After years of butting heads with regulators, Alabama has taken a big step toward managing the recreational fishing of red snapper in its adjacent federal waters for the first time in decades.
Though it would only be a two-year pilot program, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted last week to allow all five Gulf states to manage recreational snapper fishing off their respective coasts through individual Exempted Fishing Permits (EFPs).
The decision comes after years of shorter and shorter snapper seasons that frustrated anglers and commercial fisherman alike until a consortium of Gulf leaders negotiated a compromise through U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that extended the season last year.
In 2015 and 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) set nine-day federal seasons, and before last year’s agreement, recreational snapper fishing was limited to just three days in 2017 — prompting outrage and even protests from some Gulf anglers.
Like the 2017 extended season, if Alabama’s EFP gets a final approval from NOAA, the majority of the 46-day 2018 season would take place on weekends — running from June 1 to September 2 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and the entire week on the Fourth of July. It would run concurrently in state waters and in federal waters, which begin nine miles off the coast.
Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Blankenship worked closely with federal officials on the state’s EFP and told Lagniappe he’s fairly confident the plan will be approved given the support it’s seen at the federal level.
More importantly, he believes marine specialists at the state level have put together a plan that will be a safe and sustainable alternative to the shortened federal seasons seen in recent years.
“The work Alabama has done on red snapper research, artificial reef building and the implementation of the Alabama Snapper Check program has positioned us to be very successful at sustainably managing the red snapper fishery off our coast,” Blankenship said. “[This] will give us the opportunity to prove we can manage this fishery in a way that works best for Alabama fishermen and related businesses.”
The pilot program May give state officials an opportunity to prove what they’ve been claiming for years — that Alabama can manage the snapper fishery in its own waters and beyond. However, Blankenship said the plan couldn’t have gotten this far without support in Washington, D.C.
Specifically, Sen. Richard Shelby added language to a 2017 appropriations bill that directed NOAA to develop the pilot program allowing the EFPs over the next two years. On the other side of the Hill, Rep. Bradley Byrne has been vocally supportive of state red snapper management for years. He also penned a letter to NOAA supporting Alabama’s EFP last year.
In its response to Byrne’s letter, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Chris Oliver wrote last month that NOAA “expects to issue the EFP in Spring of 2018” following a 30-day public comment period once it has been listed in the Federal Register. He added he was personally “supportive” of Alabama’s efforts to take over the management of its own fisheries.
When the 2017 season was extended, both the Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) filed a lawsuit to prevent it — claiming those changes were both “illegal” and set the length of the season well beyond what was sustainable for the fishery.
A judge issued a stay in that case late last year, and at this point, it’s unclear how or if the lawsuit will move forward given the expected changes to the upcoming season.
Matt Tinning, senior director of EDF’s Oceans Program, has expressed support for the pilot program but also raised some concerns about how the anticipated changes could impact charter boat captains who’ve been working separately to stabilize their own seasons and develop an updated fishery management plans.
Tinning said EDF’s primary concern is those charter boat captains who don’t wish to participate in the season outlined in Alabama EFP be “treated fairly.”
“EDF has long called for innovations in the way we manage recreational fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and we applaud those who are considering new approaches,” Tinning wrote. “We support this two-year opportunity for the states to show that they can manage their private red snapper anglers under the conservation tenets of [federal law].”
Moving forward, Tinning said EDF would be prepared to provide support to NMFS, state fishery leaders and fishermen as the “complex discussions necessary to resolve the remaining issues.”
Updated on Feb. 10: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the lawsuit EDF filed against the Department of Commerce in 2017 had been dismissed.