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Gulf Council Asks NOAA Fisheries to Delay Red Snapper Data Calibration

Last week, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council elected to defer until January 2023 a controversial measure that would have slashed Alabama’s red snapper quota by 52 percent and Mississippi’s by 62 percent. The cuts would have resulted in single-digit-day snapper seasons for both states in 2021.

For much of the past year, NOAA Fisheries has attempted to force the five Gulf states to bring their private boat recreational red snapper data in line with the notoriously inaccurate federal data produced by the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP). While the states’ data systems indicate that both Alabama and Mississippi adhered to their snapper quotas in 2019, the conversion to NOAA’s data purports to show that both states over-harvested by significant margins. Data for 2020 have not yet been released.

“Deferring was the only reasonable outcome. The Council knows recalibrating the state data back to MRIP is a fool’s errand and is attempting to avoid it altogether until a new benchmark stock assessment can incorporate several new data streams and hopefully produce a completely new future for red snapper,” said Ted Venker, conservation director for Coastal Conservation Association. “However, NOAA is notoriously reluctant to admit its own data is ever wrong, so we probably have not heard the last of this.”

Several years ago, the Council allowed the Gulf states to begin managing their private boat recreational anglers after state managers, Congress and the public lost faith in the harvest numbers being produced by MRIP.  The states subsequently designed state-of-the-art programs that were certified by NOAA and specifically designed for in-season management of private recreational anglers. At least two independent reviews of MRIP in recent years have found that the federal data system is not suitable for in-season management, but that has not prevented NOAA from using it for exactly that purpose and seeking to force the states to convert their data into the MRIP “currency.”

“Everything in federal fisheries management is backward-looking, so no matter how much new, better information the states produce, NOAA will always try to make it fit their own historical data, most of which is wildly suspect,” said Venker. “You can’t move forward with that kind of constraint which is one reason why red snapper is always in a crisis. The only permanent fix is to either fully delegate management of the fishery to the states or officially replace MRIP with the state surveys like they do on the West Coast.”

Around 2004, the Pacific Fishery Management Council found federal harvest data too unreliable to use in the management of that region’s groundfish stocks. That Council reached an agreement with NOAA to simply opt-out of the federal data system and instead use surveys developed and run by the states.

“Sixteen years later, we have the same issues with NOAA data on the Gulf Coast,” said Venker. “It is clear that NOAA’s data and management attitudes aren’t going to improve. We urge the Gulf Council to follow the precedent set by the Pacific Council and find a way to let the states manage this fishery rationally for a change.”