to fillet and yielding a small amount of meat for the size of the fish, triggerfish have been called “gray snapper” for the quality of their flesh. Still, neither recreational nor commercial fishermen have ever been exactly enamored with these fish, so when I began hearing several years ago that they were considered “overfished” on the east coast of the US and seasons were being discussed, I did not really understand. I was told by the Director of Coastal Fisheries for TPWD at the time, Hal Osborn, that the east coast was so overfished and lacking in good structure and habitat compared to the Gulf that triggers were considered a lot more important there – so I suggested we send them a bunch from Texas, in return for more realistic snapper regulations!
Triggerfish were actually placed under a limit – in the Reef Fish Aggregate, with vermillion snapper and certain groupers – several years ago, although few fishermen probably realized it, or cared. This past summer, however, NMFS and the Gulf Council actually CLOSED the “season” for triggerfish in early June! The stated reason was overfishing, primarily by recreational anglers. I haven’t been on the water much since I lost my boat to Ike, but buddies who still run charters told me there really were very few triggers around anymore. Their guess was also that many people began targeting them because of the tight regs on snapper, but it now appears that the snapper themselves might be more directly behind this situation.
In an interview for a Florida newspaper, Re. Steve Southerland, who is himself a fisherman and a friend of fishermen, says he believes that the artificially low catch limits on snapper are behind the decline in triggerfish. With the snapper season down to a record 40 days this summer, NMFS continues to claim that anglers are vastly exceeding their allotted quota on red snapper – not because they are catching too many numbers of fish, but because the average size of the fish caught is increasing, and the Allowable Catch Limit is calculated according to weight. I don’t really believe the average snapper caught these days is nudging 7 pounds, as their “data” says, but it does make sense that the fewer the fish caught, the healthier the remaining population should be. According to Rep. Southerland, NMFS’s own figures show that following the drastic cuts in snapper fishing days, the estimated landings of triggerfish have plummeted by more than half. Even if we understand that the NMFS figures are largely bogus, perhaps in fact close to outright fabrications, the reports from fishermen on the water actually seem to verify this.
NMFS attributes this phenomenon, of course, to overfishing of triggerfish by anglers – anglers who have rarely targeted triggers. Dr. Bob Shipp, a member of the Gulf Council and Chairman of the Dept. of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, who in my opinion is the leading authority on most aspects of fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico, believes that red snapper are eating the triggerfish! Of course, it would be hard to imagine a snapper being hungry enough to eat a full sized trigger, but Dr. Shipp says that besides actually crowding out triggerfish and competing for the same food sources, the large number of aggressive – and larger – red snapper are feeding on triggerfish egg masses in a big way – and having a “major impact on the ecosystem” in the process. It seems the old adage, “It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature” has been ignored by NMFS in setting snapper regulations that are unrealistic – or, as deemed by the National Academy of Sciences, “fatally flawed”. While most fishermen probably feel sacrificing ALL the triggerfish for more and bigger red snapper would be a good thing, it seems an imbalance has been caused that damages other fisheries, and which might not stop with the triggerfish.