Much to the dismay of many sport fisherman and charter boat owners, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council recommended an 11-day season for recreational red snapper fishing this year.
The decision on the season, which begins June 1, isn’t officially finalized, but is likely to get shorter before it gets longer.
An emergency recommendation for a shortened season came during a committee meeting last week, and the full council approved the decision April 10.
In late 2013, a 40-day season was announced, but a lawsuit filed by several commercial fishers and environmental groups left the council no choice but to drastically shorten the season.
U.S District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein ruled against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in late March for allowing recreational fishers in the Gulf of Mexico to go over their portion of the red snapper quota for six of the last seven years.
Rothstein also noted the NMFS failed to prohibit the harvesting of fish, even though it was aware the yearly recreational quota had already been met — a violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
The judge’s ruling mandated the Gulf committee to take appropriate action to mitigate any overages during the 2014 season and develop long-term accountability measures for the future.
“The council was basically faced with (having) to make a very short-term change to accountability measures that could be implemented before June 1,” NMFS Southeast Regional Office Administrator Roy Crabtree said. “We calculate the season length based on an annual catch target. The target was reduced through a 20 percent buffer, which enabled the council to reduce the chance of exceeding the quota.”
The buffer prevents over-fishing, which translates to a significantly shorter federal season.
Despite a small window, Crabtree said there’s still a 15 percent chance of the recreational fishing sector exceeding its quota.
The season restrictions only apply to federal waters, which means states can determine their own seasonal guidelines. In the past, Texas, which has nine miles of state waterways, has allowed red snapper fishing all year.
However, Alabama and Mississippi, which only have three miles of state waterways, have traditionally complied with federal regulations. Louisiana announced last week that it too would have a yearlong red snapper season in its state waters, and Florida is currently considering a similar option.
“If that happens, we’re likely not going to have a federal season at all,” said Dr. Bob Shipp, a member of the Gulf council and chairman of the Marine Sciences Department at the University of South Alabama. “I’ve spoken to officials in Florida and they’re planning to meet (April 16). Right now they’re looking at a 52-day season.”
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne introduced a stand-alone bill last week that would repeal the portion of the Magnuson-Stevens Act dealing with fishing quotas, on which the recent lawsuit was based.
Byrne said an 11-day snapper season would be devastating to coastal communities that are dependent on the fishing industry, but it will take time before his bill has a chance to come before the entire House.
In the meantime, recreational fishermen are quickly making adjustments to their vacation schedules and business plans.
“I’ve actually held off on a lot of the trips I book because of the federal court ruling,” charter boat captain Shane Cantrell said. “I wasn’t going to book them and then have to give back deposits. I still have people that want to fish for snapper, but we’re going to have find something else to catch.”
The Alabama Charter Fishing Association, formerly known as the Orange Beach Charter Fishing Association, is hoping to implement an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) program that would allow state charter boats to fish year round.
According to the NMFS, Alabama charter boats haven’t over-caught their portion of the recreational quota in the last decade. The EFP program would allow charter boat professionals to fish up to a certain amount of red snapper at any time during the year.
“There’s roughly 100 charter boats in Alabama, and we’ve been working on this for at least two and half years,” said Tom Steber, president of the ACFA. “We’ve compiled the average NMFS says we’ve caught from 2011-2013, and asked to fish for that amount so we won’t be tied to the rest of the Gulf.”
To qualify for the program a fisherman would have to have a current Alabama charter license, a federal reef permit and has to fish for a living. The Gulf council approved the ACFA’s request to use an EFP accountability system, which now has to be approved by the NMFS. If it gets the final approval, Alabama charter boat operators would hopefully be exempted from the seasonal system beginning in 2015.
Currently, the yearly total of red snapper is approximately 11 million pounds, which is split between commercial fishermen — who get 51 percent —and recreational fishermen — who get 49 percent.
Commercial vessels are required by federal regulations to install geographical monitoring systems and are also only allowed to sell their catch to authorized dealers. Those factors have kept the industry from exceeding its red snapper quota in several years.
“Nobody wants an 11-day season,” said John Schmidt, a board member of the Gulf Fisherman’s Association. “But the way recreational fishing has been managed doesn’t work, and no one has done anything to find ways to make it work like we have on the commercial side.”
The recreational sector currently uses size limits (a 16-inch minimum), bag limits (two fish per person) and limited seasons to control its quota, a system that has proven to be unsuccessful.
According to the lawsuit, the recreational sector’s 2009 quota was 2.4 million pounds but they brought in 5.6 million, exceeding the 75-day season quota by 2.2 million pounds (88 percent).
In 2012, the recreational quota was set at 3.9 million pounds, and during the 44-day season the quota was exceeded by1.2 million pounds (30 percent).
Despite over-fishing, the increase in artificial structures in the Gulf of Mexico has led to what marine biologists consider to be a very healthy and abundant red snapper fishery.
“The irony is there are so many fish and they’re so big. That’s why the fisherman are blowing through the quota so fast,” Shipp said. “The commercial fishermen aren’t hurting at all because each shareholder has a specific quota and they can fish all year long. The recreational quota is inadequate.”
One of the long-term solutions proposed during last week’s meetings would use a 25-75 split between the commercial and recreational sectors for any allowable catches after 9.12 million pounds have been harvested.
The total quota of 11 million pounds could be increased by next season following a stock assessment scheduled for December 2014, but Shipp doesn’t think that’ll help much.
“As long as we’re fishing on quota systems, we’re going to run into the same problems,” he said. “One way to fix it would be to turn management of the fishery over to the states, because each state has a different number of snapper.”
Shipp said another sensible solution would be to get rid of the quota system, but limit fishing to a certain percentage of area that houses the red snapper population.
The shortest red snapper season in history is slated to kick off June 1, but fishermen around the Gulf are hopeful the changes in policy could lead to a more manageable system in the seasons to come.