An economic engine, the Gulf of Mexico struggles

Working with fishermen on new strategies to restore fisheries and ecosystems

The world's largest gulf, the Gulf of Mexico stretches more than 3,000 miles from the Florida Keys to the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. Its vast coastline supports extensive coastal wetlands, including mangrove forests and seagrass beds, and important coral reefs.  These rich ecosystems are home to myriad reef fishes, shore and sea birds, rare sea turtles, and more than 30 varieties of dolphins and whales.

The challenge

Unfortunately, its rich ecosystems are threatened by upstream pollution, reduced supplies of freshwater, poorly planned coastal development and over-exploited fish stocks.

What we're doing

The Texas Oceans team has worked for more than a decade to improve management of Gulf reef fish and shrimp fisheries, protect endangered sea turtles and preserve the health of the region's bay and estuarine ecosystems.

We focus on rebuilding the Gulf's health and saving its troubled multibillion dollar fisheries. We work with fishermen and related businesses to give them a direct economic stake in the long-term health of the marine ecosystem. 

A complex web of fishing rules has only worsened problems

In the past, well-meaning attempts to fix the problems have made them worse. Increased fishing regulations has led to an overwhelmingly complicated list of rules, like shortened seasons, ever-changing size limits and trip limits.

Shortened seasons aimed at reducing overfishing have led to a "fishing frenzy" mentality that drives fishermen into unsafe waters to catch their limit during narrow timeframes. And an alarming amount of fish is wasted. For every pound of shrimp harvested, more than four pounds of other marine life is caught, killed and discarded.  For every red snapper that is caught and brought back to dock, one is caught and tossed overboard dying or dead.

The Gulf cannot survive such a wasteful system.  On top of that, the next generation stands to lose the quality of life the Gulf provides.  If our fisheries are not fixed, jobs will be lost, family businesses will fail and local coastal economies throughout Gulf coast states will crumble.

Recovery through teamwork and innovative solutions

In response, we are developing and implementing market incentives that will benefit fishermen and the ecosystem. The commercial red snapper individual fishing quota, or IFQ, program (a type of catch share) has been used in leading fishing nations like New Zealand with good results. Catch shares assign each fisherman a secure, tradable share of the scientifically determined, total sustainable catch. Fishermen thus have an incentive to rebuild fisheries and enhance ecosystems. 

Partnerships with key stakeholder groups are key to our successs in the Gulf. We are helping to organize a unique collaboration of fishermen, seafood dealers, academics, business leaders, government regulators, conservationists and others to restore healthy, economically viable fisheries.

Rare Kemp's ridley babies are released into Gulf waters off Padre Island, thanks to the Sea Turtle Patrol.

Recent results

Our decades-long effort to address the overfished and financially strapped red snapper fishery came to fruition when the Gulf fishery managers designed and the National Marine Fisheries Service implemented an IFQ plan for the commercial red snapper fishery. Fishermen voted overwhelmingly in support of the plan. The system replaced outdated regulations that were failing both fishermen and fish.

Our advocacy helped secure a seasonal no-trawl zone off Padre Island, Texas, to protect spawning white shrimp and endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles during sensitive life stages. The ban and other measures (such as safeguarding nesting beaches from poachers and shrimpers' use of turtle excluder devices in their nets) have helped Kemp's ridleys  rebound slowly.

It's an astonishing recovery. In 2008, 193 turtles nested on Texas beaches, setting a record for the fifth straight year — and the most since the population crashed some 40 years ago.

More details: what we working on

Goals:

  • Transform the management of Gulf fisheries to reward conservation and fishermen's bottom lines through smart fishery management reforms. We work to set the stage for success by building widespread awareness, strong partnerships and appropriate laws and policies.
  • Spur recovery of the Gulf's depleted reef fish fishery through implementation of an IFQ catch-share fishery management program in the commercial sector, and extend innovative solutions including catch share programs to the recreational sector.
  • Help shrimpers compete, reduce environmental damages to marine life and habitats, and support efforts to build demand for high-quality, environmentally friendly shrimp through market solutions.
  • Developing new tools to improve fisheries management and protect fish stocks and economic benefits for the long term.

Results:

  • Our Texas staff is leading similar reforms for the Gulf grouper and shrimp fisheries and pressing Congress to ease the implementation of catch-share programs nationwide. Pointing to the success in the Gulf, the administration has called for doubling the number of catch-share programs in U.S. fisheries by 2010.
  • Our scientists and economists serve on federal advisory panels to explore and implement catch shares for commercial and sport fisheries.
  • Our team continues to forge new partnerships to build coalitions and help groups and individuals representing the spectrum of Gulf interests, from commercial and sports fishermen to regulators and conservationists, work constructively together.
  • Texas staff is leading outreach and educational initiatives to help Gulf shrimpers and fishermen see firsthand the challenges and successes of other market-based programs. These experiences also inform our work in designing smart management plans. For instance, we helped organize a Gulf contingent as part of a University of California tour of New Zealand's fisheries, managed under one of the world's longest-running, most comprehensive catch-share plans.
  • We are exploring new ideas to reduce shrimp trawl bycatch, the millions of pounds of fish and other marine life that are unintentionally caught each year and thrown back dead or dying. We are collaborating with Texas Tech University and the Ocean Conservancy to map locations where abundant sea life and shrimp and high bycatch converge.

Our Gulf experts

Pamela Baker Director of Strategic Conservation Initiatives, Gulf and Southeast Oceans Program

Seema Balwani Senior Conservation Manager, Gulf and Southeast Oceans Program

Heather Paffe Director, Gulf and Southeast Oceans Program

Report from the field

Is seafood from the Gulf of Mexico safe? EDF staff teams up with fishermen to test fish and share the data.

Read about a new program to ensure safe, reliable seafood »