In a major ruling issued last night, a federal court struck down the faulty red snapper rebuilding plan approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2005. The agency had a legal mandate to end overfishing, quickly rebuild red snapper populations, and minimize the wasteful catching and killing of discarded red snapper in both the red snapper and shrimp fisheries. Yet, the plan endorsed the “status quo” and accomplished none of these goals. The court ruled in favor of The Ocean Conservancy and Gulf Restoration Network, finding that the rebuilding plan for red snapper “is inconsistent with the scientific data” and has less than a 50% chance of successfully rebuilding red snapper within the legally allowable limit. The court ordered the agency to implement a new, legally sufficient rebuilding plan within nine months.
Red snapper has been managed by state and federal regulators in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1980s. Red snapper was first identified by scientists as severely overfished in 1989. Yet for almost two decades, federal managers failed to set catch levels based on the advice of its scientists and consistently allowed too many fish to be caught and killed as bycatch. As a result, the red snapper spawning population is now under three percent of its historic abundance.
“We applaud the court’s ruling in this case and expect that it will usher in a new era in responsible fisheries management in the Gulf of Mexico. The ruling struck down over twenty years of failure that needlessly harmed fish and fishermen,” said Chris Dorsett, Gulf of Mexico Fish Conservation Director with the Ocean Conservancy based in Austin, TX. “Science based management is the hallmark of successful fisheries management. Those regions across the nation that have embraced this philosophy enjoy healthy fish populations and fishing communities. The court’s ruling puts one of the Gulf’s signature fish on a true road to recovery.”
Red snapper have suffered for almost two decades in the Gulf of Mexico from inadequate management and government foot dragging. “For too long federal managers have ignored legal mandates requiring them to end overfishing and rebuild red snapper populations,” said Earthjustice attorney Steve Roady, who is representing Gulf Restoration Network along with Biloxi attorney Robert Wiygul. “Red snapper was first identified as depleted back in 1989. The law required the government to end overfishing and start rebuilding red snapper many years ago; the court has now ordered them to do so.”
“It’s time we bring back red snapper and restore the former glory of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Aaron Viles, Campaign Director for the Gulf Restoration Network based in New Orleans, LA. “A healthy red snapper population can support three times as much fishing as today’s levels — a win-win for our environment and economy.”
The court also ruled that the management plan failed to address bycatch — the incidental capture and killing of red snapper. “Bycatch in the red snapper fishery is a significant problem with large numbers of red snapper discard dead or dying in the nets of shrimp boats and by commercial and recreational fishermen,” said Marianne Cufone with the Gulf Restoration Network. “We are pleased that the court recognized that every fish counts and requires the government to address this wasteful and destructive practice.”