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Product Spotlight: Red snapper

New measures hope to bring the species back to sustainable levels

 - Photo courtesy of Florida Bureau of Seafood and
    Aquaculture Marketing
By April Forristall
September 01, 2007

The most fl a vorful of the snapper family, red snapper's sweet taste makes it highly popular - and highly exploited. The unofficial poster boy for species substitution, it has been overfished since 1989, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

One of the most prized fish by both commercial and recreational fishermen, red snapper is mainly a victim of bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico.

Once the species was declared overfished in 1989, NMFS called for tighter restrictions to restore red snapper to sustainable levels. In 1991, the total allowable catch was set at 5 million pounds. The Gulf shrimp fishery installed bycatch reduction devices (BRDs) in shrimp nets in 1993. Based on a drop in red snapper bycatch by the shrimp fishery in federal waters and new biological information, the target date for sustainability was extended to 2009, allowing the TAC to be raised to 6 million pounds. The sustainability date was again pushed back in 1996, to 2019, allowing another increase in the TAC, this time to 9.12 million pounds.

In January the derby-style season was replaced with an individual fishing quota system. In late 2006, however, NMFS had decided that while the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council developed additional long-term measures toward the species' recovery, interim measures were needed this year to address overfishing.

"The TAC was lowered to 6.5 million pounds, the daily recreation bag limit is set at two fish, captain and crews of for-hire vessels are prohibited from retaining a recreational bag limit and the commercial red snapper minimum size 
was raised to 13 inches total length," explains Charlene Ponce, public information officer for the council.

BRDs are still required in the shrimp fishery, and the council recently approved a regulatory amendment that modifies the criteria for BRDs to address shrimp trawl bycatch more comprehensively and realistically.

"The new criteria is expected to increase flexibility, promote innovation and allow for the certification of BRDs that will achieve greater reduction in red snapper bycatch than what is currently being realized," says Ponce.

The ultimate goal of the amendment is to end overfishing of the Gulf's signature fish between 2009-10, with the species' population reaching sustainable levels in 2032. In July, the council approved the fishery management plan amendment, she adds.

The interim rule amendment was sent to the Secretary of Commerce in late July and is currently open for comment. If approved, implementation is expected early next year.

As with other popular table fish, limited availability, partially due to the new restrictions, and high demand of red snapper have led to species fraud.

A DNA study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2004 found that 77 percent of the 22 red snapper samples served at area restaurants were mislabeled.

In May, the Chicago Sun-Times sent snapper samples 
from 14 sushi restaurants for DNA testing. Not one came back as red snapper. Results concluded that nine were tilapia, four were red sea bream and the remainders were "inconclusive."

Similar results turned up in Arizona. Research done by KPHO-TV News in Phoenix found that out of five samples of red snapper, grouper, catfish and one unidentified species were served instead. Having an honest supplier is the best way to combat species substitution, says Dean Max, executive chef at 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"We use very high-end purveyors who aren't going to substitute different products in for that," says Max, who is also on the seafood and aquaculture advisory board for the Florida Department of Agriculture. "On the other end of that we also get the product whole whenever possible and if not whole, it's still skin-on so we can view what the product looks like.

"One of the big things for me is the fact that we need to be responsible. We've got organizations that are putting information out there. As chefs we try to watch that and change our menu."

As for red snapper's future, "it's a day-by-day thing," 
adds Max.

According to Ponce, an updated stock assessment for red snapper is scheduled for late 2009, data from which will be used to determine if additional regulations are necessary. Time will tell if the new steps taken by the Gulf council and NMFS will aid in red snapper recovery.


Editorial Assistant April Forristall can be e-mailed at aforristall@divcom.com


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