NOAA Puts Red Snapper Season in the Crosshairs

July 5, 2022

Fishing for red snapper is a popular pastime on the Gulf Coast, one that brings together fishermen, boat makers, bait suppliers, and restaurant owners. This prosperous industry centers on three months of open fishing during the summer.

To my dismay, regulators in Washington are now proposing a rule that could cut Mississippi’s season down to two weeks without any sound science. If they succeed, the Gulf Coast will needlessly suffer.

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a proposed rule that would drastically curb Mississippi’s recreational red snapper catch limit from over 150,000 lbs. to 59,000 lbs., an amount that took less than three weeks for Mississippi anglers to catch last year. This new quota is based on the false assumption we are overfishing.

The problem boils down to NOAA’s flawed data collection methods.

NOAA calculates our fishing levels based on non-empirical phone surveys. Based on these surveys, NOAA estimates there are 1,500 fishing boats on the water daily in Mississippi. But this figure is overblown.

For several years, Mississippi and other Gulf Coast states have been collecting our own field data. In Mississippi, we have pioneered the “Tails n’ Scales” app, which allows anglers to report their own catch through their phones. This has enabled Mississippi to track 95 percent of all red snapper anglers. Based on these and other state metrics, last year Mississippi counted 256 fishing boats on the busiest day of red snapper season. Yet NOAA has failed to give our numbers due consideration.

NOAA’s badly informed rule came as a surprise to me.

Last year, Congress gave the agency $2 million to explore better data calibration methods, but these appear absent from the new rule. I had even received assurances from Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo that Mississippi would be treated more fairly after getting a raw deal in previous rules. This proposal is yet a disappointment, and I have told Secretary Raimondo as much.

Mississippi will not be alone in bearing the cost of NOAA’s poor methods. Anglers in Alabama stand to lose weeks if not months of their fishing season. No state is ultimately safe from federal rules that disregard the best data. With the proposed rule now listed in the Federal Register, I would encourage all stakeholders to provide public comment on why NOAA got this wrong. The public comment period ends July 28. Every voice counts. There is still hope for a reversal before the rule takes effect Jan. 1, 2023.

NOAA is rightly concerned about sustainability, but accurate data is essential in balancing the various interests at stake. It is highly disturbing that NOAA’s flawed data caused it to overestimate Mississippi’s fishing effort by almost 600 percent, when Mississippi’s data has been lauded for its accuracy. NOAA will continue to lose our confidence until it starts replacing its outdated estimates with empirical data collected by states. NOAA Director Richard Spinrad needs to treat states as partners, not adversaries.

I will be pressing him for answers until he changes course.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Biloxi Sun Herald.