The Red Snapper Wars in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years have been illuminating in many ways. If there is one thing that nearly everyone can agree on (and that’s a pretty big “if”), it is that the current management regime needs change. From a stock on the brink of collapse in the early 1990’s to a federal fishing season on the brink of collapse in 2017, fresh perspectives are sorely needed.
Anglers have been pursuing red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico since the middle of the 19th century. In the early days of the fishery, fishing effort couldn’t put a dent in the stock. But just as anglers were beginning to access the fishery in those days, railroads and the ice industry were making it possible to move fish to markets farther inland, creating a demand for Gulf seafood away from the coast, and thus turning fishing into a viable commercial enterprise. Yet there were still plenty of fish, and the stock remained resilient.
But increasing pressure didn’t come from commercial fishermen alone. The health of fish stocks, it turns out, is intimately connected to the abundance of another species: humans. As the human population of the Gulf region and the rest of the country grew, and with the invention and proliferation of the automobile, and then the highways and interstates to accommodate them, the number of anglers looking simply to enjoy a few days of saltwater and sunshine grew proportionately.
And of course red snapper are not the only game species to face increasing pressure from human utilization over the years. In fact, I can’t think of a single game species that hasn’t. Some have fared better than others. Populations of waterfowl and whitetail deer, for example, have come roaring back from near collapse in earlier decades of the 20th century.
On the other side of the ledger, one thinks of the American bison, hunted to near extinction in a few short years in the 1870’s. They have since come back, but to nowhere near the level at which significant utilization by humans would be possible. Or there is the Newfoundland cod fishery, abundant and productive until it suddenly collapsed, as it were overnight, in the early 1990’s. Only in very recent years has the stock begun to show possible signs of a creeping recovery, although at nothing close to a rate that would make for a sustainable fishery in the foreseeable future. One need hardly mention the fate of the passenger pigeon. Miles-long flocks of passenger pigeons are said to have blotted out the sun in the 19th century, and they were a wildly popular game species… until they weren’t. The last passenger pigeon in the world, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.
In every case, sportsmen have had a hand in the over-exploitation of fish and game, but sportsmen have also played a crucial role in the recovery of those species that have in fact recovered, leading the way in advocating for sensible and sustainable regulation. Unlike most politicians and activists, hunters and anglers have firsthand knowledge of fish and wildlife populations, habitats and foodwebs, predator-prey relationships, and the interconnectedness of it all with human communities. This is what has led so many sportsmen to become advocates for fish and wildlife through the years.
The case is no different in our time than it was in Theodore Roosevelt’s. Many of our fish stocks are doing well. Some, like red snapper, have recovered significantly from historic lows in the living memory of even some of the younger members of the fishing community. But the voices of recreational anglers still need to be heard. That has become abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, in the red snapper policy fiasco that has played out this summer. From the original announcement of a 3 day season in federal waters, to the ad-hoc extension of the season to 39 days by the Secretary of Commerce, policy has been lurching from one extreme to another.
Fisheries and fishermen deserve smart, sustainable, and efficient management. For this to happen, recreational anglers need to equip themselves with the facts, keep their eyes focused on the ultimate goal of a healthy and sustainable resource, and let their voices be heard.