By David Rainer
It appears the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will make at least one more attempt at regional management of the red snapper fishery.
At April’s Gulf Council meeting in Birmingham, three states petitioned the council to manage the fishery off their respective coasts out to 200 nautical miles, based on historical landings.
The council approved motions by Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi by 11-5 votes to eventually shift red snapper management to those states.
The 2017 recreational red snapper quota is projected to be about 5.28 million pounds with a little more than 3 million pounds going to the private recreational anglers. However, because the majority of red snapper are now caught in state waters, the federal season is expected to be open for less than a week. Alabama has already announced the red snapper season in state waters out to 9 miles will open on Friday, May 26 and run through July 31, 2017.
Chris Blankenship, who served as Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director for almost six years before being recently promoted to Deputy Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said that motion is only the first step in the amendment process that could take at least a year to develop.
“We have a long way to go,” Blankenship said. “But the motion passed 11-5, which shows there was pretty broad support for doing that.”
The Gulf Council had previously attempted to shift management of the red snapper fishery to the five Gulf States, but after many changes, the amendment strayed so far from the original intent that it was abandoned.
“Amendment 39, the regional management amendment, was similar, but it had gotten so restrictive in what the states would be able to do that it didn’t offer us much in the way of a management opportunity,” Blankenship said. “Starting over with this amendment will hopefully give us an opportunity to craft this in a way that will give us true management flexibility.”
Blankenship said the Gulf Council will come back with an options paper to begin work on the amendment. The process will likely take a year or more before a final vote on the amendment can be held.
Kevin Anson, MRD’s council representative, said with programs like Alabama’s Red Snapper Reporting System, known as Snapper Check, and Louisiana’s LA Creel (Louisiana Recreational Creel Survey), the states will be able to more closely monitor the red snapper catch than the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) survey.
“We can track the landings much more accurately than the federal folks can and in a more timely manner so the seasons can open and close more efficiently and stay within the quotas,” Anson said. “With Snapper Check, we would base our quota on the landings provided by both the private recreational boats and the charter for-hire boats.”
One court ruling will affect the red snapper quotas as well. The commercial reef fish anglers sued NOAA Fisheries after the red snapper allocations for the commercial and recreational sectors were changed in Amendment 28. Previously, the commercial sector received about 51 percent of the allocation, while the recreational sector got 49 percent. Amendment 28 changed the allocation to 51.5 percent recreational and 48.5 percent commercial.
The judge vacated the amendment on the basis that it violated National Standard 4 (management measures must be fair and equitable). Thus, the red snapper allocations will revert to the previous ratio of 49 percent recreational and 51 percent commercial.
Blankenship said during the time the regional management plan is under consideration other efforts will continue through Congress to make changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act to remove the hard quotas that hamstring management efforts.
“As the Gulf Council is working on this amendment and our work with Congress, we hope to have something that will come together in a year-and-a-half or so that would truly give the states the ability to manage outside the box and give people more access to the fishery,” Blankenship said. “The recreational season wasn’t announced, but it alluded that it would be the shortest on record. We just can’t stand by and let it get to this point. So, we made this motion to restart the discussion about state management. I was really surprised at how well it was received by the public on social media.”
Blankenship was pleased with the attendance of the Gulf Council meeting at a venue 275 miles inland from the Alabama coast.
“I was glad we had a good turnout from local fishermen from the Birmingham area,” he said. “Well over a dozen recreational fishermen showed up to speak. It showed the value of having it in Birmingham to give people from that area an opportunity to participate. The gist of their testimony was that they thought the state could do a good job of managing the red snapper fishery. They wanted more days to be able to fish. They have to travel so far to get to the coast. And with the season so short, they can’t get there. They don’t have any access to the fishery.”
As Gulf anglers already know, the gray triggerfish season is closed for all of 2017 because private recreational anglers exceeded the 2016 quota.
Anson said the Gulf Council voted to send Amendment 46 to NOAA Fisheries for approval. The amendment deals with the gray triggerfish rebuilding plan, which includes a change in the closed seasons for 2018. If approved, the triggerfish season would be closed from January 1 through February and June 1 through July 31 in 2018. The bag limit would be one triggerfish per angler with a minimum size limit of 15 inches fork length (measured from tip of the mouth to the fork in the tail).
“The goal was to be able to keep triggerfish open for the rest of the year after it opens back up on August 1,” Anson said. “There was some discussion about leaving the minimum size at 14 inches, but that would not have lengthened the season at all.”
Johnny Greene, captain of the charter boat Intimidator out of Orange Beach and Alabama’s council representative, said the charter industry has been impacted by the closure of the triggerfish and greater amberjack seasons. Amberjack season was closed in March when the quota was met.
“Not having triggerfish and amberjack for the remainder of the year is huge for the charter fleet,” Greene said. “We’re hearing we may get a few more days for red snapper for the charter fleet, which is good news for us. The charter fleet, in the three years we’ve had sector separation, has been under quota each year. It looks like we may get a few more days in an attempt to get closer to our quota.
“The bad news for the private recreational fishermen is the 2016 quota was exceeded by about 129,000 pounds. With almost 80 percent of the red snapper coming from state waters, there’s no way around a shorter federal season.”
Greene said the charter boats are catching plenty of fish but few are going into the fish box. He did say when the triggerfish season does open again, anglers won’t have any problems catching 15-inch fish.
“We’re catching a whole lot of fish, but if it’s big and tastes good, unfortunately we can’t keep most of them,” he said. “The triggerfish are huge. I don’t think anybody will have to measure when it opens back up. We’re catching beeliners and white snapper (red porgy). The king mackerel are starting to show up, and we’re catching yellowfin tuna. We’ve had an early transition to a summertime pattern, and fishing has been really good.”