When folks on the Alabama Gulf Coast heard the announcement of a three-day red snapper season for recreational fishing in federal waters, they reacted as if Coach Nick Saban had announced that the Crimson Tide could only play for three quarters this season.
Five congressmen from Gulf Coast states lined up to call for an extension of the season, including U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne of Fairhope. An outraged Orange Beach City Council promptly passed a resolution suggesting 46 days over several weekends would be much more reasonable. The Baldwin County Commission passed a similar resolution Tuesday morning, and the Dauphin Island Town Council was set to do the same that night. One councilman had received a call from Bayou La Batre about possibly following suit.
Recreational anglers and commercial fishermen, along with federal and state regulators, have long battled over who should have the right to fish where and when. For years, the feds have consistently cut the number of days recreational anglers can have access to federal waters, leading to more arguments about how many red snapper are actually out there.
But the onerous three-day limit, coupled with President Donald Trump’s use of executive orders and directives to overrule federal agencies, seems to have generated more organized resistance.
“First, I am hopeful that under President Donald Trump we can get some relief. President Trump is a big believer in rolling back regulations and getting the government out of the way,” U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne wrote in a recent column. “There is no better example of big government micromanagement and failure than the Red Snapper issue.
“With a new director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, I hope we can get back to longer seasons, more local data and a balanced system that actually works.”
The letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was signed by Byrne, Congressmen Garret Graves (R-Louisiana), Randy Weber (R-Texas), John Carter (R-Texas) and Steven Palazzo (R-Mississippi).
It said, in part, “Our recreational fishermen are being penalized by NOAA for a statistical anomaly. Currently, NOAA’s data says that recreational fishermen exceeded last year’s quota by 129,906 pounds. However, 129,000 pounds represents less than .02 percent of the recreational quota. This decision has no bearing on the health of the stock, and there is no chance NOAA is representing the number with any degree of accuracy.”
Contradictory data collected among federal and state authorities is one of the major points of contention in determining how to regulate red snapper.
Gene Fox is a Dauphin Island councilman, the 2014 president of the Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo and an occasional recreational fisherman himself.
“All the data agree that there’s plenty of these fish out there,” he said. “There are some people who think there’s too many of these fish out there, that they’re harming the environment by having too many of them.”
Recreational fishermen like to schedule vacations around fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and they like red snapper, Fox said. “It’s a good fish to catch and it’s fun. That’s why we get people to plan their vacations on the Alabama Gulf Coast, whether it be Dauphin Island or the beach, Gulf Shores or Grand Bay. It’s an essential part of our tourism mission.”
Fox calls the limit “a horrible example of federal overreach.”
Why would a recreational angler schedule a vacation trip to coastal Alabama and pay all the expenses involved to catch a maximum of two red snapper daily on June 1-3?
He or she probably wouldn’t, Fox said. Recreational anglers do have access to state waters, but the best snapper and best snapper fishing conditions are thought to be in federal waters, in part because of the depth and numbers of reefs.
Typically, anglers will load up a fishing boat with gas and provisions for a whole day and might go as far as 30 miles offshore. They’ll find many different species of fish, including snapper, or they might find king mackerel, a less attractive fish, along with the snapper. “The snapper are just a piece of a bigger picture but they are a really important piece of it,” Fox said.
If fewer people visit Dauphin Island because of fishing restrictions, that damages the economy. Another drawback of the short season is no margin of error for anglers. A bad weather day practically decimates a three-day season.
“We’re afraid that even if there’s bad weather in those three days, that people are going to go anyway,” Fox said. “And they’re going to put themselves, their families and first responders in danger, after they tried to catch snapper for only three days when they probably wouldn’t have done it at any other time.”
Further trouble could be caused by traffic jams and crowded boat launches, he said.
Last week, about 100 people attended a special meeting of the Orange Beach City Council where a resolution calling for an extended recreational red snapper season was passed. Orange Beach contends state data on the actual number of snapper in the Gulf are closer to being right than are federal numbers. The council also made observations similar to Fox’s about the impact of three days of high traffic on highways and waterways.
The council proposes the recreational season be extended to 46 days over a series of weekends.
Not everyone on the Alabama Coast thinks the sky is falling.
Troy Frady is a charter boat captain in Orange Beach who has his complaints about federal regulators. But “Capt. Troy” has served in a number of state and federal capacities involving fisheries management. He admits that he agrees with federal regulators on some issues, and thinks the way the federal government counts fish is more scientifically based than how the states do, which is largely through reporting programs.
But Frady admits unresolved conflicts among federal and state authorities make it difficult to collect accurate data. For example, Alabama allows 66 days of red snapper fishing in state waters while Texas allows red snapper fishing year-round.
“The news media is blowing it all out of proportion and sensationalizing the three-day season,” he said.
In fact, Alabama charter boats have 49 days to operate in federal waters, from the Friday before Memorial Day until July 31. Recreational boaters can operate in state waters as well with no three-day restriction.
But here’s the catch, according to Frady:
“There are an estimated 3 million recreational fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico who are harvesting red snapper in an area nine miles from shore. That is not capable of sustaining that much fishing pressure. And no fish stocks can be found, to the point where they are having trouble recovering.
“Basically, you take 3 million people, you keep them close to shore; they catch everything that’s in there. And the fish stock, in my professional opinion, is not strong enough to repopulate that nine-mile area of coastline.”
Because fish don’t observe state lines or federal boundaries, one can’t say for sure whether a fish counted in Alabama actually came from Florida or which side of the state line it was on when caught.
The federal government would prefer consistent regulation throughout the Gulf. States maintain they know their own waters best and ought to be allowed to regulate fishing as they see fit.
What no one really knows is how many red snapper are swimming the Gulf of Mexico.