On the eve of what is arguably the state’s most restrictive recreational fishing season, a floor debate is scheduled in Congress this week to vote on H.R. 1335, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, which includes three notable red snapper reforms authored by U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne of South Alabama.

Generally, H.R. 1335 reauthorizes the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a law last amended in 2006 which sets the policy for the nation’s fisheries, but in a press release last week, Rep. Byrne explained that his three-pronged proposal on red snapper would “repeal inflexible quotas for the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery; extend state water boundaries for each Gulf state to nine nautical miles; and remove data collection and stock assessments from federal control.”

Congress will soon consider a bill that could give states more control of their snapper population.

Congress will soon consider a bill that could give states more control of their snapper population.

In a statement, Byrne said the bill “is about making life a little easier for our area fishermen” and includes “important reforms to give the Gulf states more control over the red snapper fishery.” Byrne has long argued the federal government collects faulty data on the red snapper population and harvest, and calls the formula the “true driver” of the state’s exceedingly brief 10-day recreational fishing season and two fish per person, per day limit.

This season, which begins June 1, will be the second year of Alabama’s Snapper Check program, which requires recreational fishermen in the state to self-report all red snapper kept and discarded dead prior to landing in Alabama. A program of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division, the program is designed “to provide fishery managers timely and accurate data to manage the red snapper resource.”

In initial results gathered last year, the Snapper Check program indicated recreational fishermen in Alabama harvested about 418,000 pounds of red snapper during a nine-day season, which notably is about 623,000 pounds less than the federal government estimated they would harvest in the most recent data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Recreational Information Program.

Under federal regulations, red snapper quotas and seasons have historically been different for the commercial and recreational fishing industries. On April 30, the federal Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council announced a major shift in the 2015 quota by creating a new component within the recreational sector exclusively for charter boat operations, which were previously held to the same limits as individual fishermen.

Typically, NOAA uses population estimates from the Marine Recreational Information Program to determine a maximum allowable catch Gulf-wide. Fifty-one percent of the annual quota is awarded to commercial fishing, while 49 percent is reserved for recreational opportunities. This year, while the Gulf Council increased the quota for both sectors from a total of 11 million pounds to 14.3 million pounds, it also extended a 40-day season to charter boat operations, but limited them to 2.371 million pounds compared to 3.234 million pounds for the private angling component (which includes non-federally permitted for-hire vessels).

No matter what quotas are set or concessions are made for the separate sectors, a representative of Byrne’s office said the system is problematic.

“The number one issue is on the red snapper stuff, and forever will be, pitting one sector against the other,” said Seth Morrow, Byrne’s communications director. “If you get something that’s vehemently opposed by the recreational sector in Washington, there’s just not enough people that care about it, but if you have all the commercial guys opposed to it, there’s less of a chance something will pass because they get [lobbies] involved.”

NOAA Deputy Regional Administrator Andy Strelcheck said it would be against department policy to comment on pending congressional legislation, but defended the agency’s regulation of the commercial red snapper fishing industry, while noting it has partnered with Gulf states to experiment with the accuracy of locally collected data, including Alabama’s Snapper Check program.

“The commercial fishing industry is managed by individual fishing quota programs that take their quotas and divide them among all the (licensed) vessels participating,” Strelcheck said. “They harvest until they exhaust all the limit they are allocated, using real-time data collection and strict reporting requirements. On the recreational side … it’s difficult if not impossible to collect an accurate census from every single angler.”

For recreational data, Strelcheck said NOAA has relied upon dockside and phone surveys. Alabama’s new approach, which is being monitored by NOAA, allows private anglers to report via the Outdoor Alabama Pocket Ranger app available in the iTunes or Google Play app stores, online at outdooralabama.com; by telephone at 1-844-REDSNAP (1-844-733-7627) or by paper forms available at select coastal public boat launches.

Strelcheck suggested individual reporting in Alabama should be straightforward considering its small coastline and few ports of entry, but said voluntary participation in the program last year was limited to about 30 percent of all private anglers.

Chris Blankenship, director of ADCNR’s Marine Resource Division, admitted there was low participation among private anglers, but said 85 percent of charters in the state participated in last year’s survey. To compensate, the state has built in a non-compliance multiplier.

“That’s the second part of our program — that our officers and biologists out working are inspecting vessels and when we see red snapper, capture that information and look for a corresponding report,” Blankenship said. “For those that aren’t reporting, we’ll use that percentage of non-compliance and add it to the reported totals for a more accurate picture.”

In addition to officers collecting data in the field and self-reporting, the state will use technology like dockside cameras to record the number of offshore departures and arrivals each day of the season.

Meanwhile, in a statement of administration policy, President Barack Obama has vowed to veto H.R. 1335, arguing current regulations “are working.”

Obama claims the proposed changes “would impose arbitrary and unnecessary requirements that would harm the environment and the economy,” adding “the Magnuson-Stevens Act currently provides the flexibility needed to effectively manage the nation’s marine commercial, recreational and subsistence fisheries. In contrast, H.R. 1335 would undermine the use of science-based actions to end and prevent overfishing.”

Specifically mentioning red snapper, Obama’s statement suggested the proposed two-mile extension of Alabama’s, Mississippi’s and Louisiana’s jurisdictions “would create an untenable situation where recreational and commercial fishermen fishing side-by-side would be subject to different regulatory regimes. Absent an agreement among the states as to how to allocate recreationally caught red snapper, the bill would encourage interstate conflict and jeopardize the sustainability of this Gulf-wide resource.”

Morrow said the President’s statement is unfounded. Both Blankenship and Strelcheck admitted the Gulf population of red snapper was extremely stressed as recently as 20 years ago, but Blankenship said abundant local evidence suggests the species has rebounded, and the federal government is slow to acknowledge it.

“It’s the most popular saltwater offshore fish and when the season was longer it had a huge impact,” he said, arguing that the state successfully manages wildlife both on land and at sea. “The population was lower in the ‘90s so the fishery needed to be regulated and it has worked well. Now we have new data indicating a different environment.”

While Strelcheck acknowledged a “tremendous growth” in the Gulf’s red snapper population, he suggested both state budgets and data collection methodologies should be sound before assuming control.

If you tease apart the (state) estimates, [the data] gets a little more complicated,” he said. “But we’re reviewing that data and information and working with the state of Alabama and others to provide expertise to improve their survey to be even more robust. We are working closely with them to design those surveys and ultimately if they go forward, we will want to review them and be able to calibrate it, so to speak.”

Blankenship said he wasn’t aware of state data on the economic impact of recreational red snapper fishing but anecdotally, short seasons and low limits have hampered opportunities.

“We think the season should be longer and limits should be higher,” he said. “There is always anticipation for the start of red snapper season but the 10-day window has dampened it.”