RED SNAPPER CATCH DATA COLLECTION EFFORTS

NFMS has finally decided to pretend to be improving red snapper data collection, as it was mandated to do by Congress seven years ago. The call for public comments on data collection, however, was only published in the Federal Register, so you might not have noticed it. What they are proposing, in a nutshell, is more telephone “surveys” of anglers, and an improved system of trip reports and catch logs in the for-hire industry. All of this, of course, can be done at little cost to them, and also with little effort – meaning they still have no intentions of getting out of the water where the fish actually live, and instead intend to continue using flawed data and computer generated “estimates” to determine the length – or lack of – the red snapper open season.

The following is my personal comment on this subject. You may feel free to email your own comments to this address:

ADDRESSES: Direct all written comments to Jennifer Jessup, Departmental
Paperwork Clearance Officer, Department of Commerce, Room 6616, 14th
and Constitution Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20230 (or via the Internet
at JJessup@doc.gov).

For the record, I am an outdoor writer and former for-hire permit holder from Oyster Creek, Texas. In addition, I have served on advisory panels to the Gulf Council, and as a board member of The National Charterboat Operators Association (NACO). My boat was destroyed by hurricane Ike, and I did not deem it practical to replace it, considering the restrictive regulations put in place by NMFS, so I should rightly be classified with the many other charter operators put out of business by NMFS.

Due to my situation, and that of others, I feel rather insulted and demeaned that the main focus of this “new” data collection effort seems to be that it not cost the agency anything. Logbooks and trip reports are a step up, if they are used properly, but amount to having the for-hire industry collect the data themselves. Most still in the business that I know of might be happy to provide actual data to an agency prone to “estimate” numbers that suit it’s pre-determined agenda – IF they felt that the data would be correctly and honestly evaluated. Unfortunately, I do not see how anyone could have those expectations. When red snapper are so numerous that they are eating triggerfish into extinction, yet NMFS holds the recreational sector to a NINE DAY SEASON, we have to conclude that a.) We are dealing with idiots or b.) “The fix is in”!

Telephone surveys are a poor idea because they often do not reach the individuals they should reach, and many anglers are reluctant to share information with someone on the phone. It is impossible for us to know for sure if the information is actually being “logged”, or for what purpose it will be used. Given the history of Federal Red Snapper regulation, many are suspicious that a report of good catches will result in accusations of recreational catches exceeding the quota – and even shorter seasons. Reports of poor catches, on the other hand, might mean an assumption of overfishing, with the same results.

To sum it up, fishermen do not trust NMFS, nor do they have any reason to. What I would like to see personally – and I really suspect others would agree – is an actual effort from NMFS to collect REAL data. Not telephone hear-say and not “estimates” generated by a faulty computer model and evaluated by personnel with little or no actual knowledge of red snapper, their biology and life history. We have heard the term, “best available science” thrown about a lot – but phone calls and computer estimates do not come close to being within that definition! In the past, I and others have volunteered to take government observers on trips into the Gulf of Mexico – where red snapper live and where the regulatory problems are most serious. This would only require the time of the personnel, and I assume they currently draw a paycheck for doing less effective tasks? It would be impossible to do an accurate population “survey” of snapper from such trips, but data concerning catches: size of fish caught, by-catch and by-catch mortality, where the fish were most likely to be caught, what they were feeding on, the effect of inclement weather on the fishery, and other needed data could be gathered.

In my own experience, I know of a “spot” off the Texas coast where several years ago hundreds, maybe thousands, of large red snapper were caught in a very short time by recreational anglers. There was no noticeable structure or other obvious reason for so many snapper to be there, but they were, and they were very hungry. These catches never were reported to NMFS, and there are other spots like this “discovered” by industrious snapper fishermen each year. The “scientific community” might have gained some needed insight about snapper from studying this spot, instead they seem to have no idea such incidents occur.

Another problem in the current and proposed data collection systems comes with by-catch. Only looking at recreational by-catch here, if a fisherman takes every precaution to return an undersized red snapper to the water safely, there is an excellent chance it will be eaten by a porpoise before it can reach the safety of structure. I have watched this happen many, many times, as these intelligent marine mammals have learned that head boats, charterboats, or any other boat seen bottom fishing can create easy prey. Yet nothing is ever mentioned about this occurrence in connection with by-catch mortality. Instead, NMFS mandates all sorts of dubious equipment be carried by fishermen to safely release undersized snapper to the far-from-tender mercies of “Flipper” and friends!

About MikeH

Texas hunter and fisherman for 50 years, published outdoor writer since 1979, licensed charter boat operator from 1982 to 2013. Past Member, Board of Directors, National Association of Charterboat Operators, current member Environmental Advisory Committee to the DOE and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Married to Dorothy since 2000, one son, Michael who is recently married and living in Nederland, Texas. My wife and I live in Oyster Creek, Texas, near Freeport, and have a hunting property outside of Brazoria, Texas.
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