Good news, bad news for snapper fishermen

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 4, 2016

By David Rainer

Alabama’s private recreational anglers who enjoy red snapper fishing will have only one weekend to pursue the state’s signature reef fish in federal waters, much to the chagrin of anglers and state fisheries officials alike.

The good news is that, after consulting with Gov. Robert Bentley and Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr., Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship announced this week that Alabama will have a red snapper season in state waters that will start on May 27 and run through July 31. The daily bag limit is two fish with a minimum length of 16 inches.

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The federal season for private recreational anglers starts on June 1 and runs through June 9 with the same daily bag and length limits. The season for federally permitted for-hire (charter) boats is June 1 through July 16.

“This short federal red snapper season for private recreational boats is obviously disappointing and shows the need for the states to be able to manage that fishery and provide more access to our fishermen,” Blankenship said.

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL) echoed Blankenship’s sentiments.

“A nine-day red snapper season for recreational fishermen is simply not acceptable,” Byrne said. “The derby-style season creates unsafe conditions by forcing fishermen to go out regardless of the conditions. There are plenty of red snapper in the Gulf, but the federal government continues to use outdated and ineffective methods to sample for the fish. A short season is bad for fishermen, but it also hurts our coastal communities.”

The feedback Blankenship has received from recreational anglers has been what he expected.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people who think this short season is ridiculous and that something needs to be changed,” he said. “We did a survey a couple of weeks ago and asked if they thought Alabama could do a better job of managing the red snapper fisheries than the federal government. More than 95 percent of the people who responded felt the state could do a better job.”

NOAA Fisheries (aka National Marine Fisheries Service) arrived at the nine-day federal season with data gathered from its Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), a headboat survey and creel surveys from Louisiana and Texas.

Alabama conducts its own survey through the mandatory Snapper Check program, which has indicated the NOAA Fisheries estimates of the number of snapper landed in Alabama is grossly overestimated.

The Alabama Snapper Check program is mandatory for anglers who return to an Alabama port. Marine Resources also uses cameras at the public boat ramps to count vessel launches to help validate its catch estimates. The catch for the nine-day 2014 season reported through Alabama’s Snapper Check was 455,522 pounds, while the feds estimated the total at 1,227,469 pounds. The results from the Snapper Check program for the 2015 season indicated 1,045,043 pounds of red snapper were landed at Alabama ports. NOAA Fisheries’ MRIP estimated the red snapper landed in Alabama at 2,355,481 pounds.

“We’re working to get our Snapper Check certified this year so it will be used for setting the season in 2017,” Blankenship said.

There’s more good news about the state season. Anglers who are fishing the state season when the federal season is closed are not going to have to keep looking over their shoulders to see if a federal enforcement boat is approaching.

“Our state season will be for state waters out to 9 miles,” Blankenship said. “There is no controversy this year on that distance, thanks to Senator (Richard) Shelby including that in the budget bill.”

Of the federal red snapper quota, commercial fishermen and the recreational sector, both private and for-hire, split a 14-million pound quota. NOAA Fisheries removes a 20-percent buffer from the recreational quota to avoid going over the quota. Private recreational anglers will get 3.32 million pounds and the for-hire (charter) sector will get 2.43 million pounds.

Relief for the recreational anglers doesn’t appear to be forthcoming in the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council process, so Blankenship has turned to Alabama’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., for assistance.

“We are still working through Congress to get state control of the red snapper fishery,” he said. “There are several bills that achieve that goal. That’s where it’s going to happen.”

What would make Blankenship happy is if Congress would pass legislation to give the Gulf states the ability to do the red snapper stock assessment and totally manage the fishery out to the 200-mile limit.

“There is a better way, and it means taking power away from the federal government and empowering the Gulf states,” said Congressman Byrne. “The House has passed a bill that included my reforms to do exactly that, but sadly the bill is stuck in the Senate. I continue to call on the Senate to take up this important legislation that would help get us a real snapper season again.”

Because of Alabama’s renowned artificial reef program, about 35 percent of the red snapper caught in the Gulf are landed in Alabama.

“These limited seasons are definitely growing the population of red snapper,” Blankenship said. “There’s plenty of fish and plenty of nice fish. But we’re also seeing many more people fishing for inshore species than we used to. I think part of that is that they can’t fish for red snapper but a few days a year so they’re diversifying their fishing activity.”

One of those anglers who diversified his fishing activity is Mark Jones of Mobile. Jones is heavily involved in the recreational fishing sector as a private angler and the owner of Mark’s Bait Shop on Dauphin Island.

Jones said one benefit of a short private recreational season is that red snapper are getting bigger and bigger. The downside is many anglers and businesses are adversely affected.

“Being in the bait business also, it’s going to hurt us as far as people snapper fishing,” Jones said. “They’re not going to buy cigar minnows or ice because they don’t go fishing as much. I know people are selling their Gulf boats and downsizing to speckled trout fishing.

“Now I think we’re going to put a lot more pressure on the speckled trout and flounder. For the five years I’ve been selling bait, the boats going inshore fishing have tripled. I think you’ll start seeing those limits change in the future.”

Like almost every private recreational angler I’ve talked to, Jones said the short snapper season just doesn’t make sense.

“I think it’s sad,” he said. “What happens during the six or eight days if we have 25-knot winds and 7-foot seas? We don’t get those days back. We’re done.”

Jones and some of his fishing buddies are going further into the Gulf to catch other species, but they invariably will catch big red snapper even though they are targeting other species.

Blankenship cautions those who venture out during red snapper season to remember that the seasons for amberjack and triggerfish close on June 1 and reopen on Aug. 1. Grouper is closed in June and reopens on July 1.

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