As 2020 comes to an end, we have an opportunity to look back on the year behind us and look forward to the year ahead. 2020 was a year filled with new challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way most of us conduct our daily business, and the Council was no exception. We spent most of this year tackling changes to the federal recreational data collection program and incorporation of state recreational data collection programs into management and while attempting to understand the implications of these changes on the health of the fish stocks themselves. The Council took final action on a few regulatory documents and made recommendations on an Executive Order, while seeing a number of new rules publish and become implemented into law this year. Keep reading for a perspective on what we accomplished in 2020 and where we’re headed in 2021.
COVID-19 was the obviously one of the biggest issues faced by everyone this year. Fishermen across the coast were impacted differently. Initially, the Council asked stakeholders to share how the pandemic had impacted them. We heard that the commercial seafood market was interrupted as restaurants closed; recreational fishermen were also affected when charter businesses were unable to operate, and access to boat ramps was limited. The Council monitored landings throughout the year and tried to anticipate if fishing seasons could be extended or commercial quota needed to be rolled over into next year. To date, as the fishery seems to have stabilized, the Council hasn’t made any recommendations on how to mitigate impacts on the industry. Council meetings have transitioned to a completely virtual format since mid-March. We’re all anxious to return to in-person meetings; however, it’s hard to predict when that will become a safe and feasible option. We are continuing to look at creative ways to engage stakeholders with a virtual meeting format.
Arguably, the largest fishery management challenge faced by the Council this year is the transition to using recreational landings from the updated federal recreational data collection system and incorporating data from the new state-based recreational data collection systems. The Marine Recreational Information Program’s Fishing Effort Survey (FES) improved some of the previous system’s sampling protocols which resulted in new landings information that has to be accounted for back in time. Additionally, all of the Gulf States have developed their own recreational data collection programs, and landings data from those programs will likely be incorporated in future stock assessments and quota monitoring. Essentially, we’re transitioning to a new data currency to ensure that we’re using the same units to monitor landings as we do to set catch limits. In some cases, the new landings estimates may change our understanding of the stock size and our estimates of the amount of fish that are harvested. As each new stock assessment is completed, estimates of stock abundance and projections of how much can be harvested are updated. For the Council, this means that we need to transition our catch limits to the new data currency, so they align with stock assessment and quota monitoring units.
The Council is currently in the process of doing that for red grouper, lane snapper, cobia, vermilion snapper, king mackerel, and red snapper. We expect to finalize management recommendations on a majority of the aforementioned species in 2021 and will continue to work on data currency changes as new stock assessments are completed.
The Council took Final Action on one document this year that recommended prohibiting all fishing year-round in both Madison-Swanson and Steamboat Lumps Marine Protected Areas and prohibiting the possession of any Gulf reef fish species year-round, except for vessels with a vessel monitoring system (VMS) and a valid commercial reef fish permit that are in transit, with all fishing gear stowed. The increased regulations in the Marine Protected Areas were made to ensure that current protections to gag spawning aggregations are working by making regulations that are more enforceable.
A number of new regulations were implemented into law this year:
• For-Hire historical captain permits were converted to standard for-hire permits.
• The allowable amount of commercial shrimp trawl fishing in certain areas of federal waters was increased.
• The red snapper buffer between the annual catch limit and annual catch target for the for-hire component of the fishery was reduced.
• The Gulf States were given authority to manage fishing season, bag limit, and minimum size limit for the private recreational component of the red snapper fishery.
• The commercial amberjack trip limit was reduced to 1,000 pounds with a reduction to 250 pounds when 75% of the quota is landed.
• The cobia minimum size limit increased from 33 to 36 inches fork length.
• 13 new habitat areas of particular concern were created with fishing regulations, 8 new areas without fishing regulations were established, and regulations in 3 existing areas were modified.
• Status determination criteria were established for gray snapper and the annual catch limits for gray snapper were reduced by small amount in 2020 and beyond. The annual catch target was removed for gray snapper.
Next year, we expect two rules to be implemented. First, the Council has recommended modifying for-hire multiday trip limits by allowing anglers on federal for-hire fishing trips that last longer than 30 hours to possess two daily bag or vessel limits at any time during those trips. Next, new electronic for-hire reporting requirements take effect on January 5th. Captains in the Gulf will be required to make a trip declaration (hail-out) every time their vessel leaves the dock and they must complete a fishing report for each fishing trip before offloading fish. Also, position reporting requirements are expected to go into effect sometime later in 2021.
As we say farewell several colleagues, many of us are eager for the turn of the year. Personally, and professionally, we hope to learn from our experiences during 2020 which have, if nothing else, taught us some new tricks and helped us prioritize what is important, and what we might want to let go of once we return to “business as usual.” We do know the Council is going to continue to work as hard as we can to provide make management decisions that benefit our fishermen and our fisheries. Thank you for all your hard work this year, on and off the water.