A brief red snapper recreational fishing season is back on for five days in the Southeast this month or until 29,656 fish are caught.

How will the federal regulators know when that many are in the cooler?

They won't. And that could lead to hunting fish like you would deer, with a permit or tag turned in when the fish is caught.

NOAA Fisheries is struggling to improve sampling data while trying to manage catch restrictions for any number of species that previous, shown-to-be-faulty sampling indicated are overfished.

That includes nearly all the snapper grouper species, as well as other popular ocean dwellers such as the black sea bass.

One of the latest fixes the federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council council is considering would be essentially a hunting permit to fish. Council members in December will resume discussing whether to require permits to catch snapper and enforce reporting of what gets caught where.

"The equivalency is, you go deer hunting you get a permit, you go turkey hunting you get a permit," said Gregg Waugh, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council director. And the harvest must be checked in.

The council, representing both fishing groups and regulating groups, makes recommendations to NOAA Fisheries on managing the catch of offshore species.

The prospect of permits has been talked about for years, part of a move to ecosystem-based management or running the ocean like a national wilderness area, including protected habitats where fishing is severely restricted to allow spawning.

The idea is to make the rules more flexible, to keep people fishing where and when there are enough fish to catch, rather than shutting down an entire fishery for months or years at a time, the way snapper and a number of other species are now.

The required permit reporting would produce better catch data that could lead to opening up species to more fishing.

In the meantime, federal law requires regulators use the best available science, Waugh said.

"What they're allowing to be harvested is a very conservative number of fish," he said. "Our hands are tied because we don't have a more recent assessment."

As it stands, the snapper catch this year will be estimated using a program that works largely from voluntary survey samplers handed out to some anglers as they return to the docks — estimates some regulators and anglers say produce trip and catch numbers too high to be believed, Waugh said.

Tie up and go home

The red snapper is one of the best examples among any number of species that regulators are struggling to get a better bead on.

It's widely agreed there are plenty of snapper out there now. The seafood favorite has come back a decade after counts suggested the stock was depleted and regulators enforced tight catch and season limits.

The question remains: Have enough of them matured to breeding age to sustain the species once anglers go at them again? Among finfish the snapper is long-lived and an older spawner.

Unlike commercial catches, which can be tracked, recreational catches are wide open. More than 500,000 people hold saltwater recreational fishing licenses in South Carolina, according to state records. And it's been estimated more than a half million trips are run offshore each year.

NOAA has made progress since a 2006 review by the National Research Council suggested that telephone and dock surveys used to estimate the stock were seriously flawed. But there's little disagreement that the estimates still aren't accurate enough.

"How do you estimate data?" asked Murrells Inlet charter captain Jay Sconyer. "I could take you out there tomorrow and we could catch more genuine red snapper than we could grouper, and they say it's overfished. The way to do it (counts) is hands-on. Be there when people get back. Be there to see the fish."

Regulators say the only way to get the good detailed data is for the anglers to provide it themselves. And the Fishery Management Council has an app for that.

Results from the app, MyFish Count, already are being loaded into the catch estimate program. 

Yet with all the hooks out there after snapper last summer, the app reported only about 700 trips involving 850 anglers across a region that stretches from North Carolina to Florida.

"We're pushing to get more people using the app," Waugh said. "That's our challenge right now."

Better data would make the difference with nearly all the species recreational anglers are after. For example, Waugh said, one of more difficult factors for the catch estimates to evaluate is the loss of "by-catch," restricted species that are caught but can't be kept. They have to be thrown back.

Because deeper-water fish often can't adjust to the pressure change, a lot of these fish die. Bycatch mortality is considered one of the leading threats to the species recovery, and the estimates factor it in heavily.

But 10 years ago, you had to go deeper than 100 feet to find the bottom dwellers such as snapper. Now anglers are pulling them in from reefs as shallow as 50 feet or less. More of those tossed-back fish live. If regulators had better data on how deep fish are caught, that could change the mortality estimates — and open up more fishing.

Catch confidence

In the meantime, frustration is felt across the spectrum. The council in August will look at a proposed rework of the current snapper sampling.

NOAA is continuing to rework how it estimates the overall catch and expects to have a new stock assessment by 2022 — about the same time snapper permits would take effect, if the council recommends them and NOAA approves.

Tom Swatzel is director of the South Carolina-based Council for Sustainable Fishing, which represents both commercial and recreational fishing interests, and he is a former council member. He applauds all efforts at improving data collection.

"The SAFMC (council) and NOAA need to get the stock assessments right," he said, "and the only way is with better and more timely data."

"Better stock assessments that match up with what fishermen see on the water will instill in fishermen more confidence in the fishery management process," he added, "and I think cause a higher level of participation in these important management decisions."

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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