What New Zealand can learn from the Gulf of Mexico's red snapper fishery

Dr Randall Bess
21 November, 2016

The New Zealand Initiative is conducting research on the way fisheries are managed. This research will culminate in policy recommendations to help debate how best to improve New Zealanders’ recreational fishing experience.

The first of three reports was released in September, titled What’s the Catch? This report sets out the overall situation regarding how New Zealand’s fisheries are managed.

As a follow up to this report, I recently travelled to North America to research some new and different ways to manage recreational fishing. This research will make up the second in a series of three reports, which will be released in early 2017.

In my travels, I visited the Texas Gulf of Mexico coastline to research the red snapper fishery, which has striking similarities with New Zealand’s red snapper fishery. Both are rebuilding after commercial over fishing and are highly valued by both commercial and recreational fishers.

In the report, What’s the Catch? the New Zealand Initiative argues that a crisis is looming with our red snapper fishery and other inshore fish stocks, so long as we continue doing more of the same with the way these stocks are managed.

As recreational fishing continues to account for increasing proportions of the total catch of these fish stocks, so do the conflicts with those who own commercial quota for those stocks. Of course, the opposite can be said about any increase in commercial catch and the ensuing effect on recreational fishing.

However, during the last three decades, the rights associated with owning commercial quota have evolved to near property rights. These rights are equivalent to tradable shares of the total catch. In other words, the rights associated with quota ownership cannot be rendered ineffective, or at least not without compensation.

In contrast, the rights of recreational fishers are not well defined, and for all intents and purposes remain at the discretion of the Minister for Primary Industries.

So, how do we resolve the conflicts that arise from increasing competition for the same fish stocks, while also rebuilding those stocks that are over fished?

The Ministry for Primary Industries has just released a document titled, The Future of Our Fisheries. The purpose of this document is to consult with the public before some management changes will be proposed and no doubt will feature prominently in the lead up to the general election. The document addresses the longstanding problems associated with illegal commercial discarding and misreporting of catches. Measures put in place that at least minimise discarding can go a long way toward rebuilding several inshore fish stocks.

The document addresses very little in the way of recreational fishing. But, it does propose some ways for decision-making to be more flexible, including the delegation of decision-making powers to someone or group other than the Minister for Primary Industries. This can be seen as passing the baton, or hospital pass, depending on the decision. But, it may well reduce the level of political influence in some decisions.

What the document lacks is a sense of thinking in new ways about the problems we have faced for some time. Doing more of what we have done in the past, but with different decision makers, may simply be a further sign of management complacency.

With respect to managing recreational fishing, the historical practice has been to simply reduce daily bag limits and increase minimum legal sizes, which has the effect of reducing recreational catch. However, continual use of these simple tools, along with shortened fishing seasons, eventually diminishes the fishing experience.

Now over to the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, which is like looking into the future of New Zealand’s snapper fishery.

The Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery has been rebuilding since the total catch levels were cut by 45 percent in 2006. While the red snapper abundance has almost tripled since then, the demand for recreational fishing has increased at a greater rate.

Recreational fishers have consistently exceeded their share of the total catch. In 2014 emergency measures were put in place, including a reduction in the fishing season to just nine days each year in federal waters. The bag limit remained at two fish per day.

The recreational charter boats had a 46-day season this year. Charter boats are popular due to the distance travelled to fishing grounds, often 25 miles (40 km) or more offshore. A few charter boat operators have utilised existing legislation that allows them to extend their season by fishing with commercial red snapper quota.

While applying commercial quota to charter boats is not a new idea, that they are operating just like commercial boats is novel. None of the recreational rules apply, and the fishers on board do not pay for charter services.

The fishers simply place their orders with the fish processor who will receive their catch, and then the fishers participate in filling their orders. When the catch is delivered, the fishers pay the pre-set price for filleted red snapper.

I went on one of these quasi-commercial/charter fishing trips, leaving the Port of Galveston in Texas. Each of us caught around 30 to 40 red snapper, making it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Because of the stock rebuild, the red snapper were so abundant that we caught one within seconds of a hook descending a few metres. We only had three undersized snapper discards because the 13- inch (330 mm) commercial minimum legal size limit applied, not the 16-inch (406 mm) recreational limit.

To be clear, the New Zealand Initiative is not advocating for this type of arrangement as the solution to managing the snapper fishery in New Zealand. In fact, it may be less appealing here, if the recreational season can continue to last year round, daily bag limits remain relatively generous and most fishers can catch snapper close to shore in private boats.

For now, the Initiative is presenting this example, and others, as lessons in unconventional thinking, which is what we need more of, and in ways that present solutions that benefit all fishing sectors.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates