By Chris Macaluso | Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
The long-standing tradition of Catholics not eating meat on Fridays in Lent is often the perfect excuse for South Louisianans to cover tables in old newspapers and crimson-colored boiled crawfish.
This Lent, Louisiana anglers can add crimson-colored red snapper to their tables as well thanks to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries opening up state-waters to recreational red snapper fishing February 1st.
The 2017 season marks the fifth-consecutive year Louisiana has balked against the remarkably short and inconsistent federal public water red snapper seasons set by the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council.
If the state was still conforming to the seasons set by the federal council, Louisiana anglers would have no idea when the snapper season would start or how long it would last until a few weeks prior to opening day. Chances are that season would be very short as well, likely less than 20 days. Louisiana anglers had the option to red snapper fish in state waters for 272 days in 2016.
The dramatic increase in angling opportunities for state-water snapper is largely attributable to a data collection system in Louisiana that is keeping much closer tabs than the federal system on who is fishing, how often they are going and what they are catching. Developed under the guidance of former Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham and Assistant Secretary for Fisheries Randy Pausina, the Louisiana Recreational Creel Survey (LA CREEL) and Recreational Offshore Landing Permit Programs were first used in 2013 to help move Louisiana’s saltwater fisheries management away from the imprecise and often controversial federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).
“The federal program simply wasn’t providing the data we needed to be able to manage fish in our coastal waters and off our coast and we needed something with much fewer margins of error,” Pausina said. “MRIP was doing an okay job of measuring landings Gulf-wide for fish that are harvested year-round but it wasn’t refining the data on who was going to fish for what fish. It never got a firm grasp of the effort and it didn’t do a good job at all of accounting for offshore fish like red snapper. And the margins of error of 20-40 percent were costing Louisiana fishermen the chance they deserved to fish for a healthy stock of fish.”
Generally, state agencies cooperate with the National Marine Fisheries Service to administer MRIP and also provide the number of saltwater fishing license holders in each state in order to create a federal registry. But that registry lacked the information biologists needed to be able to survey license holders and ask elementary questions about where and how often they fished. And, while MRIP dockside intercepts, during which the number of fish caught by anglers is counted, are conducted by state fisheries personnel, the guidelines are dictated by NMFS. Pausina said that wasn’t good enough.
“We knew how many people were buying licenses, but we had no way to get in touch with the license holders to ask if they had even fished or what they caught,” he said. “And, when our biologists would conduct MRIP surveys we’d only go out something like seven times over 30 days at odd hours to random docks. That just didn’t make sense. Plus MRIP was relying on random phone surveys of coastal residents who may or may not have fished and then they tried to fix that by going to a conventional mail survey which was just as imprecise. We needed better than what MRIP was providing.”
Implementing the required Recreational Offshore Landing Permit in 2013 gave biologists the ability to separate those fishing for red snapper and other offshore species from those fishing for just speckled trout, redfish and flounder. Department data shows little more than 19,000 anglers registered for the ROLP in 2016 compared to more than 275,000 anglers buying saltwater licenses.
Pausina worked with his staff of biologists to intensively survey the seven boat launches where 80-90 percent of the red snapper caught off Louisiana were being landed to get a much more accurate read on harvest than the randomness of MRIP. Once Louisiana’s biologists were certain the ROLP was working well, they used it as a basis to create LA CREEL to collect data on all recreational saltwater fish. And, the department began collecting email addresses and phone numbers so they could contact those they knew were fishing to ask how often they went. That information could be collected and finalized every two weeks instead of the months of lag time in the federal system.
The near real-time data collected by LA CREEL allowed Louisiana to take its historic, estimated red snapper harvest of 14 percent of the Gulf of Mexico’s total and create a state-waters snapper season without risking recreational overharvest or jeopardizing the health of the snapper stock. In 2014, Louisiana’s recreational fishermen supported an increase in the saltwater license fee of $7.50 per year to help the state pay for LA CREEL. The money allowed Louisiana to drop out of MRIP in favor of the better approach.
“I applaud Secretary Barham and Assistant Secretary Pausina for developing a system that allows Louisiana’s fisheries managers to better serve their constituents and better manage their fish and especially for convincing anglers to pay for it,” said Robin Reichers, director of coastal fisheries for Texas Parks and Wildlife which has never participated in MRIP. “Louisiana realized just like we did in Texas that our management approach needed to be better than what MIRP could provide. We needed to be able to manage individual basins and allow our fishermen more access to offshore fish than the federal system was allowing.”
Texas’s decision to go its own way nearly two decades ago has paid enormous dividends as TPWD recently reported that population surveys showed record speckled trout numbers in multiple bay systems in 2016. It has also allowed Texas to have a year-round state water snapper season for nearly two decades.
Pausina said LA CREEL gives Louisiana biologists information accurate enough to potentially make adjustments to inshore creel limits in different basins just like Texas. If one basin is showing decline in speckled trout or redfish, creel and size limits can be adjusted to help that basin recover. It also allows red snapper catches for as long as possible in a given year and served as a model for a similar reef fish survey developed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. More importantly, though, it shows there is a better way to manage fish than the blanket, one-size-fits-all approach of the federal system.
“We just didn’t believe that the seasons needed to be the same across all five states and that we all had to fish the same exact days and have the same limits,” he said. “The Gulf isn’t the same place from Key West all the way around to Mexico and the fish populations and how people fish them are different across the Gulf. We have the technology for each state to be able to manage the fish off their coasts in way that best helps their fish and fishermen. The other states agree. Hopefully Congress and NMFS see it that way soon as well.”
Marine Fisheries Director
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership