Snapper anglers have reason to see red
#474 (In Topic #239)
In 2007, the recreational fishing season for red snapper in federally controlled waters of the Gulf of Mexico was 194 days, with anglers limited to retaining no more than two 16-inch or longer snapper per day.
Over those six-plus months, according to the harvest estimates used by the federal fisheries agency charged by Congress with rebuilding the Gulf's red snapper stock after it had fallen to record lows in the 1990s, recreational anglers landed 5.8 million pounds of these highly sought-after reef fish.
This year, federal officials have set the Gulf-wide allowable catch of red snapper for the recreational fishery at 7.19 million pounds. That is the highest total since annual catch limits were first imposed in 1997 to limit harvest to a level allowing red snapper to continue what has been a stunningly rapid and significant recovery of a fishery not so long ago on the verge of collapse. The daily bag limit during the federal season, which opens June 1, remains at two red snapper per day with a 16-inch minimum length.
So, how long will the red snapper season for recreational anglers fishing from private boats in federally controlled Gulf waters be this year?
No more than nine days and maybe as few as six.
That is the projection offered last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries branch, the agency charged with setting regulations governing fishing in federally controlled waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
At nine days, the season will equal the shortest red snapper season recreational anglers fishing from private boats have seen; the 2014 recreational season was nine days, one day shorter than the 10-day 2015 red snapper season for anglers fishing federally controlled waters from private boats.
More fish, fewer days
The seeming illogic of such increasingly draconian restrictions on recreational anglers, especially when all evidence - empirical and anecdotal - indicates the red snapper population in the Gulf is expanding in some areas to levels not seen in decades, underscores just what a convoluted and contentious train wreck red snapper management has become over the past 20-plus years.
But that is pretty much what you'd expect with a fish underpinning much of the Gulf's offshore recreational fishing and a highly valued commercial fishery, with private anglers, charter/for-hire businesses catering to recreational anglers and commercial fishing operations vying to get and keep access to what they see as their part of the fishery.
The announcement of projected length of the 2016 federal-waters recreational fishing season for red snapper came last week during a meeting in Austin of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, a group that includes fisheries managers from the five Gulf state's fisheries agencies and representatives of the commercial and recreational fishing sectors. The Gulf Council develops and recommends fisheries management actions to NOAA Fisheries which has final say on rule changes. And red snapper-related issues were, as always, the dominant topic.
A final decision on the length of the recreational fishing season for red snapper in Gulf water under federal jurisdiction hinges on how many red snapper regulators estimate will be taken from Gulf waters under state control. And that number will be different this year as Gulf states, chaffing at the increasingly tight federal season length, open more waters to recreational snapper fishing outside the federal season.
States weigh in
This year, all five Gulf states will hold "state-water" snapper seasons that run outside the federal season. And, with the blessing of Congress, those waters will extend to nine nautical miles off the shore of all Gulf states; previously, only Texas and Florida had jurisdiction to nine nautical miles with Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama jurisdiction extending to three nautical miles.
The extra few miles of Gulf water are not likely to have a great impact on the number of snapper landed; red snapper are a deep-water fish, seldom found in any concentrations in the relatively shallow waters inside state jurisdiction. But those "extra" snapper will be counted as part of the recreational catch quota that federal regulators set for the Gulf.
Keeping recreational anglers within that quota is what is driving the ever-decreasing length of the recreational snapper season. Under federal rules, season length is determined by estimating how many days it will take anglers to land the total weight of snapper they are allowed. That number has been decreasing over the past few years for a couple of reasons. With more snapper in the Gulf, anglers are catching their two-fish limits quicker. And the fish they are keeping are larger.
Also, while the annual recreational fishing quota - the so-called "allowable catch limit" - has increased, the actual total weight of snapper used to set the season length has decreased. Part of that is a result of a federal lawsuit, pushed by commercial snapper interests, to force federal regulators to set rules preventing recreational anglers from overshooting their annual catch limits. Harvest data indicated recreational anglers annually were almost taking far more snapper than the quota. (That 5.8 million pounds of snapper recreational anglers landed in 2007 was 2.6 million pounds over the quota.)
The numbers game
To prevent recreational anglers from overshooting their annual allowable catch, federal regulators now set the annual recreational "catch target" at 20 percent below the allowable "catch limit," and use that lower number to figure season length. With the 20 percent "buffer," this year's recreational snapper quota of 7.19 million pounds drops to 5.75 million pounds.
For anglers who fish for snapper from private boats, it is further reduced by what has become one of the most controversial moves in snapper management - dividing the recreational fishery into two parts: those who fish from private boats and those who fish from charter/for-hire boats. This "sector separation," pushed by most of the owners of 1,250 charter boats that fish under federal reef-fish permits required of for-hire boats that take customers fishing for red snapper, divides the recreational red snapper quota between the two groups. Anglers fishing from private boats are allocated 57.7 percent of the recreational catch limit with the charter/for-hire operations allocated 42.3 percent. This year, private-boat anglers' portion of the recreational catch limit is about 3.32 million pounds, with the charter/for-hire sector allocated about 2.43 million pounds.
Using those numbers, federal fisheries officials project private-boat anglers will land their annual allotment of snapper in six to nine days. The charter-for-hire season is projected to run 38 to 56 days.
Even if sector separation was not in effect (and there is a continuing court challenge to the rule), the 2016 recreational snapper season would run only 12 to 17 days. And, according to federal estimates, even if all Gulf states abandoned their "state water" snapper seasons and were in full compliance with federal seasons and bag limits, the private-boat recreational season would run no more than 17 days.
The effect of the steady erosion of federal-water snapper season on Texas' offshore anglers who fish from private boats has been sobering. The short length of the season and its timing in early June, a period when seas off Texas are more often than not too rough for safe boating, has dramatically reduced the number of anglers targeting the fish.
Texas feeling the pain
Less than 20 years ago, Texas fishers accounted for 20 to 25 percent of the red snapper taken by recreational anglers fishing in U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In 2015, according to preliminary landings data, Texas private-boat anglers landed an estimated 163,700 pounds of red snapper, or only a little more than 4 percent of the red snapper taken by recreational anglers fishing in Gulf waters.
If that is not depressing enough, the U.S. Coast Guard estimates Mexico-based commercial fishers illegally fishing in U.S. waters off south Texas are annually poaching as much as 1 million pounds of red snapper, six times as much as Texas' private-boat recreational anglers legally land.
Texas' offshore anglers who enjoy targeting red snapper could use some good news. Sadly, it doesn't look like they will see any this year.
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