Photo by the Associated Press
A $3 million, five-year project to expand data collection on red snapper and other reef fish stocks in the northern and eastern Gulf of Mexico is being hailed by Ocean Conservancy as a major milestone in the recovery of the marine resources affected by the 2010 BP oil spill disaster.
The Enhanced Assessment for Recovery of Gulf of Mexico Fisheries is one of six Florida projects funded by $15.7 million of BP and Transocean criminal fine money that addresses high priority conservation needs, according to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that's administering the money.
"This is a good investment of BP fine money in the sustainability of the fisheries," said Elizabeth Fetherston, a marine restoration strategist for Ocean Conservancy based in St. Petersburg.
It's the first project funded by oil spill recovery money targeting fisheries and, more importantly, for red snapper stocks that "are incredibly important to the Gulf of Mexico and Pensacola's fishing, tourism and seafood industry," Fetherston said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is managing the project.
Gil McRae, director of the agency's research institute, said the findings from the project will fill critical gaps in data collection.
Gulf fisheries are managed by both state and federal agencies, and at times there's confusion over harvest estimates, he said.
That system, based on the estimates of pounds caught a season, is very difficult to track accurately and leads to unpredictable regulations on the length and times of fishing seasons, McRea said. This has created discontent among commercial and recreational fishing communities, he said.
McRae's team will put researchers on commercial and recreational fishing boats that volunteer for the program to more accurately document first hand what's being caught, what's being released and how many of the released fish are surviving.
"What we hope is the information will improve the predictability of the season and prevent wide swings in regulations of size limits and bag limits," he said. "The project is all about getting better data to better manage offshore fisheries, especially red snapper."
Another highlight of the project is developing smartphone apps that would allow anglers to record their catches in a central computer.
Enhanced assessment of the fisheries stock will lead to greater ability to sustain the populations, McRea said.
Will Patterson, a University of South Florida marine sciences biology professor who has been studying the impacts of the oil spill on fish populations, said more detailed studies of this scope have been conducted in the western Gulf, but there's never been a study of this caliber east of Pensacola.
"The information that's going to be collected will be based on what fish are living here, how fast they grow, where they live and how much they eat. That's information we've not had."
Charter boat captain Baz Yelverton of Gulf Breeze runs snapper trips into the Gulf.
He said he believes the assessment is a step in the right direction in better managing the fisheries.
"But what I'd really like to see happen is effort put into finding ways to (harmlessly) repel dolphins from where you're fishing," he said. "They're a real problem. They wait until you throw your snapper back in the water, and they're right there eating them. Let a snapper have a chance of getting back in the water."
Pensacola News Journal, Kim Blair