Photo | Dan Anderson / Lagniappe

The Dauphin Island Sea Lab concluded shorter snapper seasons led more fishermen to take advantage of the time allotment.

Citing a recently published study, scientists at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) believe they’ve proven what coastal anglers have claimed for years: When Alabama fishermen have fewer days to fish for red snapper, more of them fish during the allotment.

“It’s one of those things that probably every fisherman would guess, but we can’t just take a guess,” Sean Powers, a senior marine scientist at DISL told Lagniappe last week. “And more, we need to identify the relationship that explains why that is.”

As part of the study, which was published in December, Powers and co-author Kevin Anson compared lengths of red snapper seasons and anglers’ response to them going back to 2012 by reviewing years of security footage from six of Alabama’s most active public boat launches.

That created a way for researchers to estimate how the number of boat launches per day and the number of overall anglers changed as federal snapper seasons became shorter and shorter. Powers said the study was possible because Alabama’s coastline is shorter and has fewer launch points.

Aside from having access to years of archived footage captured by the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, Powers and his research team were presented with a unique observation opportunity in 2017 — two recreational snapper seasons in one.

After a historically short, three-day recreational snapper season set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had already ended, officials from several Gulf States were able to negotiate a compromise to reopen fishing in federal waters for 39 additional days.

“What we found was that in a short season, sure enough, the daily effort of boats launching was extremely high, and that effort was reduced the more the length of a season increased,” Powers said. “But, if we double the length of season from three days to six, the daily effort isn’t twice as much; just like with a 40-day season, the daily effort isn’t 40 times higher.”

According to Powers, the takeaway from the study is “the longer the season, the less intense the fishing will be,” but the metrics created by observing how Alabama’s recreational fishermen react to the length of the snapper season could have a number of benefits going forward.

He added state officials should be able to plug in any proposed season length and quickly generate a rough estimate of what the average daily effort might look like. Coupled with Alabama’s existing SnapperCheck program, it could help conservation officials support the argument Alabama is capable of monitoring and managing its own resources in the Gulf.

“One of the concerns the federal government has raised is that the state doesn’t have the infrastructure or the expertise to handle that. But I think publishing studies like this shows, at least for Alabama, that we do have that experience and we do have that knowledge,” he added.

The current administration has allowed states to take a more active role in managing their own fisheries through Exempted Fishing Permits, but Alabama was still forced to cut its 2018 recreational season in half after anglers hit established quotas sooner than originally projected.

That said, recent changes at the federal level have eased some of the restrictive regulations on snapper fishing that have been the bane of local fishermen for years. In December, NOAA Fisheries rolled out a proposed increase in annual catch limits and annual catch targets for snapper.

According to the office of Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-1st Congressional District), if the proposal NOAA made is finalized, the catch limit for recreational snapper would increase from 6.7 million pounds to 7.4 million pounds — a 10.45 percent increase across the Gulf of Mexico.

“This increase from NOAA shows exactly what those of us on the Gulf Coast have known for years: the health of the red snapper fishery is incredibly strong,” Byrne wrote last month. “These latest numbers will further drive us to continue fighting for greater state control over the red snapper fishery and a full and an adequate red snapper fishing season.”

Congress was also able to successfully pass legislation specifically aimed at helping private recreational anglers. The Modern Recreational Fisheries Management Act recognizes that recreational anglers should not be subjected to the same regulations that commercial anglers.

The bill, which is still awaiting the signature of President Donald Trump, also directed federal agencies to move toward “a greater incorporation of data, analysis, stock assessments and surveys from state agencies and nongovernmental sources.”