All five Gulf states have successfully negotiated a compromise to extended the red snapper season in federal waters — signs of a new-found flexibility in Washington Alabama officials are crediting to President Donald Trump’s administration.

For the past several years, the length of the snapper season has been a highly politicized issue along the Gulf Coast, where recreational and commercial snapper fishing are large contributors to the tourism and food production industries.

In federal waters, which start nine miles from the coast, the length of red snapper season is set annually by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council based on assessments of their population in the Gulf.

In 2015 and 2016, NOAA set nine-day seasons — some of the shortest seasons on record until this year, when a three-day snapper season was set in early May.

While the 2017 season — June 1 through June 3 —  has already come and gone, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources provided a glimmer of hope for anglers last week.

Part of the U. S. Department of Commerce, NOAA is under the purvey of newly appointed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Acting ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship said Ross has been far more open to the Gulf states having a bigger role in fisheries management.

“We’ve been working to get the Department to take a fresh look at the red snapper issue here in the Gulf, and we’ve been successful,” he said. “They’ve recognized the disparity between the state and federal government and have agreed to give us the benefit of the doubt this year.”

Blankenship said officials from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas have been in talks with Ross and his staff as well as several U.S. Congressmen — talks aimed at developing a plan that would allow more snapper fishing opportunities in 2017.

On Wednesday, those talks were finalized, and as a result, state and federal waters will be open for red snapper fishing on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays starting June 17. The extended season will run through Labor Day, Sept. 4, 2017, and will include the three-day weekends on the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

In all, the compromise has created a 39-day season in federal waters from one that initially scheduled for just three. While the deeper federal waters are generally considered to be better for snapper fishing, the agreement reached Wednesday does require a reduction in the more-lengthy seasons set for the state-controlled waters.

The 2017 season in Alabama’s waters began May 26 and was scheduled to run through Monday, July 31, but under the agreed compromise, state waters overseen by Alabama and other Gulf states will “close on weekdays” for the remainder of the summer.

Daniel Anderson / Lagniappe

“As part of this agreement to get more federal days, we had to give up some of our state days to make sure we didn’t create a situation where we could overfish,” Blankenship said. “We want it to be good management, and there’s been a certain amount of discussion on what that is.”

According to Blankenship, officials from all four states have been behind the effort for some time, but the methods used to set each state’s season vary, which added some time to the process. In Alabama, ADCNR can simply set the date and bag limit for each season, but states like Florida require those decisions to be made by public commissions.

Despite the good news for fishermen, though, there’s real concern the expanded 2017 season will draw a legal challenge — perhaps before it even has a chance to go into effect.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne told Sean Sullivan on FM Talk 106.5 that similar attempts had been successfully challenged in federal court. He also said there’s little doubt a lawsuit would be filed over extending the 2017 season — either by the “commercial seafood industry” or “one of these big environmental groups.”

However, according to Byrne’s office, the fact that all five states were able to reach an agreement on the length of their individual seasons could help the emergency extension withstand a legal challenge.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Mobile)

“I’m not overly optimistic, but I am cautiously optimistic we can get something worked out for this summer,” Byrne said before the final agreement was reached. “I want to make that very clear — this is just for this summer, not a permanent fix. We still have to have a piece of legislation in order to have a permanent fix.”

In a bit of optimism, though, Byrne said he believes “going through this exercise” could lend momentum to legislative efforts that have failed to deliver a long-term solution to the red snapper issues in the past.

Both Byrne and Blankenship said they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the commitment Ross and his staff have had to work with states toward a compromise — something both said is a change from the rigidity of the previous administration.

“I’m very encouraged by the Trump administration and their willingness to listen to the states. I think because of that, the states have been very forthcoming with them and we’ve tried to work towards a solution,” Blankenship said. “We see this as an opportunity to really reset the dynamics between the states and the federal government on how fisheries are managed.”

While initial feedback from fishermen has been positive, many have concerns with the proposal — some opposed to cutting into the 49-day season set in Alabama waters, and others seeing it as a band-aid on the larger problem.

Others were worried that without changing the methods used to set each season, an increased catch in 2017 might cause overages in pre-set quotas that could adversely affect the length of the 2018 season — especially if a lawsuit challenging the extension is successful.

Blankenship seemed confident that won’t occur, though, adding that the possibility of overfishing was factored in when officials determined the number of fishing days that would be shaved off of Alabama’s season. Plus with the 2017 snapper season limited to just three days, Blankenship said something needed to be done as soon as possible.

“Really, we were at a place where we had three days to fish,” Blankenship said. “If we didn’t do something that changed the dynamic of how these fisheries are managed, I don’t how next year could have been much longer.”

News of Wednesday’s agreement was met with praise from throughout Alabama’s elected leadership, many of whom had implored the Trump Administration to allow states more control in managing Gulf fisheries.

“This is a huge victory for recreational fishermen and our Gulf Coast communities. As soon as the three-day season was announced, my staff and I went to work with other Gulf Coast congressmen to fight for an emergency extension,” Byrne said of today’s announcement. “[This] will provide much-needed relief to our fishermen and help benefit our economy in Coastal Alabama.”

On June 2, 2017, Gov. Kay Ivey sent a letter to Trump asking him to review the data collected by the ADCNR and to consider elongating this year’s red snapper season, and this week, in a statement taking credit for the extension, Ivey claimed to have spoken directly with Trump about the issue at a June 8 White House summit.

“Many thanks are due to the President, Secretary Ross, Congressman Bradley Byrne, Alabama’s congressional delegation and the local Gulf Coast government entities for their fight to increase the length of the red snapper season,” Ivey said.

The three-day 2017 season set my NOAA in May — the shortest ever on record — prompted outrage from many politicians, though, as well as recreational fishermen. Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler happens to be both, and on Wednesday, he combined his praise for the extension with a strong message that more needs to be done.

“There was strong public backlash against the ridiculous three-day fishing set by the Feds. While the weekends ‘compromise’ is much better, the long-term solution is to get Alabama completely out from under federal control and have our state regulate our own fisheries,” Zeigler said in a statement on Wednesday. “Red snapper season could be SIX MONTHS instead of three days under my plan for state fishery management.”

Zeigler also highlighted the disparity state and federal officials have seen in their assessment of the snapper population in the Gulf. He backed his claims up with a statement from Dr. Bob Shipp, a former member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

As he has in previous years, Shipp said he believes local and national efforts to increase the size of the Gulf’s snapper stock in the past have been successful, but the length of the federal season has yet to reflect those improvements.

“Off Alabama, our research indicates we could have a six-month season with a two-snapper bag limit without making a dent in the population,” Shipp wrote. “This is due to our extensive artificial reef program. Such flexibility is impossible under federal management, which tends to treat red snapper as one stock, fished one way.”