News

Overfishing in Gulf of Mexico Threatens Ecological and Economic Health of Region

July 12th, 2006

By Bill Blome, Ocean Conservancy

The Gulf of Mexico is one of our nation’s treasures, supporting large numbers and a great diversity of wildlife. It is also an important source of economic benefits for Texas, the region and our nation. The Gulf hosts many of our nation’s top fishing ports and its largest recreational fishery.

Despite this well known importance, we’ve pushed it to its limit. Two blue ribbon panels, the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy assembled by President Bush, both came to similar conclusions in reviewing our ocean policies for the first time in 30 years. The take-home message: Our oceans are in trouble. And if we don’t start taking better care of them, we will kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

The Commissions found that the continued unsustainable catch rates have driven many fish populations to very low levels, negatively impacting our ecology and economy. They recommended ending these practices and allowing depleted populations to recover back to healthy levels.

Problems in the Gulf

Despite the clear recommendations from the Commissions – along with federal law passed in 1996 that requires the government to end overfishing and rebuild depleted populations – our problems in the Gulf continue. Each year the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for managing our nation’s fish resources, produces an annual report to Congress on the status of U.S. fisheries. The latest report delivered in June 2006 shows no progress in ending overfishing and rebuilding depleted fish species. This report comes as no surprise – as management measures for our fisheries have too often failed to be based on the advice of scientists, and established fishing limits are rarely adhered to. Both the health of our oceans and the future of fishing itself are at risk unless managers begin following the science and the law, and make overfishing a thing of the past.

Four species – red snapper, red grouper, greater amberjack and vermillion snapper – are experiencing declines from unsustainable catch rates in the Gulf of Mexico. Red snapper, once our most valuable reef fish, have been hardest hit and are now at 3% of their historical abundance. Red snapper is a top predator species which means it plays an important role in the food chain and ultimately the health of their whole ecosystem.

Where Do We Go From Here?

While problems exist nationwide – The Ocean Conservancy’s latest Overfishing Scorecard, a tool that measures fisheries management performance around the nation – found the Gulf is one of the worst performers. We currently rank seventh out of the eight fishery management regions. In reviewing why some regions are performing better than others, the message is clear: we must end overfishing by setting appropriate limits and utilizing management measures that align industry incentives with conservation.

An Opportunity for Change

Gulf fisheries managers are currently working on a plan to rebuild the red snapper population in the Gulf. The Ocean Conservancy is calling on our fishery managers to end overfishing of red snapper now by:

  • Setting scientifically based catch limits
  • Enforcing these limits
  • Greatly reducing the destructive bycatch of young red snapper by shrimp boats and red snapper fishermen
  • Setting a recovery schedule to ensure red snapper populations are rebuilt quickly
    A draft rebuilding plan available for public comment is expected to be finalized this fall.

There will be four public hearings held in TX for the red snapper rebuilding plan:

Brownsville — October 16
Corpus Christi — October 17
Palacios — October 18
Galveston — October 19

The Ocean Conservancy is currently organizing concerned citizens around the Gulf to make sure the public’s voice is heard loud and clear at the hearings. Fishery managers on the regional Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council are not elected officials, but instead are appointed to their posts and historically have not heard from a lot of people outside the fishing industry. By significantly increasing public pressure, we have the opportunity to redefine their constituency. We must let the Council know that red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico (like all ocean life) are a public resource, and they have a responsibility to make sure we have a healthy Gulf for the future.

For more information on the upcoming public hearings for red snapper or to volunteer, please contact The Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf Regional office at 512.542.3331 or email bblome@oceanconservancy.org. You can also visit their website at http://www.oceanconservancy.org/.