By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Despite its opposition to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s Amendment 40, better known as Sector Separation, the Alabama Marine Resources Division decided that discretion is the better part of valor at last week’s Council meeting in Mobile.

Historically, the red snapper fishery in the Gulf has been divided into two segments, commercial and recreational. Amendment 40 will split the recreational sector into charter-for-hire vessels and private recreational anglers

While the charter boat captains cheered the approval of Amendment 40, most of the private recreational anglers are unhappy.

The Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) decided to modify its stance on sector separation because of the impending vote.

“All the five Gulf states were opposed to Amendment 40 because we didn’t think that was the best way to manage the fishery,” said Chris Blankenship, MRD Director. “But it was pretty obvious from procedural votes and talking to people that there was going to be eight votes for and eight votes against. That was going to leave the tiebreaker to Dr. Roy Crabtree (National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Regional Director). Dr. Crabtree indicated he was voting for it.

“So it was set for passage. The states favored a ‘sunset’ provision so we could work on regional management during that time. Dr. Crabtree indicated that if one of the states would change its vote to yes, that he would change his vote on the sunset clause to support it. So we reluctantly changed our vote on Amendment 40 to secure the three-year sunset provision.”

What the sunset clause means is that Amendment 40, if granted final approval by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Secretary of Commerce, will expire in three years unless reauthorized by the Gulf Council.

“If we had not done that and it had passed without the sunset provision, then we would have been limited by having sector separation forever,” Blankenship said. “We just feel it’s better to manage the entire recreational fishery under a regional management plan.”

Blankenship said the importance of the sunset provision is it will give the Gulf Council and the Gulf states time to work on regional management of the red snapper fishery. With the backing of Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr., Blankenship said Alabama considers the “best option to repair this broken federal management system is for the states to have regional control of the fishery in waters adjacent to their state, both in state and federal waters, for both charter and private recreational fishermen.”

Although the regional management plan has been under consideration, implementation is at least another 18 months to two years away, according to Blankenship.

“Even if it was approved in 2015, it would be at least the 2016 season before it could be implemented,” he said. “The sunset clause will give us some time to work on other management strategies. In the meantime, the Gulf Council will be working in the January meeting (Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Ala.) on management alternatives for the charter industry.”

The charter industry is pushing to reduce the daily bag limit of red snapper to one fish per day in their new sector in an effort to lengthen the season. Blankenship said the private recreational anglers are opposed to the reduction because of the costs associated with a trip to productive snapper waters. This is one instance where different management strategies for the charter sector could be positive, Blankenship said.

All the charter boat captains in attendance at last week’s Council meeting gave their wholehearted support to Amendment 40.

“This is going to bring some stability to our industry, which we desperately need,” said Capt. Mike Thierry of Dauphin Island. “It will make us accountable for every fish we catch. I think it’s a good conservation measure.”

One of the problems encountered when considering season lengths is that several states were non-compliant with the federal regulations. Texas maintains a year-round snapper fishery, while Louisiana established a year-round season inside the state waters boundary, which the state deemed as 9 miles. Florida has an extended season in state waters, as does Mississippi. Alabama had an extended weekend-only season this year in July.

 Capt. Gary Bryant of Fort Morgan said Amendment 40 means the non-compliance issues will not affect the charter industry.

“This guarantees for the next three years we will have a federal season for charter boats,” Bryant said. “Whatever the states do, it will not affect charter boats so we can take our customers fishing.”

Capt. Bill Staff of Orange Beach said, “The private recreationals have had state seasons, so they’ve been getting to fish. We haven’t. Now maybe we’ll get to fish 30 or 31 days, and then we’ll get regional management, which should work out best for us and the fishery.”

Recreational angler groups have opposed Amendment 40 with vigor. The Coastal Conservation Association has denounced the vote, while the Fishing Rights Alliance (FRA) has threatened a lawsuit to stop implementation.

The recreational sector pie will be divided into a 40-percent portion for the charter industry and a 60-percent slice for private recreational.

Blankenship said that still hasn’t allayed the concern from private anglers that the recreational red snapper season in federal waters could be even shorter than the nine-day 2014 season.

“This is not the ideal way we want to manage this fishery, but it’s the best we could do under the proposals that were available at this last Council meeting,” he said. “We feel like if we can get regional management that will give us the best opportunity to fix this broken system.”

Private recreational angler Marcus Kennedy of Mobile said he doesn’t think Amendment 40 is doom and gloom, but he doesn’t feel the same way about the federal management of the snapper fishery.

“For the private recreational guy, I think the net result of (Amendment 40) will be zero,” Kennedy said. “But I don’t like the idea of privatization of the resource.

“The bottom line is the federal government has banned us from catching red snapper in federal waters for absolutely no reason. Whether it’s a nine-day season or a four-day season, that’s still zero to me. Every regulation they’ve put on red snapper has resulted in me losing the ability to catch red snapper.”

One thing Blankenship hopes is that NOAA Fisheries (NMFS) will rely heavily on Alabama’s Red Snapper Reporting System, which was implemented during the 2014 season and showed a significant discrepancy in the number of pounds of fish caught off Alabama versus the federal survey.

“We are trying to convince NOAA Fisheries to use our data to improve and calibrate their data collection system,” Blankenship said. “Alabama has spearheaded an effort to have the Science and Statistical Committee (SSC) make quota recommendations using a less conservative analysis of spawning potential ratio because this fishery is rebuilding faster than they projected.”

Blankenship said the 2015 red snapper quotas will not be set until spring, but the SSC could change its recommendations to allow more snapper to be caught now while still meeting the goal to rebuild the stocks by 2032.

“Marine Resources will continue with our fishery independent research work in our artificial reef zones that we feel will be instrumental in the new stock assessment,” Blankenship said. “Now that Amendment 40 has passed, Amendment 28 (reallocation of portions of the quota from the commercial sector to the recreational sector) is back on the table for discussion and action.  All of these items will increase the amount of pounds available for the private recreational fishermen and hopefully get us a longer season while we work to make real changes through regional management and through changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act in Congress in 2015.”

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