Gulf anglers worst red snapper fears realized

Photo courtesy NOAA.org

Photo courtesy NOAA.org

The worst fears of recreational anglers were realized on April 10 when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council requested an 11-day red snapper season.

The Council had planned on a 40-day red snapper season, from June 1-July 10, in federal waters of the Gulf. Under the new scenario, the season would be June 1-11.

The 11-day season proposed at a meeting in Baton Rouge, La., was the result of a lawsuit that we wrote about two weeks ago in which the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service has violated the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act by not seeking better ways to manage the Gulf’s red snapper population.

The lawsuit, which was filed by commercial fishing interests last June, claimed that overharvest of red snapper by recreational anglers in recent years has hurt commercial and recreational fishing as well as fishing communities and those who like to buy and eat fresh red snapper. The suit challenged NMFS regulations that set quotas and fishing season lengths for recreational anglers.

The court ruled that federal red snapper management plans had to be able to prevent the recreational catch from exceeding its allotted quota. The deadline for the council to do that is May 15.

The council decided that an 11-day season was the best way to make sure that does not happen this year.

The council is asking NMFS to implement an emergency rule. According to the council, an 11-day season would establish a 20-percent buffer on the recreational red snapper quota, which is 5.39 million pounds, and only a 15-percent probability that the quota will be exceeded. If all goes according to council plans, the recreational catch would be 4.312 million pounds.

There was some “good” news: The daily bag limit will remain two fish per person. And, to their credit, council members rejected a proposal for a 30-percent buffer that would result in an eight-day season.

The council noted that its proposed 11-day season takes into account longer seasons in Florida, Texas and Louisiana. Alabama and Mississippi abide by federal seasons in their state waters.

Texas has a year-round red snapper season in state waters. Florida has proposed a 52-day season in state waters that would start on May 24 so anglers can fish over Memorial Day weekend. That proposal will be voted on this month by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries immediately responded to the council’s proposed season by announcing a year-round recreational red snapper season in state waters that takes effect on April 14. Recreational fishing for red snapper in Louisiana’s state waters had been on weekends only. That announcement could shorten the 11-day federal season.

Those state regulations highlight a concern of many recreational anglers that federal fishery managers have grossly underestimated the Gulf’s red snapper population. They point to the recreational catch quota being reached so quickly as proof that there is an abundance of large red snapper in the Gulf.

Commercial interests, which include restaurants that sell red snapper, insist that recreational anglers are catching way too many snappers and need to be restricted. They support individual fishing quotas for the recreational sector. Commercial red snapper fishermen have individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, which allow them to catch and sell the fish until they have reached their quotas. Most recreational anglers are opposed to IFQs because they believe the IFQs will go to special interests and they will end up not being allowed to catch any red snapper. The council did decide at the meeting to develop an IFQ plan for Gulf charter boats.

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Steve Waters has been the outdoors writer for the Sun Sentinel since August of 1990. He got his start in journalism in Charleston, S.C., where he was a sportswriter and covered sailing. In his spare time, he fished for striped bass on the famed Santee-Cooper lakes with one of the high school football coaches he knew and later bought a bass boat so he could fish there on his own. When his sports editor at his next paper, The Tuscaloosa News, found out he had a boat, he asked him if he wanted to cover the outdoors in addition to covering the Crimson Tide. It wasn't long before Waters realized that writing about fishing was way more fun than covering Alabama football. He went on to cover the outdoors for two more newspapers and a TV station, as well as sports ranging from golf and baseball to NASCAR and the NHL, before writing full-time about fishing, boating, sailing, diving, hunting, powerboat racing and environmental issues for the Sun Sentinel.

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