Photo | Daniel Anderson/Lagniappe\

Originally projected to end Sept. 3, the 2018 red snapper fishing
season will end July 22 instead.

Private and professional anglers are shifting plans after the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) announced the season for red snapper fishing will end six weeks early.

Fishing in state waters, which extend nine miles from the coast, was originally projected to continue through weekends until Sept. 3, but now the 2018 season will end for private fishermen and commercial vessels on Sunday, July 22. Charter vessels fishing or traveling through Alabama waters will have to end their season the day before.

In all, the early deadline halved what was projected to be a 47-day recreational snapper season, and as of July 23 possession of red snapper in Alabama waters will be prohibited regardless of where the fish were caught.

While anglers can still fish in federal waters, they’ll have to come ashore in a state open to the landing of red snapper, and must adhere to that state’s fishing rules and not transit with snapper on board in Alabama waters.

There has been some negative reaction to the news, but fishermen who follow the issue closely have known a shorter season was always a possibility. After years of increasingly shorter seasons dictated by federal agencies, Alabama was allowed to manage its own snapper fishery in 2018 and 2019 through an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP).

That EFP was approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service in April based on Alabama’s proposal to follow a self-imposed quota of 984,291 pounds of snapper. ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship told Lagniappe increased participation and larger fish resulted in a daily harvest rate two times higher than in 2017.

Because 2017 rates were used to set the length of the current season, that increase led to Alabama hitting quotas set in its EFP sooner than originally projected. To comply with the EFP, state officials made the call to end the snapper season early, though Blankenship says the first year of the pilot program was a success.

“We’ve said from the beginning we may have to close early, or if we had some of that quota left over we could possibly extend the season,” Blankenship said. “The weather has been very good most every weekend throughout the season, and we’ve had a lot more participation this year. The average-size fish this year was also about two pounds heavier than last year, which is a sign of a healthy fishery.”

While state officials would like the season to last as long as possible, Blankenship said the decision to end snapper fishing early is proof the state can manage its snapper population and do better than the federal system he says has led to reduced fishing in recent years, with little benefit to the fish population.

This year, Alabama employed its Snapper Check program, which was established in 2014. It requires mandatory trip reports from anglers during the season, as opposed to calculating quotas after a season and adjusting the following season’s length to account for overfishing. Snapper Check was a key component of Alabama’s EFP.

“Having our system in place allows us to ensure we don’t overfish the population, whereas in the past, the federal data-collection system has been so antiquated and slow to get results that sometimes the amount of fish would end up much higher than the quota,” he added. “This really shows the management system we have in place can work for us to sustainably manage our own snapper population, which was the point of the EFP.”

While the season may be ending earlier than anticipated, it was only last year that Alabama anglers and charter fishermen were facing a potential three-day season in federal waters — the shortest on record at the time. The 2017 season was extended through a compromise pushed by Gulf leaders including U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne.

Byrne has been a very vocal critic of the federal government’s management of Gulf snapper in previous years and has long pushed for the state to have more control in setting its quotas and season lengths. Despite its ending 24 fishing days ahead of schedule, Byrne said this week the 2018 snapper season was “a huge success.”

“Just a few years ago, we had a nine-day season, and due to the hard work of many, we were able to get 28 days this year,” Byrne said in a written statement. “The closing of the season now shows that states are responsible stewards of our natural resources, and I look forward to a successful 2019 season.”

Because Alabama’s EFP was based on a weight quota, it’s likely the length of next year’s recreational red snapper season could be shortened. However, that decision won’t be made until next spring, and ADCNR has so far given no indication as to how long the 2019 season will run in state waters.