The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper and the Role of Congress in Fisheries Science

The red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico is one of the most fascinating fisheries in the U.S. Whether it is the catch share program, the allocation between commercial and recreational fishers, or the balance between state and federal control, everything about Gulf red snapper seems to be controversial.

In researching this story, we interviewed two experts. First, we spoke with Dr. Jim Cowan of Louisiana State University about a request to Congress from some specific interest groups to fund an absolute estimate of Gulf red snapper abundance. We then explored the role of Congress in the science of fisheries management with Dr. Michael Sissenwine, current member of the New England Fishery Management Council and former Director of Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Given President Obama’s use of executive action in fisheries management through the Monuments Act and the recent election, the role of the President and Congress in fisheries management seems increasingly important. The purpose of this feature is to explore this issue using a specific example: the Gulf red snapper fishery.

The Gulf red snapper fishery and the allocation of millions of dollars to obtain an absolute estimate of abundance

In August, CFOODUW spoke with Dr. Jim Cowan of Louisiana State University about Congress’ authorization to spend tens of millions of dollars to obtain an absolute estimate of Gulf snapper abundance. “I think it’s impossible to do,” he said. “This is why we rely on the stock assessment process because if we could count fish we wouldn’t need stock assessments” (00:24).

For many Gulf of Mexico species, the annual catch limit is divided among commercial and recreational fishers. The red snapper population was rapidly depleted from 1950 through the late 1980s, reaching its lowest level in 1990. This coincides with high landings from the late 1950s through the late 1980s before snapper crashed in 1990 (Figure 1). “Overfishing is no longer occurring, but they’re still extremely overfished. There’s more and more pressure being put on NOAA fisheries…to come up with a solution, and there is no solution. NMFS has to deal with regulations in the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which says if you can’t rebuild a stock within 10 years with a fishing moratorium, you have to use 1.5 generation time. Red snapper live to be 57 years old, so generation time is long, which is why we have a rebuilding target of 2032. But, we’re not going to make that if we continue to take additional biomass that results in overfishing again” (06:40).

Figure 1. Total abundance and catch (in metric tons) of Gulf of Mexico red snapper from 1872 to 2013. Data from NMFS stock assessment database.
Figure 1. Total abundance and catch (in metric tons) of Gulf of Mexico red snapper from 1872 to 2013. Data from NMFS stock assessment database.

Because snapper are long-lived, “stock productivity is usually not very high,” says Dr. Cowan. Further, “they’re strongly year class-dependent – they need a good strong year class every 7 years or so” (31:41). “Fishing in a strongly year class-dependent species that is also a relatively low productivity species makes management very difficult” (33:49). In 2004 and 2006, “we had two relatively strong year classes…and when they moved into the fishery everyone was catching a lot of fish. It looked like things had really changed, and that sparked this controversy” (08:11).

In other words, those strong year classes may have led some to believe Gulf snapper are more abundant than demonstrated in the stock assessments (Figure 2). “Some people are dissatisfied with catch limits, and they tend to be people who are willing to lobby politicians to have them get involved… The worst thing that could ever happen is politicians to start managing fisheries from Washington DC, but that’s kind of where we are with red snapper” (08:41). In the private recreational sector, there are a few wealthy individuals that “lobby the heck out of governors and senators and other politicians around the Gulf, then come up with something like this… As much as $27 million is going to be spent on this” (03:32).

This may be due to a misunderstanding about the relationship between catch limits and number of fishers as it relates to the different sectors. For example, recreational fishers see commercial fishermen offloading 5,000 pounds of snapper at a given time, and they’re only allowed a 2-fish bag limit. “They’re not thinking about the fact that the number of recreational anglers is very high compared to the number of commercial fishers” (24:20). “Recreational fishers think that 10 guys catching 5,000 fish is different than 10,000 guys catching 5 fish – they don’t see that difference” (18:09). Dr. Cowan said he has tried to work with the recreational fishing sector on setting up a dedicated access program, something similar to the IFQ program under which commercial fishermen have been operating since 2007. “These guys won’t have it… They really won’t give way, and that’s what ultimately resulted in where we are now” (20:45). Instead, recreational fishers have pursued other avenues in an effort to get the stock reallocated. “Currently, they are doing so with the help of a Senator” (25:00) said Dr. Cowan.

This ‘grievance’ experienced by recreational fishermen has been framed as being the result of NOAA’s poor management of the fishery. This appears to be an effort to undermine NOAA’s credibility, which may then be used as leverage to increase the likelihood of their constituency’s project receiving funding. Dr. Cowan feels “it’s been designed to do that” (16:12). “[They are] operating under the assumption that NOAA fisheries has got it all wrong, only because we have a rebuilding schedule based on 1.5 generation time for this species and their stock is supposed to be rebuilt by 2032,” explains Dr. Cowan (04:55). In other words, recreational fishers may fail to realize the long-lived, strongly year-class-dependent nature of snapper, and after the two strong year classes in 2004 and 2006 they may believe there are more fish out there than the assessments suggest. Despite this confusion, “we certainly can’t count fish,” says Dr. Cowan. “The degree to which that affects NOAA’s future concerns me” (13:16).

Landings of red snapper (all sectors combined, including recreational and commerical). Data prior to 1950 are model estimated
Landings of red snapper (all sectors combined, including recreational and commercial). Data prior to 1950 are model estimated

Setting aside all politics, Dr. Cowan finds obtaining an absolute estimate to be impossible for a number of reasons. First, Gulf of Mexico snapper live within a 330,000 square kilometer radius, and “we’ve been asked by a Senator to ‘count the fish where they live’… The reality of doing that is zero… They want it to be accurate and precise, but we don’t have a baseline, and it’s a lot of space on the shelf to deal with” (01:00). “We could be counting the same fish over and over again.” Further, only a small percentage, maybe 10%, of the hard bottom habitat in the Gulf has ever been mapped or characterized. This is a potential source of error. “If you don’t know where the habitats are, how do you count them?” (26:24). Dr. Cowan thinks the money would be better spent by first mapping the natural habitat available. Instead, this authorization is jumping straight to counting the fish. “They’re putting the cart before the horse… We don’t even know where the habitats are they may be inhabiting. “Without knowing that, how can we count?” (28:18).

In summary, this tug-of-war between commercial and recreational fishers is nothing new. “Somebody is always unhappy with the way things are being managed” (21:46). Despite this, Dr. Cowan tries to think positive but remains skeptical. “I hope some good science comes out of it, but the task in and of itself is a ridiculous one” (02:36). “Truthfully, we can’t count fish” (12:30).

Another concern is that ‘the squeaky wheel doesn’t always get the grease.’ In other words, while there may be stocks in greater need of funding, certain fisheries, such as iconic species like Gulf snapper, tend to get more funding than others, often because they are lucrative commercially or popular recreationally.

Who manages fisheries research, and who should?

In July, CFOODUW spoke with Dr. Michael Sissenwine, current member of the New England Fishery Management Council and former Director of Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor of the National Marine Fisheries Service about the role Congress plays in funding and managing fisheries research. According to Dr. Sissenwine, the historic role of Congress was to appropriate money to NMFS according to broad program categories, such as collect ‘fishery-dependent data.’ “Up until about 20 years ago, Congress appropriated significant funds that were left essentially to the science professionals to develop research strategies and implement them. More recently, Congress has put in more and more specificity on how money is to be spent… Now there are literally hundreds of line items in the budget” (01:07). Consequentially, the ability of the scientific leadership to design a research strategy for complex ecosystems is extremely hampered by all of the details. “Some might refer to it as micromanagement of the budget by Congress” (03:42).

This is not entirely Congress’ doing. In the 1980s, the President’s budget request was inadequate to run all fisheries programs, thereby threatening the very existence of several programs. “Congress then started rescuing programs…and getting criticized by the administration… We quickly saw an evolution where the planning of the budget was…increasingly micromanaged by individual congressional interests based on their constituency interests” (06:15). Those who rescued programs felt they had some say in how and where the research they conduct. Some of these programs, in turn, became much more responsive to Congress than they did to the agencies in which they were managed; a trend that spread throughout fisheries management. In short, “the dynamic of wanting small government and putting forward budgets that were not realistic turned over tremendous responsibility to Congress to save research programs, and in doing so surrendered tremendous responsibility to Congress to manage the budget, and that trend has continued” (08:08). “Congress controls the budget – that is their authority… But, they’re not terribly qualified to get into any detail on design of the programs” (11:16). Additionally, special interest groups lobby for specific programs in the budget, resulting in a highly political game of tug-of-war fueled by constituency interests.

This trend lifted slightly from the 1990s through 2000s, but there appears to be a backsliding towards Congress increasing its control over the budget, although Dr. Sissenwine acknowledges that his firsthand knowledge is dated since he has not been involved in the process since he retired from government a decade ago. Unfortunately, agency and university scientists tend to be caught in the middle in this politically-charged tug of war, unable to lobby despite being subject level experts on the science in question. Often they have great ideas about what research should be pursued, but are stuck because they are not players in this complex and polarized budget planning and appropriation process. “The general subject matter is preserved, and a lot of the money requested is actually appropriated, but the actual strategy for how to do a good job with the money has been manipulated by individual Congress people saying ‘we’ll vote for it if the money goes where we want, so we can take credit, so we can issue a press release saying we got this money for our state’” (21:40).

“This environment which fosters micromanagement by Congress in response to special interests is very much a product of a Congress and Executive Branch that fundamentally aren’t working together to put together budgets which are realistic in size in terms of what Congress believes should be spent, and then are professionally designed in terms of how the money is spent. That’s the appropriate roles: Congress should decide how much the country can afford to spend on these things, in broad categories, and the professionals in the agencies should use the best professional capability they have to use the money effectively and efficiently to deal with the missions that are created by the legislation. That doesn’t happen when there’s essentially a breakdown in harmony and cooperation between the branches of government. Obviously that’s what’s happened in the last 8 years” (13:02).

The future of fisheries management in the U.S.

It remains to be seen how executive action and Congress will interact with fisheries management in the next four years. While eNGOs have applauded President Obama’s use of executive action, they might find President Trump uses the same authority in quite different ways.


Listen to all the interviews featured in this story below

James Cowan

Jim Cowan is a Professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences and the Coastal Fisheries Institute at Louisiana State University. He has 25 years of experience in both marine and estuarine fisheries research and has authored more than 75 refereed publications in the primary fisheries literature.

Dr. Cowan has served on four National Research Council study committees and technical review panels concerning fisheries issues, has twice served on the Ocean Sciences Division, Biological Oceanography Review Panel for the National Science Foundation, and has served as a US delegate both to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and the Pacific Marine Sciences Organization (PICES). Finally, he was Chairman of the Reef Fish Stock Assessment Panel for 13 years and currently is a member of the Standing Scientific and Statistical Committee for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

Michael Sissenwine

Dr. Michael Sissenwine is a Visiting Scholar of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Distinguished Senior Scientist at the School for Marine Science and Technology of the University of Massachusetts, and an independent marine science consultant with projects worldwide. He serves as a member of the New England Fishery Management Council (2013-present). He was President (2004-2006) of the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and chair (2008-20010) of its Advisory Committee. ICES coordinates marine science and advises European governments (including the European Union) on marine ecosystems. He was the Director of Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor for the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (2002-2005). He was responsible for about 25 Laboratories, research on eight offshore research vessels and 1,400 staff throughout the USA. His organization’s mission was to provide the scientific basis for conservation and management of marine living resources and their ecosystems. He also led eleven NOAA programs, funded at a total of about one billion dollars annually, that supported the Agency’s stewardship mission (2002-2004). From 1996-2002, he served as Director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, comprised of five laboratories and approximately 300 staff. Previously, Dr. Sissenwine served almost six years as the Senior Scientist of the National Marine Fisheries Service, overseeing the Agency’s scientific programs throughout the USA.

Dr. Sissenwine has over 40 years of experience as a research scientist and scientific leader, authoring over 100 scientific reports and publications on a wide range of topics including ecosystem dynamics, fisheries oceanography, resource assessments and fishery management theory and case studies. He is also the co-editor of three books. Dr. Sissenwine has convened several international scientific conferences. He has given testimony to the US Congress and a European Parliamentary Committee, participate in radio talk shows and frequently been interviewed by the news media.

Dr. Sissenwine is a US Commissioner to the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization and a former Scientific Council member; a former US delegate to the Pacific Science Association (PSA) and former chair of the National Academy of Sciences’ National Committee for PSA; a former member of the scientific steering committee for the US Global Ecosystem Dynamics program (GLOBEC) and a former co-director of GLOBEC; past member of the Fishery Resources Commission of the World Humanity Action Trust of the UK; the former chair of the Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO); participant in FAO “Expert Consultations” on Fisheries Management Techniques, the Precautionary Approach, Indicators of Sustainability, and Ecosystem Approaches to Fisheries; and past member of several National Research Council Panels and Committees, including the Ocean Studies Board and the National Academies of Sciences’ Board on International Scientific Organizations. He served as the chair of the Interagency Working Group of the National Oceanographic Partnership Program. He served as an advisor to the Pew Foundation Conservation Fellows Program. He was a member of the President’s panel on Ocean Exploration. He serves on many other advisory and scientific review groups and he has advised on research and resource management problems worldwide. Throughout Dr. Sissenwine’s career, he has provided scientific advice to policy makers and managers. He was a member of the Scientific and Statistical Committees of the New England and Caribbean Fishery Management Councils (NEFMC and CFMC) before being appointed to the NEFMC.

Dr. Sissenwine received a Presidential Rank Award, Silver Medal, and Distinguished Career Award from the US Government. The American Fisheries Society honored him with three awards for career excellence named in honor of William Ricker, Elton Sette and Dwight Webster. In 2011, he received Outstanding Achievement Awards from both ICES and the American Institute of Research Fishery Biologist.

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3 Responses

  1. In addition to the fact that there are lots of recreational fishermen, they are allowed to fish every day if they so desire. Commercial fishermen do not tend to land 5k lbs everyday nor are they typically permitted to fish throughout the season in the same manner as recreational fishermen. We see this in many fisheries that recreational fishermen tend not to recognize that there are limits on numbers of permits, limits on gear, limits on season, and limits on participants who can assist. Many recreational participants view the commercial fishermen as having “the perfect job” but don’t understand that regulations change frequently, and that there are more issues than those which the recreational fishermen need to consider for having a successful day. Are either group bad? No. Do they talk past each other? Sometimes. Can the two groups be competitive? Often. This does make management a challenge since seldom do the two categories come together in the same person who considers both sides of the issue.

  2. There’s no doubt the red snapper fishery was overfished twenty five years ago. But restrictions since then have resulted in a rebuilt fishery, no longer recruitment limited but habitat limited. The archaic idea that artificial structures only attract has been replaced by the notion that massive deployment of relief habitat (e.g. the petroleum platforms off Louisiana and Texas and the 15,000+ artificial reefs off Alabama) have modified the ecosystem and provided ideal red snapper habitat that did not exist before. In essence, the biomass has been repackaged to more valuable reef fish from the less valuable sand/mud fish fauna. This is the reason that fishers from Texas to Florida are observing more and larger snapper than ever before in history. Until the managers realize that we are no longer dealing with a recruitment limited population but rather a habitat limited population, we will be constrained from harvesting a resource no where near its full potential.

  3. “This ‘grievance’ experienced by recreational fishermen has been framed as being the result of NOAA’s poor management of the fishery.”

    Systemic changes were made to the Magnuson in the 2006 reauthorization (implemented January 1, 2007). The effects on our fisheries we are experiencing today are a direct result of those 2006 changes, which included implementation of Catch Shares in the commercial red snapper fishery, accountability measures, etc. We have had a full 10 years to view the results of these changes, and it’s time to take a realistic assessment of the effects of those changes on our fisheries.

    In 2006, commercial fishermen had 120 days per year access with a 4.65 million pound TAC, and recreational fishermen had 194 days per year access / 4 fish daily bag limits. In 2016, commercial fishermen had 365 day access and a 6 million pound TAC while recreational fishermen had 11 days access / 2 fish daily bag limits.

    So, the results of the changes made to Magnuson have resulted in 300% of 2006 access levels for commercial IFQ shareholders, and 3% access for recreational fishermen.

    It’s obvious that the changes made to Magnuson in 2006 are NOT working – they have destroyed equilibrium in our fisheries management, and it’s time for Congress to make the needed revisions to the Magnuson to provide fair and equitable access to ALL fishermen in the Gulf.

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