Having grown up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I’ve enjoyed meals of fresh seafood all my life. Commercial and recreational fishing are just a part of the culture there. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on a pier as a child, watching family friends show off a few red snapper they had caught during a day of fishing. I don’t recall observing a similar scene ever again.
The red snapper population in the Gulf of Mexico has been in jeopardy for 20 years; in other words, for most of my life. Some say this is because fishermen are allowed to catch too many snapper, and the population is overfished. Another reason for this decline may be the great amount of red snapper that ends up as bycatch in shrimp trawling nets. (Bycatch is anything caught in the net which fishermen did not intend to catch.) Some studies have shown that trawling nets take in four pounds of bycatch for each pound of shrimp caught. In the Gulf, that bycatch includes red snapper.
In an attempt to help the already declining snapper population, a 1996 federal law began limiting the number of red snapper fishermen are allowed to catch, and required shrimp fishermen to take measures to reduce bycatch. Despite these changes, red snapper populations continue to decline. On Friday, June 3, lawsuits were filed against the federal government in New Orleans and Houston, arguing that the rebuilding plan for the snapper population is insufficient. In Houston, a sportfishing group demanded a reduced bycatch — through a shorter shrimp season, by reducing the number of shrimp boats, and by requiring that shrimpers use better devices to reduce bycatch.
The New Orleans suit asks for a reduction of the catch limit on snapper, from 9 million pounds per year to less than 3 million, in addition to bycatch reduction. Even if the suit is successful, the red snapper population won’t rebound until 2032.
While some argue over whether to blame shrimpers or fishermen, it is clear that something must change to help the snapper population. Let’s hope we get on track for population recovery by 2032, at the very least. This change must be made not only for the sake of the species, but also for those cities whose economies depend on this fish and especially for those of us who enjoy a great meal of fresh red snapper.