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Snapper Season on Gulf Council Agenda

February 2011

By DAVID RAINER

When the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meets in Orange Beach April 11-14, the agenda will be filled with items that will have significant impacts on saltwater anglers.

At last week’s council meeting in Mississippi, anticipated action on an amberjack season was pushed back until the April meeting because the stock assessment won’t be ready until March, according to Bob Shipp, council chair. He also said early projections appear to indicate there may be a need for additional restrictions on the amberjack catch in 2011.

“If we do have a closure, it will probably be during snapper season so people will have something to fish for when snapper season is closed,” said Shipp, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama.

As far as red snapper are concerned, there will be several options on the table at the meeting at Perdido Beach Resort, although any major changes to the season would have to go through the council process.

“We will determine whether we go to a two-month season of June and July or whether we can take part of the quota and spread it over weekends in the fall like we did last year,” Shipp said. “We’re going to deal with both of those options in April.”

Shipp also said a pilot program is being considered that would determine fishing effort by “days at sea” instead of pounds of fish caught.

“The way it would work is this – let’s say snapper season is 60 days long – if charter captains wish to go the ‘days at seas’ route, they would get fewer days, say 45, but they could use them any time during the year,” he said. “In effect, that would mean snapper season is open year-round. A lot of the charter captains are enthusiastic about trying it.”

Meanwhile, more news about the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf fishery is expected to trickle in during the year, but Steve Bortone, the Gulf Council’s Executive Director, cautions not to expect any great revelations this soon after the spill.

“Part of the problem is we all know there were some effects,” Bortone said. “But measuring those effects and then trying to decipher what those mean in our management strategies is going to take time. You’d like to think you could stick a thermometer in the Gulf and say now we know this is what happened, but it’s not that easy. There were no fish kills anybody reported, offshore anyway. It wasn’t a healthy environment, but there were no obvious fish kills or impacts right away.

“But we don’t know the long-term effects. Right where the spill occurred is a major bluefin tuna spawning area, and it occurred right at the time when they would have been spawning in that region. But we don’t have the samples to tell whether they were impacted. First of all, were there fewer larvae this year, did spawning actually take place? We have none of those data. Those are the kinds of questions we’re still posing.”

Bortone does think it’s very positive that the Gulf seafood tested so far has come back well below contamination levels considered safe to eat.

“I have to say it’s a good sign that we don’t see any buildup of oil or oil derivatives in the (fish) tissues,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but so far the tests have come back clean. Things are looking up.

“But I suspect the assessing of this, just like the Exxon-Valdez, will go on for five, 10 more years. And I think we need to consider this as a pilot study on oil spills in the Gulf and determine what we need to learn from it. It’s just like a hurricane. Everybody goes out after the hurricane and starts sampling. We need to know now what we should have been sampling to make a fair evaluation.”

Bortone adheres to the theory that no news is good news because word of negative impacts travels much more quickly than positive.

“The fact we’re not getting hit with a lot of bad news gives me hope that maybe it’s better than we thought,” he said. “But we’ll know better in the long term when the pollutants magnify up through the food chain and whether we see fewer spawning fish, fewer eggs and larvae. We don’t know whether the food those species consume has been affected. Those are some of the questions we need answered. We should be getting a lot of good information, but it’s not going to be fast coming.

“It may take three to five years before that year class gets into the fishing community and some of those are being caught. Five years sounds like a long time, but that’s about how long those fish will be fishable. So we should have a pretty good handle around that time.”

Because of the oil spill, the red snapper season in the Gulf mainly consisted of a weekends-only fall season, which got excellent reviews from the anglers who participated.

“That was a surprise, and I was glad to hear that,” Bortone said of the success of the fall season. “It may turn out that the side benefit is a little more of inventive management – fishing on weekends and extending the season. People are on both sides of that issue, but I think there were some fairly positive comments and it may be worth looking at in the future.

“We’ve had good success in rebuilding red snapper stocks. I think we’re getting close to a point to where we have eliminated overfishing and they won’t be overfished. The problem that fishermen have to realize is it’s not like the gates are open and everybody will be able to go after them. They’re going to have to understand that our goal is sustainability, which means caught in perpetuity.”

Bortone used the analogy of a snapper population that had been overfished to the point where there were only 10 fish remaining.

“You could catch one fish a year and that’s sustainable, but that’s not what we’re looking for,” he said. “We also want to optimize the population so people are getting out of it as much as possible. That’s the goal. To get to that point could be quite a while.

“We want to keep improving it so the fish will be larger, the bag limit will be larger and the season will be longer.”

PHOTO: (By David Rainer) The red snapper season will be one to the top items on the agenda for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting April 11-14 at Orange Beach.

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