The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council could this week put in place frameworks to guide red snapper season lengths through 2015 based on recommendations from its Scientific and Statistical Committee heard Tuesday during the council's Reef Fish Committee meeting in Pensacola.
In the short term, the SSC findings also could mean reopening red snapper season within a couple of months of its scheduled closing at 1201 a.m. on June 29, said Alabama Gulf Council member and chief marine biologist Kevin Anson.
Based on data from the latest red snapper stock assessment, the SSC recalculated the maximum pounds of red snapper that could be taken from the Gulf before overfishing would occur this year at 13.5 million pounds, Anson said.
That's an increase of more than 4 million pounds above the estimate used to set the 2013 season.
Anson said SSC members believe that improved data collection processes and updated models greatly reduced scientific uncertainty within the new stock assessment.
With scientific and management buffers built in to prevent overfishing at the 13.5 million pound level, the SSC recommended the Gulf Council's Reef Fish Committee adopt 11 million pounds as the new combined commercial and recreational quota for 2013.
As a result of the increased quota, the National Marine Fisheries Service presented two options for reopening a secondary season.
If red snapper fishing was allowed on weekends only with fishing taking place Friday, Saturday and Sunday, NMFS said fishermen would likely catch their additional quota in 14 days.
If the second season were to run continuously, it could be as much as 29 days long.
The weekend season is shorter because NMFS data suggests fishing effort would be much greater, resulting in the quota being reached sooner, Anson said.
NMFS will likely look at a framework action to implement a secondary season, which Anson said would likely open in September at the earliest.
Despite the positive news, the SSC also noted that the new stock assessment found recruitment of baby red snapper into the adult population in 2010 and 2011 was as low in both years as it's been in the previous 30 years.
The SSC's recommendation reflected those low recruitment rates with decreasing allowable biological catch limits in 2014 and 2015 -- when those fish would be expected to reach the legal harvest size of 16 inches. The allowable biological catch in 2014 would be 11.9 million pounds for 2014 and 10.6 million pounds in 2015.
As a result of falling recruitment, Anson said the SSC recommended sticking with 11 pounds as the quota through 2015 in an effort to maintain buffers to prevent overfishing and to leave several million pounds of larger fish in the water.
He also noted that stable quotas and season lengths and dates would make it easier for the for-hire sector to manage their businesses and for locals and tourists alike to plan their fishing vacations.
Why recruitment fell in successive years in the direct wake of three years of excellent recruitment was a point of discussion Tuesday, but Anson said there is no way to point a finger at any single reason.
Reef Fish Committee members and SSC members discussed theories from shrimp-trawl bycatch, which is actually much lower because of reduced effort after Hurricane Katrina to impacts from the BP oil spill that was at its worst during the peak of the red snapper spawn in 2010.
"The oil spill is just one of those things that could have impacted recruitment, but it's not a smoking gun," Anson said.
One SSC member suggested that the science could be showing that the Gulf had reached its maximum carrying capacity of red snapper.
"That was in no way an official position," Anson said. "It's just one of many things to be looked at."
The full Gulf Council begins meeting at the Crowne Plaza in Pensacola at 8 a.m. on Thursday. The public hearing will be held from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The council is scheduled to consider Reef Fish Committee recommendations beginning at 9:45 a.m. on Friday. Get the full agenda here.