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Atlantic Red Snapper Debacle: The Emperor's New Clothes

"The red snapper stock is overfished and it is experiencing overfishing based on the fishing mortality rate..." This is where bad can go to worse.

The Red Snapper Debacle: The Emperor's New Clothes

State management has helped Gulfside ( for Oct. openings). Atlantic red snapper? Trainwreck.

I’m not sure how old I was when I was introduced to the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I am quite sure I was far too busy dreaming of sailfish to really understand what the symbolism of the naked emperor really meant. I just knew I couldn’t understand why all those people would fall for such a hoax. How could they ignore what was right in front of them?

You see, as I remember the story, there was an emperor that had charged a young tailor with the job of making him the world’s best-looking outfit, for a huge parade that was upcoming. Well, much like what happens to us today, the young tailor ran out of time and/or material and at the 11th hour he came up with a scheme to save his bacon. He convinced the emperor that he had made him a new outfit that held magical properties. He told the emperor that his beautiful new outfit could read the mind of anybody who saw him. If someone looking at him was not loyal to him, and his government, he would appear naked.

The tailor then went through the town spreading the news.

Everybody near and far knew that they’d better love his new outfit, and that God forbid the emperor appeared naked to them, they would automatically be branded a heretic.

Now that I have listened to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council talk about the future of red snapper fishing off the coast of the Southeast United States, I’m convinced they also must have believed the emperor’s new clothes were beautiful.

You see, I was here before the Magnuson Stevens Act came along to protect our fisheries from overharvesting. The idea behind the legislation was very solid, and there’s no doubt that once modern boats and electronics came along, the threat of overharvesting the many species the South Atlantic Council oversees in the snapper grouper complex was very real.

My first exposure to red snapper fishing was before recreational fishermen had Loran A, or the much more effective Loran C, much less GPS. I worked on the Mayport Florida partyboat fleet, while my mentor, Capt. Fred Morrow commercial snapper fished starting in the mid 1960s.

When I first started interacting with the council around 1990, it should have occurred to me that something was wrong with “the emperor’s clothes.” That’s when they started telling us about how great the commercial landings were in the 1960s.

The fact that Capt. Fred never filled out any forms, or was visited by any officials enquiring about what species he was selling made me suspicious. I also know good and well, the sweet old lady that bought Fred’s fish was also ignored by anybody in charge of counting how many snapper were being caught. I can’t speak for everywhere, but in good old Mayport, there was zero fisheries management presence.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, once the 1980s came along we saw a new wave of equipment and the spread of more effective methods of bottom fishing started seriously impacting all species of the bottom fish we depend on here in Northeast Florida. I can remember thinking that we desperately needed regulations.

Now 30 years later I’m left with the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Right around 1990, the South Atlantic Council went to a 2 fish at 20 inches limit for red snapper.


Fishermen were mostly ecstatic.

The fish were coming back, and limits were getting more consistent every month. For some unknown reason, right around 1991, the council decided the snapper “weren’t coming back fast enough,” and new draconian measures started keeping bottom fishermen home, or sending them to the golf course.

It was when Capt. Robert Johnson, Capt. Dave Crisp and myself took the head of the Pew Research Foundation’s “Red Snapper Project” fishing that I fully realized just how much trouble we’re in. Having reeled her first juvenile red snapper to the surface, the Pew Foundation staffer held it up, looked at David and me and asked, “Is this one?”

Indeed, life for people that love to catch and eat red snapper has spiraled steadily downward ever since that day. In case you’ve been living in a cave, red snapper have now overrun every fertile piece of bottom structure inside of 140 feet of water off the Northeast Florida coast. They are so thick inshore grouper fishing is impossible. Here in Northeast Florida, there are so many snapper that tossing your leftover bait overboard will almost immediately bring them to the surface. While a determined few of us have tried to catch triggerfish, vermilions, and sea bass inshore of 140 feet, we’ve seen it more difficult to avoid the snapper every year.

I don’t always think of myself as being lucky to be approaching my 70th birthday, but I sure know I’m lucky to have logged 60 years on the water. So many things that I keep hearing from fisheries managers just aren’t true. They tell us we have to have closures 363 days a year because there’s not as many big old fish as there used to be. The problem with that is, I often helped Capt. Fred unload his catch, and the average size red snapper was the 4- to 8-pound range that the market preferred. It was also the average size we caught on the party boats. In fact, every 30-pound snapper I’ve ever seen has been in the last 10 years of 360-plus days of closed seasons.

Now, I can’t help but think I’ve really heard it all. Now we are looking at various types of even more restrictive seasons because, ARE YOU READY? We are encountering so many red snapper while were fishing for other species, that the protected red snapper cannot survive the mortality of the ones we’re throwing back. That means we are supposed to stop fishing because we are encountering too many red snapper as bycatch. Essentially the stop light is on because we have so many snapper we can’t fish for them.

Folks, I’ve seen the emperor, and the emperor is butt-naked. FS

Learn more about how you can help the Atlantic red snapper fishery here: 

Share your opinions with the SAFMC here: events/september2022-council-meeting/

Published Florida Sportsman Magazine October 2022

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