Fishermen won’t be allowed to keep any red snapper in the Atlantic Ocean this year, after a May 20 announcement from NOAA Fisheries explaining that the total number of fish removed from the population in 2015 exceeded the allowable catch and discard level — somewhat surprising since there was no open season last year.

The move toward this year’s closure actually began in 2014, when fishermen were allowed to keep red snapper for eight days: two three-day weekends and one two-day weekend, with a one-fish daily creel limit. The allowed harvest was 106,000 fish, but NOAA Fisheries determined that anglers caught approximately 206,000. Because of the extremely large catch, fishermen were not allowed to keep red snapper in 2015.

Despite the over-harvest, biologists determined that the red snapper population was recovering ahead of schedule and determined that 114,000 fish could be removed from the population in 2015 without endangering the recovery. But when biologists evaluated 2015 landings and discard numbers, they determined the number had been wildly exceeded, with 276,729 fish taken — even though no recreational anglers were allowed to keep fish. So NOAA Fisheries announced that the 2016 season would be closed.

How could that happen? 

Kim Amendola of NOAA Fisheries’ southeast office in St. Petersburg, Fla., said, “The closure was only in federal waters (beyond 3 miles offshore out to 200 miles offshore), and some states had elected not to match it in their regulations. These catches, plus any fish confiscated from poaching, determine the landings number. The number of discarded red snapper was much higher in 2015."

Dr. Michelle Duval of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, who is also chair of the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council said, "There might also be some landings from fishermen operating with Exempted Fishing Permits (EFPs) that included red snapper."  

The NOAA Fisheries evaluation of the snapper fishery listed 904 fish caught from Florida charter operations and 431 fish caught on private Florida boats, and 207 fish caught on private boats off North Carolina. Biologists from the four South Atlantic states compiled discard data, which came from commercial landings, dealer reports, fishermen’s logbooks, recreational landings and discard data from federal and state recreational surveys. Discard deaths are computed at certain rates from overall catch-and-release numbers.

The stock assessment that NOAA Fisheries and SAFMC is using is relatively old. A new stock assessment and peer review was just completed, and a report will be presented to SAFMC at its June 13-17 meeting in Cocoa Beach, Fla., but it was not available when the 2016 season closure was announced.

Offshore fishermen have suggested that higher numbers of red snapper are contributing to the number of fish caught and released, and therefore, the number of dead discards counted, and that more fishermen are getting offshore because of lower fuel prices.

Capt. Butch Foster of Yeah Right Charters in Southport said, "We haven't been catching a lot of red snapper, but we generally fish a little inshore of the best places to find them. However, just this week we had a trip where we couldn't get away from them. We made several short moves trying to get away from them but stay in the same general area, and they were either everywhere or followed us. Finally, I moved about 10 miles to get away from them and we still caught a few more there. We caught and released more than 40 of them up to around 30 pounds."   

The NOAA Fisheries report of the 2015 estimates of red snapper total removals may be found at http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sustainable_fisheries/s_atl/sg/2016/red_snapper/index.html. For more information on red snapper visit the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office website at http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov or the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council website at www.safmc.net