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Red Snapper Season Turmoil Continues

February 21, 2013

By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
 
 
Whether Gulf Coast anglers get the proposed 27-day red snapper season, the shortest in history, remains to be seen. It could get a little better, but it also could get a whole lot worse.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) currently projects anglers, who are increasingly catching bigger and bigger snapper, will reach their recreational quota of 4.145 million pounds in less than a month.

The two factors that could increase or decrease the number of days anglers can catch snapper are a new red snapper stock assessment that is expected in April or May and a decision by several Gulf states on whether to comply with the federal regulations in their state waters. State waters extend 9 miles from the coasts in Texas and Florida, while Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have a 3-mile boundary. Louisiana has petitioned the courts to extend its boundary to more than 10 miles (3 marine leagues), but the courts have rebuffed the effort at this point.

During the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting held recently in Mobile, the compliance issue was at the forefront of the council’s business. Texas has not amended its rules for state waters to coincide with federal regulations for years. Now, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has voted to open its state waters from March 24 through September for weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) only with a daily bag limit of three fish with a minimum length of 16 inches. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) proposed a 44-day recreational season for state waters from June 1 through July 14. The FWC will make a final decision on the red snapper season at its April meeting.

Dr. Roy Crabtree, NMFS’s Southeast Regional Administrator, realized the repercussions of the rebellion and introduced a motion for an emergency rule to deal with states in noncompliance. Those states would have reduced fishing days in federal waters offshore of the respective states. The first vote failed, but Crabtree continued his argument during a closed council session. Subsequently, the original motion was reconsidered and passed by a 9-7 margin despite rigorous opposition from Texas and Louisiana.

Chris Blankenship, Alabama Marine Resources Director, said had the emergency rule not passed, it could have had devastating effects on the Alabama snapper season.

“Having some consequences for those states in noncompliance is good for the fishermen in Alabama,” Blankenship said. “With Texas having a full season for years, all that factors into the quota, and that has cost Alabama fishermen days in the past.”

Blankenship said noncompliance by Louisiana would hurt, but if Florida’s decision for a 44-day season in state waters stands, the federal red snapper season potentially could be cut in half.

“Had the council not added the consequences for noncompliance and Florida decides to have their season outside the federal season, we could be looking at a 12- or 13-day season for Alabama fishermen,” he said. “Since they passed the emergency rule, it will limit the number of days for red snapper season in federal waters adjacent to Florida. We’re hopeful it won’t affect the season off Alabama.

“States are posturing to do what’s best for them, and then states like us are trying to protect our fishermen and protect our access.”

Dr. Bob Shipp, who sits on the Gulf council, said noncompliance by Florida would have a much greater effect on the snapper season than noncompliance by Louisiana or Texas.

“If Florida goes noncompliant, it’s a different ball game,” Shipp said. “It’s entirely possible that Florida, in state waters with a long season and liberal bag limit, could catch the entire quota. There wouldn’t be a fishery Gulf-wide. Then the whole system would collapse, I think.”

Shipp admits it’s frustrating to see such a short snapper season proposed, but he was uncomfortable with a proposed longer season with a reduced bag limit.

“We do have plenty of fish, but the way the rules are and the way the Magnuson-Stevens Act is written, we’re suffering,” said Shipp, who recently announced his plans to retire from his position as head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama (USA). “I wavered on the issue of a longer season with a one-fish bag limit. But we heard from a lot of people who said it just would not be worth the time or expense to go out and catch one fish.

“We hate to have a shortened 20-day season. On the other hand, we are going to get a new stock assessment. Everybody is anticipating that it’s going to be positive and the quotas will be raised. Although the numbers won’t be available in time to lengthen this season, if the numbers come in really good, we might be able to reopen the season later in the year. It all depends on the stock assessment. Everybody is keeping their fingers crossed.”

Blankenship said the updated stock assessment may offer a bit of relief but it likely won’t be an accurate appraisal of the red snapper population.

“During the June council meeting, they may be able to add more days, depending on what Louisiana does, what Florida does and what the stock assessment shows,” Blankenship said. “I’m optimistic that the stock assessment is going to be better, but I’m not optimistic that it’s going to be right. I still think we’ve got a long way to go for National Marine Fisheries Service to get a true picture.

Through his numerous research trips into the Gulf, Shipp is convinced the projections by the NMFS computer models do not reflect the actual status of red snapper, considering the number of artificial reefs and oil and gas structures that provide essential fish habitat.

“I’m totally convinced that we’re not in a rebuilding phase,” he said. “We’ve gone far beyond rebuilding, far beyond historical levels, but that’s because we’ve created so much habitat. The way the law reads, we have to build the stock to whatever capacity we have in the Gulf. But that’s one of the other problems. Off Alabama, we have about 17,000 artificial structures. Off Texas or southwest Florida, they don’t have that habitat. That’s why, if we were able to manage by state, we would have a much longer season, and we wouldn’t do harm to our stock at all. But the way the law reads, the Gulf must be managed pretty much as a single unit.”

Amendment 39 that the council discussed would be an effort at regional management of the fish stocks, but Shipp doesn’t see that as a viable answer.

“The regional management we talked about still suffers from the one major flaw, which is the overall quota would still be set by the feds,” he said. “The only way regional management is going to make a difference is if the states are allowed to set their individual quota. If we could get jurisdiction out to 20 fathoms (120 feet), for example, I think that would solve most of our problems. Snapper are found out to 100 fathoms, so 80 fathoms of habitat and fish stocks would be protected. The other part of that is the states have a far better record historically of managing stocks than the federal government.”

Marcus Kennedy, an avid recreational fisherman from Mobile, may have summarized it best when he said a complete generation of future fishermen is on the verge of being lost due to overregulation.

“Red snapper are the bread and butter of our near-shore saltwater fishing experience,” Kennedy said. “In our area they are plentiful, relatively close to shore, big, easy to catch, great to eat, and provide significant motivation for kids to get in a boat and go fish. I have the experience, equipment, time, money, and expertise to target other species year round, but a great majority of fishermen are not like me. If they can’t hop in a 20-foot boat, go 10 miles out and depend on catching (and keeping) a reasonable mess of red snapper, they are not going. …We must have at least six months of access to red snapper here to have any hope for the future.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) The average size of red snapper caught by anglers in the Gulf of Mexico has doubled in recent years, which has caused the annual quota of 4.1 million pounds to be reached in fewer days. The National Marine Fisheries Service projects a 27-day season for 2013, starting June 1. Other factors may determine whether the season is shorter or days can be added later in the year.

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