Good news for the Gulf

There’s something about the Gulf Coast on the Florida panhandle that feels like home to me. Though there’s not much to see underwater, at least not compared to coral reef habitats, I can still snorkel there for hours. I generally only see mostly sand, water, blue crabs, and an occasional stingray or juvenile jack, but there’s something about snorkeling those waters that makes me (almost) as happy as I feel when scuba diving a teeming reef. I once snorkeled out to the sandbar, roughly 50 yards offshore, and encountered a turtle. That was darn near a religious experience for me.

Maybe I feel sentimental about the Gulf because I’ve spent so many hours in that gorgeous, warm, crystal clear water or with my toes buried in the sugar-white sand. It was on that beach that I read Sylvia Earle’s “Sea Change” from cover to cover and became inspired to do something to protect the oceans and marine life. And, not that there’s any comparison, Sylvia Earle’s career was inspired by the Gulf of Mexico where she grew up. I no longer spend as much time there as I used to as I’ve opted to spend my vacations in more remote waters where there are reefs and lots of marine life. But I still feel very sentimental about the Gulf and try to get down to the panhandle at least once a year to “recharge.”

The Gulf is one of the our greatest treasures, but we’re not treating it as such. There are massive dead zones of hypoxic, toxic waters. And the Gulf is one of the most overfished seas in the world. According to the Ocean Conservancy’s most recent Overfishing Scorecard, the fisheries management of the Gulf of Mexico ranks 7th out of 8 Regional Councils due to their poor performance on ending overfishing of the most important species and rebuilding depleted fish populations.

But there is hope — for one species anyway. Strict new limits on red snapper fishing will go into effect at the end of February. Just in the nick of time as this species is close to the brink of collapse. Though annual catches were limited to 4 million pounds in the early 1990s, they didn’t stay limited for long. By 1996, the limit had reached 9.12 million pounds where it remained for years. Now, the limit has been re-reduced to a 5 million pound quota for recreational and commercial fishers — the strictest limit in 15 years and only enacted when the survival of this species reached crisis level.

New regulations are also requiring shrimpers to reduce bycatch by trawlers by 74%, which will likely be addressed by shortening the shrimping season in federal waters as bycatch reduction devices have been largely ineffective. In addition to protecting other species, the new bycatch regulations are also very good news for red snappers. Before they migrate to deeper waters as adults, juvenile red snappers live in the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico — the same habitat that harbors the Gulf’s shrimp. It’s estimated that 25 to 45 million juvenile snappers are caught as bycatch in shrimpers’ nets, which is more than 80 percent of the entire Gulf population of juvenile red snapper. Removing juveniles removes their reproductive potential and therefore removes their ability to contribute to the population.

In my opinion, these regulations are “a day late and a dollar short” as we say in the South. But better late than never.