Red Snapper Count Reveals Decades of NOAA Inaccuracy
This week, the public and Congress finally heard why nothing seemed to add up in federal management of Gulf red snapper. It turns out that NOAA just doesn’t count snapper very well.
After more than a decade of utter management chaos, Congress began to suspect that NOAA didn’t know what it was doing and so Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama appropriated $10 million for an intensive, independent assessment of red snapper numbers in the Gulf of Mexico by more than a dozen marine science institutions around the country. This week, the Great Red Snapper Count, as it was called, revealed that, while preliminary, instead of the 36 million red snapper NOAA believed were in the population, there are really more like three times that number or 100-plus million red snapper out there.
With a conservative 6.5-pound average size, that comes to roughly 700 million pounds of snapper swimming in the Gulf, most of which NOAA never knew was there. To put that in perspective, the current total allowable catch for commercial harvesters and recreational anglers is roughly 15 million pounds per year.
The implications of this are hard to overstate. It means that the foundation of everything NOAA thought it knew about red snapper is fundamentally cracked. It explains why the population kept expanding even when NOAA said anglers were catching too many fish and shortened our seasons down to just a few days each year. It implies that the allocation between the recreational and commercial sectors was never set right. It means all those stock assessments that drove shorter and shorter recreational seasons were wrong. It means NOAA didn’t need to rabidly promote schemes to privatize public marine resources. It means that the only crisis in red snapper has been NOAA’s faulty data and its culture that tailors management for the privileged few rather than the many. The snapper count reveals that NOAA has been wrong about a lot of things and has been wrong for a long time.
That is hugely reassuring for anglers who have suspected all along that something wasn’t adding up. The danger now is that NOAA will find a way to take the new fish “discovered” by the GRSC and somehow use them to patch up its broken management system. Like a lottery winner who suddenly finds himself wealthy but blows it all on bad decisions, NOAA is more likely to waste and misapply this windfall than manage it properly.
For all the disdain heaped upon the recreational angling sector by NOAA for the past 15 years, that would be an unacceptable outcome. Since everything NOAA thought it knew about red snapper is now suspect, it is impossible to calibrate anything we know today with what NOAA thought it knew yesterday. In fact, there are no trail markers at all from the past that can accurately guide us here. The map has to be totally redrawn and patches will not work.
The only way to fix this mess is to go back to square one and start completely from scratch. Better yet, let the states use their new, superior data systems to manage the new biomass found by the independent marine scientists to take over management of the entire fishery once and for all.
NOAA has had decades to get red snapper right. In the end, the states, Congress and independent marine science institutions had to step in to clean up their mess. After decades of enduring the chaos of a fishery managed on so much wrong, we finally have a chance to start over and manage it right.