Amendment 44 for Gulf Reef Fish

It is tough to keep your finger on the pulse of fisheries management.  The first hurdle is to understand the science, but you can’t stop there.  Once you wrap your head around how the fish are counted, you have to understand how the fish are managed.  One of the most common complaints in fishery management is in fact that the science is not adequate.  More often than not, that stems from a lack of understanding.   The science is relatively straight forward and tailored to the biology of any given species.  The management is a bit of a different story.

As an example, we can look at Amendment 44 for Gulf Reef Fish.  Amendment 44 is an approved action to revise the MSST (Minimum Stock Size Threshold) for seven species of reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico.  The species include gag, red grouper, red snapper, vermillion snapper, gray trigger, greater amberjack, and hogfish.   So what is MSST and why is it important?  MSST stands for “Minimum Stock Size Threshold”.  It is defined as “the spawning stock biomass level at which the maximum sustainable yield or proxy level can be taken on a continuing basis”.  MSST is a big factor in determining overfishing.  Overfishing is determined by the following formula. { (1-M) * Bmsy } M is the natural mortality and Bmsy is the stock biomass (egg production) level that allows the stock to produce MSY (maximum sustainable yield) on a continuous basis.  This ties the buffer to the natural fluctuations of fish populations.  If a fish lives a very long time, that has a natural mortality of 0.1, the MSST level would be set at 90% of the MSY level.  On the other hand, a short lived fish with a high natural mortality rate of .4, the formula allows for a much wide buffer between the MSST and MSY levels.  The lowest level of MSST allowed under the law is 50%.

There are two schools of thought.  Set MSST threshold as close as possible to MSY, that way you find out when a stock is overfished very quickly.  You are also bound by rebuilding standards because the stock will be officially overfished.  The other school of thought, set threshold well below MSY level.  This allows for more natural fluctuations.  However, most stocks will reach a situation where the number of the fish being removed actually exceeds the ability stock to create new fish.  This is called a recruitment collapse.  This is specifically why the law states that you can’t have an MSST under 50%.  If there is a wide buffer, the councils have time to rebuild the stock without adhering to strict timeframes mandated by being officially overfished.

You might ask yourself why anyone would want to set the MSST at a low level.  The risks are high that the stock will be overfished.  Furthermore, if the stock is declared overfished, it will really be overfished.  In the case of long lived fish, you would be looking at an extremely long rebuilding timeframe.

Amendment 44 had six different options for potential MSST revisions.  In the graph below, Alt 1 is status quo.  Green is a wider buffer for MSST than status quo.  Red is a narrower buffer for status quo.  Alt 3 was the original preferred option.  So, when you see a number in red, that means greater harvest as well as greater risk to substantially overfish.


Stock Alt 1 (status quo) Alt 2 Pref Alt 3 Alt 4 Alt 5 Alt 6
Gag 13% 13% 25% 15% 25% 50%
Red Grouper 20% 20% 25% 15% 25% 50%
Red Snapper 9% 9% 25% 15% 25% 50%
Vermillion Snapper 25% 25% 25% 15% 25% 50%
Gray Triggerfish 27% 27% 27% 15% 25% 50%
Greater Amberjack 28% 28% 28% 15% 25% 50%
Hogfish 25% 17.9% 25% 15% 25% 50%

In most cases, you will see a council decide on the middle of the road or preferred option.  The preferred option gives a little to the group who wants to harvest more while not putting the stock at risk.  Believe it or not, the option that was accepted was Alt 6.  These seven reef species will now be managed under the maximum allowable buffer by law.  Red snapper will have the greatest movement from a 9% buffer to a 50% buffer.  The longer lived species will suffer the most.  We are now completely at the mercy of the council to address any major fluctuations in these seven species.  It will be interesting to watch this unfold.  As states push for more rights to manage their own fisheries while increasing the MSST buffer to the maximum allowable amount, there’s an excellent chance that these species will be on the decline for years until they are finally declared overfished.  Once declared overfished, rebuilding will be incredibly restrictive due to the hole we are digging ourselves.