By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Thankfully, a new red snapper stock assessment has confirmed what Alabama anglers and fisheries managers have said for a long time: There are a lot more red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico than previous assessments indicated.

Whether that changes the parameters of the 2015 red snapper recreational season has yet to be determined.

At the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting held last week at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Ala., the new red snapper stock assessment was discussed, as well as a number of other items that could impact anglers off the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“With the stock assessment they just completed, it looks like there could be up to a 2.9-million pound increase in the annual catch limit,” said Chris Blankenship,

Alabama Marine Resources Director. “Council members asked for some clarification from the Scientific and Statistical Committee about the stock assessment. What happened was the committee didn’t have the complete landings data from 2014, so they used 2013 data like it was the same exact data as 2014. But the landings were less in 2014, so they’re waiting on the final landings numbers to put into the assessment and have that at the March Council meeting. The March meeting in Biloxi (Miss.) is when they will set the 2015 season.”

One of the reasons the stock assessment indicated higher numbers of red snapper is because of the new survey system MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program), which was implemented for the 2013 season. When NOAA Fisheries (aka National Marine Fisheries Service) looked at the new MRIP data compared to previous years’ data, it decided to adjust the older data.

In an ironic twist, because the previous data underestimated the red snapper catch, the adjusted data was justification for raising the annual catch limit.

“When they recalibrated the landings from previous years, it showed that more fish were caught than they had previously estimated,” Blankenship said. “It’s interesting how the model works. When it showed more fish were caught in the past, they looked at how the stock is still doing with those increased removals, which shows that the stock is healthier.”

That was one reason the allowable catch limit was raised; the other had to do with fishing choices, mainly the size of the fish anglers landed.

“They also added selectivity into the model,” Blankenship said. “Essentially that means that people are purposely choosing to bring in larger fish. Instead of a 16-inch fish, people are bringing in 8-, 10- or 15-pound fish. When you only get two fish in not many days, people are choosing larger fish. When you add that selectivity in, it caused the increase in the limit.”

To more accurately assess the number of red snapper landed in Alabama, Marine Resources implemented the Red Snapper Reporting System, which required that anglers who landed red snapper in Alabama fill out a form available at the boat landing or report the catches via Smartphone app or online at www.outdooralabama.com. NOAA estimated Alabama’s 2014 red snapper catch at just over 1 million pounds. The Alabama Red Snapper Reporting System indicated Alabama anglers landed about 418,000 pounds.

“It was not used in the stock assessment they just completed,” he said of Alabama’s reporting program. “We’re still working with NOAA to figure out how they can use that data, like for quota monitoring or something like that.

“One of the biggest things we were able to accomplish at this meeting, we are looking to change the spawning potential ratio (SPR) they use to manage this fishery. The lower that number, the more fish you can catch now. We’re arguing that this stock is rebuilding much faster than anticipated, so we should be able to catch more fish now instead of waiting until 2032 to increase the quota and the length of the season. What we were able to do at this meeting was to get NOAA to start working on analyzing the spawning potential ratios so by later in the year we could select a different spawning potential ratio, which could theoretically give us a large increase in the number of pounds for 2016 and the next few years.”

There was also discussion of Amendment 39 (aka regional management), which would give management of the red snapper fishery to the five Gulf States, based on

historical catches. Blankenship said the sector separation amendment had changed the dynamics of Amendment 39, which would be discussed in length at the next meeting. Blankenship added the recalibration of the MRIP data does benefit Alabama significantly, raising its potential allocation several percentage points above the 27 percent previously discussed.

Blankenship said Alabama Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. attended the reef fish committee meetings last week and had productive meetings with the Coastal Conservation Association, the charter boat industry and fisheries representatives from the other four Gulf states. The Commissioner also met with Dr. Roy Crabtree, Southeast Regional Manager for NOAA Fisheries, and Sam Rauch, Acting Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, about regional management.

One discussion at the Council meeting centered on changing the minimum size on amberjack from the current 30 inches to 34 or 36 inches, which would increase the length of the season considerably, according to Blankenship.

“What they would like to do is increase the minimum size and keep the closure for June and July (during red snapper season) and theoretically open it up for the rest of the year,” he said. The Council asked for more analysis and no action was taken. Final action on this issue should be taken at the March meeting.

There was also no action taken on Amendment 40, which separates the charter boat industry from the private recreational anglers. Amendment 40 was passed at the previous Council meeting, but the details of how that separation would work have not been decided.

“The Secretary of Commerce still has not signed off on Amendment 40,” Blankenship said. “If the Secretary signs it, it would go into effect this year. The charter industry has asked for a split season, where they take two-thirds of their quota when the season starts in June. Then they would analyze the catch and if there was any quota left, they would have a fall season.”

On a sour note, the 2015 quota for gray triggerfish in the Gulf has already been reached, prompting the closure of the fishery until the end of the year. The reason for such a quick closure is because catch overruns in previous years left only a little more than 30,000 pounds for the 2015 quota.

“There is a lot of frustration with triggerfish closing,” Blankenship said. “That has to do with recalibration as well. They set the quota using the old landings data, and they managed the quota using the MRIP data. Therefore, the quota is lower than it should be, and it’s being filled faster every year. They have the payback provision, so when they overran the quota in 2013 and 2014, that’s why the season was so short this year. There’s not much we can do until we get another triggerfish assessment, which is next year, I think.

“Like I’ve talked about before, we have so many issues with red snapper, the Gulf Council doesn’t have time to work on other species. If we could get regional management and get red snapper settled, we’d have more time to devote to other fish, like triggerfish.”

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