The hotly contested debate over the allocation of red snapper fishing rights in the Gulf of Mexico was revisited in downtown Mobile on Tuesday, March 11. Both sides of the argument – commercial and recreational anglers – were given the opportunity to express their views at the Renaissance Riverview Plaza.

The gathering took place during a public forum hosted by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. The group – which recommends actions to the National Marine Fisheries Service for implementation — is holding these events from Florida to Louisiana. The purpose is to get input on proposed changes as to how the coveted red snapper are allowed to be caught.

The current allocation of red snapper in the Gulf was established in 1990 through Reef Fish Amendment No. 1. This breaks downs the haul as 51 percent for commercial fishermen and 49 percent for recreational. These figures were based on the historical average of red snapper landings from 1979 through 1987.

A rebuilding plan for red snapper stock began in 1997. The newest amendment – No. 48 – is an attempt by the council “to evaluate and possibly adjust the allocation of red snapper between the commercial and recreational sectors.”

Dr. Assane Diagne discusses the red snapper allocation alternatives during a public hearing Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at the Renaissance Riverview Plaza in Mobile, Ala.

Dr. Assane Diagne discusses the red snapper allocation alternatives during a public hearing Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at the Renaissance Riverview Plaza in Mobile, Ala.

“We are here for a single issue, and that is red snapper,” said Dr. Assane Diagne, an economist with the council. “We hope to increase net benefits from red snapper fishing, and to increase the stability of the recreational sector.”

A crowd of approximately 45 listened to Diagne discuss the seven alternatives suggested by the council at its meeting in February. The first option was to keep the quota at its current level.

The next three alternatives, Diagne said, would shift the allocations. The suggestions would be to increase the recreational sector by either 3, 5 to 10 percent.

The final three alternatives concern the allocation of quota increases. Of these possibilities, the council came out and said it preferred Alternative No. 5. The council described it as follows:

“If the red snapper quota is less than or equal to 9.12 million pounds, maintain the commercial and recreational red snapper allocations at 51 percent and 49 percent of the red snapper quota, respectively. If the red snapper quota is greater than 9.12 million pounds, allocate 75 percent of the amount in excess of 9.12 million pounds to the recreational sector and 25 percent to the commercial sector. Based on a red snapper quota of 11 million pounds, resulting allocations to the commercial and recreational sectors are 5.121 million pounds and 5.879 million pounds, respectively.”

Kevin Anson, one of the 17 members of the council who chaired Tuesday’s meeting, went on to explain how calculations are made to arrive at these projections. Anson, chief biologist with the Marine Resources Division of Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, added that fishing rules issued by individual Gulf Coast states can affect the overall federal figures.

The floor was then opened for public comments. Opinions for and against changing the current quotas were offered.

Ben Fairey, who operates a charter boat, believes no changes are needed at this time. He said a federal lawsuit has been filed over the recreational fishermen who keep going over their quota without any penalty. The commercial fishermen, he added, have stayed under their allotment. “We just need to all work together,” he said. “This is about accountability.”

Donald Waters, a commercial fisherman who had just docked his boat in Pensacola prior to the meeting, said red snapper is the last main food fish, and that it is wrong to allocate only 51 percent to consumers. He also complained about regulations, such as those not allowing him to give his mother a fish off his boat, unless he bought it back from a market. “It just doesn’t add up,” he said.

Edwin Lamberth spoke for the recreational anglers. He said there is a $10 billion industry stemming from recreational fishing, when boat dealers and tackle shops are included. He countered that the commercial fishermen only contribute a small percentage of that total. “I don’t agree that 51 percent of a public resource should go to just 400 people,” Lamberth said. “There is accountability to pay a fair share.”

George Nall, who owns a watersports business in Mobile, said the current rules have hurt the local economy. He said there has been a major decrease in the number of offshore boats sold in the last five years to recreational fishermen. “I have employees who depend on us to sell boats,” he said. “The reduction of recreational fishing days has hit us in the wallet.”

But the entire night was not all conflict. Several speakers at the end pushed for cooperation between all those involved.

“These rules are putting commercial, charter-for-hire and recreational (anglers) against each other,” said Tom Steber, who represents a charter fishing association. “Until the government gets the data correct, we can’t get anything done. They need to count the fish, because there are so many red snapper out there.”

Avery Bates, a fifth-generation commercial fisherman and vice president of the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama, closed the night by saying everyone needs to work together to solve the red snapper situation.

“There may be only 400 commercial fisherman, but look how few farmers there are in Alabama,” he said. “They produce a lot, just like the commercial fishermen do. We need regulations to keep us all in business, and not pit us against each other.”

Public meetings will continue until March 24. For those unable to attend any meeting but still wishing to make a comment, they can visit www.gulfcouncil.org. A summary of the gathering in Mobile will also be posted on the website.

The Council is scheduled to vote on Amendment 28 in the spring. Any changes would not go into effect until 2015.