Recreational red snapper fishing, all but snuffed out by shortened seasons and restrictive daily limits, recently got a shot in the arm from Congress.
The Congressional Omnibus Appropriations Bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in December has a provision extending Alabama’s state waters out nine miles into the Gulf of Mexico for the purpose of reef fish management, well beyond the previous three-mile limit. That means state officials, not federal officials, will control the snapper season and limit as far as nine miles from the Alabama coastline.
The bill also includes provisions for changes in the way federal fishery managers collect data to determine the size of the red snapper population and requires federal officials to use a third party to conduct a fisheries stock assessment.
“Red snapper is the most economically important fishery for coastal Alabama,” Gunter Guy, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said in a news release. “The extension of our state waters from three to nine miles and the third-party stock assessment for red snapper that includes information from artificial reefs should go a long way in changing the dynamic of red snapper management and should lead to more days of fishing opportunities for Alabama anglers. Alabama has the best artificial reef system and the best red snapper fishery in the country.”
The change is in effect for the term of the appropriations bill, which expires in September. But it would be extended if Congress passes a continuing resolution as it often does. The change makes the state waters of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana consistent in distance with Florida and Texas, whose state waters already reach nine miles from their coastlines.
The provisions pertaining to red snapper in the appropriations bill were authored by Sen. Richard Shelby, the powerful Republican from Tuscaloosa.
“We simply see it as a fairness issue,” said Chris Blankenship, director of the Division of Marine Resources. “All the five states should manage the same length of water. We’re appreciative of Senator Shelby for making that work, at least temporarily.”
Rep. Bradley Byrne, the Republican congressman from Fairhope who has been an outspoken critic of the way the federal government has managed red snapper, said the changes are good. But it’s not enough.
“While it is good news that Alabama’s state waters will be extended to nine nautical miles for this upcoming red snapper season, this is just a starting point,” Byrne said. “The Senate needs to pass the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which I helped get through the House last year. This bill would make the nine nautical mile state boundaries permanent while also repealing the inflexible quotas and removing data collection/stock assessments from federal control.”
Alabama’s charter fleet, an important part of tourism on the Gulf Coast, was hit hard by the short seasons and restrictive limits. Extended state waters and an expanded season should mean more opportunities for anglers, said Herb Malone, president and CEO of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
“It should help us,” Malone said. “There’s not an overabundance of fishing spots within nine miles but there are more than there are within three miles.”
Malone welcomes the change. But he believes the real answer lies in changing the way federal officials gather the data on which seasons and limits are based. He’d rather see anglers restricted by the range of their boats rather than the limits of state authority.
“That’s the way it should be,” he said.
Steve Kittrell, the former University of South Alabama baseball coach, is a snapper fishing enthusiast who has been frustrated by the short seasons and restrictive limits.
“That’s a good thing,” he said about the changes, “I think this is great to have at least nine miles. I’m sure there are spots out there I can find.”
While the changes are good, they aren’t ideal for Kittrell.
“The problem I have is that most of my snapper spots are 11 to 12 miles out,” he said.
He’d like to see the federal season become less restrictive and would like an additional snapper added to the limit. An alternative would be to allow fishing for other reef species, like amberjack, during the snapper season.
The Magnuson Stevens Act was originally enacted during the 1970s to protect marine resources. It set goals to restore overfished species to historic levels. Federal regulations on red snapper have become increasingly restrictive since the act was amended in 1996 and again in 2006.
Just a decade ago, recreational anglers could fish from May through October and keep up to four fish a day in federal waters. Federal officials gradually tightened the noose until anglers were allowed as few as nine days and could keep only two fish per day.
“We’re all unhappy with the way the red snapper have been managed by the federal government,” Blankenship said.
State biologists and advocates for recreational anglers argue that the way federal officials determine the number of red snapper in the Gulf — stock assessments — is flawed. They say federal officials underestimate the number of fish in the Gulf and the amount of habitat available to Gulf reef fish and overestimate the number of snapper recreational anglers catch.
Out of frustration, state officials unilaterally declared two years ago that state waters extended nine miles into the Gulf and set a more generous state season. Federal officials only recognized state authority over an area extending three miles from the coast.
In other words, as far as state officials were concerned anglers could follow the state regulations up to nine miles out. But if they got caught snapper fishing by federal enforcement officers when the federal season was out in the area between three and nine miles from the coast, anglers could be subject to federal fines. This year, anglers won’t have to worry about that as long as the state season is in and they are within nine miles of the coast.
“It’ll be nice this year that when we have a state season they can know that the federal government recognizes state waters out to nine miles, too,” Blankenship said. “They can be comfortable that they’re not doing something they shouldn’t be doing and having to look over their shoulder. That will be a nice thing for our citizens.”
Federal officials might be forced to recognize the nine-mile limit but it doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.
“NOAA has not been supportive of any of the states gaining territory,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship wouldn’t say yet what state control of a larger area would mean. In the past, the state has frequently set its red snapper season to match the federal season and limit.
“I probably wouldn’t want to put anything out right now,” Blankenship said. “I wouldn’t even want to put a number out there.”
The Gulf Fisheries Management Council will meet later this month and it will be making an important decision regarding a proposal to allow for regional management of the red snapper stock. The proposal would divide the annual federal quota for snapper among the five Gulf States. The states would then present proposals to the National Marine Fisheries Service for how they would manage their portion of the quota.
Blankenship wants to see what the Gulf Fisheries Management Council decides as well as look at federal stock assessments and see what kind of season is set for federal waters before making a decision regarding a possible Alabama state season. It may be April before all of that happens.