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Extension participates in Great Red Snapper Count
BILOXI, Miss. -- Red snapper suffered a population decline in Gulf Coast waters in the 1900s because of overfishing, but anglers today report they simply cannot avoid them, even when fishing for other species.
“To rebuild the population, over the last 20 years or so, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shortened the length of the red snapper season and restricted numbers recreational fishers could harvest,” said Mississippi State University Extension Service fisheries specialist Marcus Drymon. “This led to a problem because anglers perceive the stock as healthy.”
In response, Congress allocated $10 million for research projects to quantify the number of red snappers in the Gulf, independently from the NOAA assessment. Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant awarded the funding to a collaborative research team after a competitive review process. MSU Extension is part of this multi-university effort.
A device called the Seaqualizer eases the effects of pressure change to a tagged fish and returns it safely to its habitat.
The Great Red Snapper Count project began in 2017 and employs three different methods -- direct visual counts, depletion studies and a tagging study -- to eventually arrive at a count. Since March, researchers have been tagging and releasing 4,000 red snappers before the season starts in June.
“If we tag right before the season starts, we can assume few fish died or entered the population,” Drymon said. “Once the season opens, we will be relying on anglers out on the water to call us and let us know when they catch a tagged red snapper. If enough people do so, we can use an equation to determine what the harvest rate looks like.
“To make it worth their while, anglers who catch tagged red snapper will receive $250 if they call the number on the tag and mail it to the research team,” he added. “We feel pretty confident that, with this incentive, close to 100 percent of the people will report their catch.”
This fall, researchers will begin analyzing catch data using a family of mark-recapture models, which will provide one component of the red snapper abundance estimate.
In earlier phases of the two-year study, direct visual counts were gathered from underwater camera footage. Additionally, researchers conducted depletion studies, during which they counted the population using cameras, removed individual fish using hook-and-line gear and counted again. Comparing the first and second counts allowed the researchers to estimate population size.
Tagging is the last phase and is an effective way of involving stakeholders in the study.
“The Extension component is critical to the overall success of the project,” said Amanda Jefferson, Extension associate at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. “If people feel their observations are being seen and voices are being heard, they are going to be pleased with that and happy with the direction of the research.
“We are detailing each stage of the process and being transparent every step of the way so anglers can ask questions intelligently about what we are doing,” she said. “We want them to play an active role.”
Researchers will begin compiling the data from all three phases this fall, with plans to reveal population numbers in the spring of 2020.
The Great Red Snapper Count team leader is Greg Stunz, professor of Marine Biology and Endowed Chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
For more information on the study, visit https://bit.ly/2VXu0lQ.