By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Fishing buddy Todd Kercher posted a video last weekend that many feel justifies the significant extension of the red snapper season for private recreational anglers in federal waters.
Todd took his family out in the Gulf of Mexico to catch a limit of snapper, two per person with a 16-inch minimum. What he captured on video was what many snapper anglers have been screaming for the past few years.
As Todd tells one family member that they have a limit in the boat, they start throwing the leftover bait into the water.
A red snapper feeding frenzy ensued with 10- to 15-pound red snapper attacking the bait with such fervor that they were coming completely out of the water, skying as Todd called it.
The reason Todd and his family were able to enjoy the phenomenal red snapper fishing was the result of a unified effort by a diverse group that included the affected anglers, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Alabama Congressmen, city councils and mayors in Gulf Coast communities and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
When NOAA Fisheries announced earlier this year that the private recreational sector would only get a three-day season, the above groups were disgusted to the point of anger.
A little more than a month ago, the groups began to come together to encourage the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and subsequently NOAA Fisheries, to reconsider the season in federal waters.
Those efforts paid off last week when NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf states reached an agreement that if the states forego snapper seasons in state waters out to the 9-mile boundary Mondays through Thursdays, the federal private recreational season would be extended from three days for an additional 39 days. The season is set for each Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Labor Day and includes July 3-4 and Labor Day. The charter-for-hire’s 49-day season, which runs through July 19, and the commercial sector’s IFQ (Individual Fishing Quota) system are not affected.
Chris Blankenship, who has gone from Alabama Marine Resources Director to DCNR Deputy Commissioner to Acting DCNR Commissioner this year, said the negotiations have been in progress for much longer than a month.
“We started trying to work with the new administration not long after (Commerce) Secretary (Wilbur) Ross was appointed,” Blankenship said. “That has been very beneficial. Congressman (Bradley) Byrne also lined up the help from other Gulf Coast Representatives, like Steve Scalise and Garrett Graves from Louisiana, Matt Gaetz from Florida and Steve Palazzo from Mississippi. They met with the Secretary’s staff to urge them to extend the red snapper days.
“Then Governor Ivey sent a letter to the White House and actually talked to President Trump about red snapper while she was in Washington for a meeting about infrastructure. Then we had resolutions from Orange Beach, Dauphin Island and the Baldwin County Commission, along with a letter from Senator (Luther) Strange. It was a very concerted effort to get this extra time.”
Blankenship believes the main reason the Commerce Department responded to the requests of such a diverse group was the unified message.
“We were all asking for the same thing,” he said. “We wanted weekends, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. All the resolutions and letters were very similar. I think having that good community effort and single message helped this to be a success.”
Orange Beach City Councilman Jeff Boyd echoed Blankenship’s assessment of the teamwork.
“I think this is the greatest indication that the average voice was heard,” Boyd said of the extension. “It was heard all the way to the White House and Department of Commerce across many states. It showed that a team effort can absolutely be successful.
“Congressman Byrne was just by here, and we were talking about the work done by Chris Blankenship, Governor Ivey, Senator Strange’s letter and Senator (Richard) Shelby in the budget hearings. With that, we were able to gain enough momentum and energy to make it happen. I think it was wonderful.”
Boyd’s constituency includes a great number of private recreational fishermen and one of the largest charter fleets on the Gulf Coast. He said some are extremely happy and some apprehensive.
“From the private rec guys, there’s nothing but ecstatic excitement,” Boyd said. “From the charter guys, they’re worried about what it might do to them next year.”
Boyd said Blankenship was a crucial coordinator to make the snapper season extension a reality.
“Chris can’t get enough kudos,” Boyd said. “He’s the quiet hero who brought other state commissioners to the table. It’s hard enough to get a family to agree on anything, much less four different commissioners from four other states with different agendas.”
Blankenship said negotiations for the extension included several options including Saturday and Sunday, plus the holidays, but the addition of Fridays to the season prevailed.
“In order to get Fridays, the five states had to agree that they would not open a season in the fall,” Blankenship said. “Alabama and Florida felt it was more important to get the 39 days and not have a fall season. Mississippi and Louisiana agreed to do the same thing. Texas catches a very small percentage, ½ of 1 percent, of the quota during their fall season. So we were able to work out the details for 39 days, primarily through the cooperation of Alabama and Florida, which account for the majority of the red snapper catch.
“We realize not everybody is happy about giving up some of the state days. But we surrendered 23 days in state waters, where we have hundreds of (artificial) reefs, to get 39 days in federal waters, where we have thousands and thousands of reefs. We thought that was a fair trade.”
Blankenship hopes this process will reset the way the Gulf states work with the Commerce Department and NOAA Fisheries.
“All the states felt like this was a new opportunity, not just for 2017 but the future, to work with Congress and the Department of Commerce to find long-term solutions,” he said.
Blankenship said Rep. Scalise, who is recovering from a serious gunshot wound in an assassination attempt last week, was at the forefront of the negotiations.
“We pray for his speedy recovery,” Blankenship said. “This is an important issue to him. We hope he will get back to work soon. We look forward to working with him, as the Majority Whip, to pass a long-term fix in Congress.”
Blankenship said without the data gathered through the Alabama Red Snapper Reporting System, known as Snapper Check, the argument for an extension would likely have not been considered by Commerce.
“To the Commerce Department’s credit, they gave states the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “They compared the data from Snapper Check and MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program). They were open to looking at the data. They recognized the disparity in the data and decided the private recreational fishermen needed some relief. It was a bold move on their part and very appreciated by the recreational fishermen.”
One of those private recreational anglers is Marcus Kennedy of Mobile, who made it clear he felt the private rec guys were “getting the short end of the stick” in my column a little more than a month ago. When we talked last Friday, he had just returned from a quick trip into the Gulf to catch a limit of snapper.
“It looked like a normal weekend, which is good,” Kennedy said of the number of boats in the artificial reef zones. “When you’ve got the season spread out, you won’t have everybody trying to get out at the same time.
“I think this is the best we could have hoped for. We basically traded the remaining state days for 39 days in federal waters. I’ll take the federal season every time. That’s good for Alabama.”
Kennedy agrees that the Snapper Check data is far more accurate than the federal estimate.
“The state catch surveys have consistently been two to three times less than NOAA’s catch estimate,” he said. “Therefore, this season is more in line with what the actual catches are instead of the inflated numbers NOAA has been using. Everybody I fish with is glad we got the extension, but they know it’s not a long-term solution, and we’re probably going to have to go through the same fight next year.”
To be ready for further negotiations, Blankenship said it is crucial that Alabama anglers report all their catches through Snapper Check, which offers three ways to comply. The easiest way, by far, is to use the Outdoor Alabama app for smartphones. Online reporting is available at www.outdooralabama.com, and paper reporting slips are located at select boat ramps.
Major Scott Bannon, Acting Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, explains Snapper Check and its importance to red snapper management in the linked video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVpiZDgkVyw or www.facebook.com/OfficialOutdoorAlabama/videos/10155510628354885/.
Kennedy said there is an abundance of large snapper, 25-plus-pounds, and plenty of 2- to 4-pound snapper on the reefs he’s fished lately. And he’s glad he doesn’t have to stay in state waters to fish for Alabama’s premier reef fish.
“It’s bad when you have to cram it all into one weekend, when the weather might be bad,” he said. “Now we can breathe a little easier and not be under the stress that you have to go. It’s supposed to be an enjoyable outing. You want to go when the weather is nice, not when the federal government says you have to go.”