By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine
Fishing along the Gulf Coast is more than just a hobby or a job—it’s a way of life and a cultural thread that unifies our coastal communities. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), there are more than four million anglers licensed in the State of Florida, and saltwater recreational fishing accounts for a $9.2 billion economic impact. These marine ecosystems provide us with important food sources, jobs and economic stability, recreation and cultural identity. However, demand for seafood and advances in technology have led to overfishing, which endangers and depletes fish and shellfish populations. Moreover, the entire ocean is under stress from environmental pollution and climate change, which is driving increases in water temperatures, acidity, rising sea levels, stronger and more frequent storms and habitat destruction. Marine conservation and sustainable fishing practices are fundamental to curbing human impact on marine life and ensuring there are fish for the future.
At the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts, established in 1948, sustainable fishing requires two major things: science-based catch limits and “ecosystem-based fishery management,” which builds upon the traditional method of U.S. fishery management that focuses on one species at a time when setting fishing regulations. Ecosystem- based fishery management also considers the broader ecosystem and recognizes that each population is interconnected with other fish, ocean wildlife and habitats, which are directly affected by human activities and changing environments. This approach allows Pew to focus work on habitat conservation, managing bycatch, protecting forage fish and advocating for fishery ecosystem plans.
“Sustainable fishing means that we’re fishing for the future so that we can maintain the economic and recreational benefits from these natural resources for the long term,” Tom Wheatley, a senior manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. southeast ocean conservation work, explained. “We partner with different stakeholders that are interested in these resources—folks from the scientific community, from the resource user community, state government and federal government—to find ways that we can work together to mitigate these problems through a good management plan.”
As Wheatley explained, much of his work on overfishing shifted to this ecosystem-based approach after The Pew Charitable Trusts supported changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 2006. These changes implemented science-based catch limits and accountability measures for those catch limits. According to data by NOAA, as many as 47 fish stocks have been rebuilt from 2000 to 2019, illustrating a positive trend in federally managed fisheries. In December 2020, Congressman Jared Huffman submitted a draft reauthorization bill for the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The draft bill addresses new and emerging management issues, such as the impact on fisheries from changing ocean conditions and implements an ecosystem-based fishery management, which Pew has long advocated for. The proposal also seeks to improve data collection and monitoring, increase transparency around how fishery management decisions are made, provide additional opportunities for public engagement and support fishing communities.
“We’re making a lot of progress with science-based catch limits to the point that overfishing does not occur as often as it once did. I think you can see that in the Gulf of Mexico especially with red snapper,” Wheatley said. “We’re not fully out of the woods yet, because we still need older fish, which produce more eggs and have more spawning potential. We measure the health of the red snapper stock with how many eggs are being produced on an annual basis, but we do need some patience to ensure some of these fish actually make it to an older age and larger size.”
According to the March 2021 Great Red Snapper Count conducted by Harte Research Institute, there are triple the number of estimated red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. The study found an estimation of more than 110 million red snapper in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, compared to the estimated 36 million by the 2018 NOAA count. While previous surveys focused on fishery concentration on artificial reefs and natural hard bottom, the new study also looks at uncharacterized bottom, which has no structures or vertical relief and resulted in higher numbers of fish counted.
Robert K Turpin, a marine biologist, fisherman and expert diver with 50 years of experience in the local waters, has witnessed the rebounding red snapper population firsthand but worries there is still more that could be done to manage reef fisheries. Turpin explained that when monitoring artificial reefs, he will regularly find a boat above the reef with a mass pile of dead red snapper floating around the boat due to regulatory discards that die from barotrauma.
“In this particular case, they were trying to catch triggerfish and only catching red snapper, so they were throwing them out. Meanwhile, the porpoises, sharks and barracuda are coming in and picking these dead red snappers off the surface like candy,” Turpin explained. “So, I put my dive gear on and went down to the reef. It was completely surrounded by red snapper and not a single triggerfish. So, we’re killing dozens of non-target species and teaching learned behavior to these porpoises and sharks that boats equal an easy meal. This not only makes these animals more susceptible to injury through interaction with fishing gear, but it also poses a danger to humans as the sharks get bolder in approaching boats and spear fisherman.”
According to a South Atlantic stock assessment by SEDAR 41, an estimated 28.5 percent of recreationally caught red snapper die after release, which means that more than 460,000 red snapper perished after being thrown back in 2017. For commercially caught red snapper, the mortality rate is 38 percent. The condition, known as barotrauma, is similar to the bends, which can afflict scuba divers who ascend too fast.
“More and more people are looking for ways to reduce the number of fish that they’re not going to take them home to eat. They don’t want to just kill them. That’s not part of our ethos here in the Gulf of Mexico,” Wheatley explained. “So, we are seeing more and more people adopt new technologies. With education on how to use descending devices and how to properly vent fish, I think we can reduce the amount of released mortality, or bycatch. One idea that has been explored is creating seasons for fishing bottom fish with regulations put in place that reduce the amount of discards you would have to begin with by opening up more fish at the same time. It’s not ready to go yet, but it’s certainly something we have explored at Pew and funded research for.”
A recent requirement set by NOAA Fisheries, called Regulatory Amendment 29, set new gear requirements to help prevent these mortality rates from barotrauma. Beginning on July 15, 2020, anglers from North Carolina through the Florida East Coast that are targeting snapper or grouper species are required to have a descending device on board and readily available for use. These weighted, reusable tools typically clip to a fish’s jaw and help it quickly return to the depths it was caught.
“Many of the techniques and regulations for freshwater fisheries were simply applied to the deep-water reef fisheries,” Turpin said. “You can’t regulate the harvest of grouper from 200 feet of water the same way that you do with bass in 12 feet of water because of the hyperbaric difference between the water depth and the surface. Catch and release does not work on reef fish like triggerfish, snapper, grouper and amberjack. The better question is how can we regulate these fish in a sustainable way that allows anglers to harvest without waste? In my opinion, a more equitable and ethical way would be to make it illegal to throw reef fish back, and instead, create a reef fish aggregate bag limit. Each person or boat would get a daily bag limit based on the stock numbers, rather than killing thousands of fish from size regulation discards.”
Turpin explained that a safety valve for this approach to management could come in the form of designated marine reserves, which serve as a “harvest refugia,” where fish cannot be harvested. While artificial reefs can help provide shelter, food and other necessary elements for biodiversity, Turpin explained that they can be exploited in a way that reserves cannot.
“They call this attraction vs. production. Every artificial reef exists on a continuum between an artificial reef that everybody knows about and overharvests, to reefs that are lost or moved by storms, where no one ever harvests fish from,” Turpin said. “We know that if we deploy artificial reefs in substantial quantities over broad areas, however, that there is less pressure on any individual artificial reef, so the fish that do aggregate around that reef may be exposed to less pressure. If we set up marine reserves throughout the system, these same reef fish could live in areas where they aren’t harvested, just like an artificial reef lost from our maps by a hurricane.”
Creating designated conservation areas and aquatic preserves are also one way that Pew mitigates habitat loss and promotes healthy ecosystems. One such preserve, Pew recently helped advocate and successfully pass a bill to create is The Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, located off the waters of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties. This preserve was created in June 2020 and protects about 800 square miles along the Gulf Coast and is the first new preserve to be designated in more than 30 years. It covers part of the Gulf of Mexico’s largest seagrass bed and still allows traditional activities such as boating, fishing and scalloping.
“We’re definitely seeing changes in habitat due to climate change.” Wheatley said. “Some of the habitat issues that we are currently working on is seagrass on the west coast of Florida and oysters in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The new marine preserve protects around 400,000 acres of seagrass, so we are working to maintain that seagrass and all of the economic benefits that we get from it including recreational and commercial fishing. The state designation prohibits any type of oil and gas drilling and helps maintain the resources for the future.”
Part of maintaining resources for the future and abiding by ecosystem-based fishery management, as Wheatley concluded, is developing a fishery ecosystem plan (FEP) that serves as an instruction manual for how to factor in ecosystem considerations that influence fish populations using the latest science, fishermen’s expertise, and other available data to inform management decisions. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is in the process of developing one.
By monitoring indicators of ecosystem health such as water temperatures and including impacts on spawning seasons or species’ seasonal movement patterns, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council could forecast trends, determine research and data needs and identify risks before they become problems. The FEP could also include guidance requiring managers to incorporate effects from a lethal algal bloom (red tides) or major oil spill into management decisions, such as catch limits and fishing season changes.
“I don’t know a single angler, fisherman or person that would say it’s not important for us to manage these marine species and fisheries,” Turpin explained. “They’re phenomenally important for the ecology of the ocean and maintaining a productive and biodiverse environment in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re important to our diet, our recreation, our economy and to our culture.”
Sustainable fishing practices, marine habitat conservation and ecosystem-based fishery management all ensure that our Gulf Coast communities and oceans will thrive for generations to come. As increased pressure is put on our oceans by pollution, climate change, illegal and unreported fishing, invasive species and changing habitats, the work to conserve and protect these ecosystems is more important than ever.