June 7, 2005

Groups Seek Tougher Red Snapper Measures

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Federal regulators have done too little to save the overfished red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, a new lawsuit by environmental groups alleges.

"It's a classic case of fiddling while Rome burns," said Aaron Viles, fisheries campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network, which filed the lawsuit along with the Ocean Conservancy.

The federal lawsuit filed Friday asks a federal judge to order the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, to implement stricter measures to ensure the recovery of the red snapper stock by 2032.

Red snapper is a highly valued reef fish that has been in trouble for over 20 years. It was officially declared overfished in 1997. The fishery is already regulated with fishermen having to abide by laws that dictate how many fish can be taken.

But the plaintiffs argue that those measures have not gone far enough and that a sound rebuilding plan has not been adopted. The NMFS adopted a final plan last week.

The Coastal Conservation Association, a powerful sport fishermen's group, also has threatened to sue unless NMFS orders shrimpers to use better devices to keep red snapper from getting caught in nets.

Chris Smith, a NMFS spokesman in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but did say that red snapper stocks are improving.

"We are seeing some incredible recovery with red snapper," Smith said. "It's not like we're sitting on our hands with red snapper. We're working real hard."

Anecdotal evidence shows that the fish is turning up in waters where it had been absent for nearly two decades, Smith said.

"People are catching legal red snapper right here off of St. Pete," he said. "We have clear signs that red snapper is rebounding because of our management."

The lawsuit says fishermen need to stop being allowed to catch so much red snapper and that shrimp trawlers need to be forced to stop killing so many of the fish as bycatch in their nets.

Sport and commercial fishermen are allowed to catch 9 million pounds of red snapper each year.

Chris Dorsett, the Ocean Conservancy's fish conservation director for the Gulf, said the last red snapper stock assessment in 1999 said that the harvest would need to be cut to 2.8 million pounds a year for the fish to rebound by 2032.

Rick Leard, deputy executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, said that the number of shrimp boats has fallen in recent years as a flood of cheap imports has eroded prices since 2000. He said officials believe fewer shrimp boats will result in fewer red snapper dying in nets.

But Dorsett complained that regulators should not rely on a drop in the shrimp fleet to resolve management problems.

"It relies on NMFS looking into the crystal ball and saying that 39 percent of the large shrimp vessels will not be fishing by 2012 because of economic conditions," Dorsett said. "Instead of having some contingency plan, they're solely relying on that."