Board updated on game, snapper check

Published 9:11 am Wednesday, February 22, 2017

By David Rainer

The initial 2017 meeting of the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board focused on how well Alabama’s hunters and saltwater anglers complied with reporting regulations, and the assessment definitely showed mixed results.

At the meeting recently in Montgomery, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division Director Chuck Sykes and Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director Chris Blankenship provided an overview of the two reporting systems they oversee.

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With the end of deer season fresh on the attendees’ minds, Sykes shared the results of the first season under a mandatory Game Check system, where hunters are now required to report their deer and turkey harvests. During the three years that Game Check was voluntary, the number of deer reported dwindled from 19,000 to 15,000.

Sykes was happy to report that as of February 9, about 81,000 deer harvests had been reported through Game Check for the 2016-2017 season. The WFF staff estimated the rate of compliance at about 35 percent.

“I was cautiously optimistic that our hunters were going to buy into the program,” said Sykes, who personally conducted 44 of the 50 Game Check seminars held last year. “We’re not 100 percent, but it’s lot better than where we were.

“Our staff has conducted some informal surveys. We were betting we would have 20- to 25-percent compliance. It’s looking like it’s better than that. It’s about 35 percent. Thirty-five percent for Alabama in the first year, I think is a monumental success.”

Game Check data showed that there were slightly more bucks than does harvested. With that compliance figure, Sykes said the estimated deer harvest for the just-finished season was about 122,350 bucks and 101,000 does harvested for a total of 223,350 animals.

Sykes would like to see hunters increase the use of the Outdoor Alabama app on their smartphones. About 46 percent of the hunters used the app. About 30 percent used the telephone system, and 24 percent used the Outdoor Alabama website.

Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. applauded the efforts of WFF and Alabama Interactive on the implementation of the Game Check portion of the Outdoor Alabama app.

“Once you get your personal information entered, I don’t think you’ll find an easier reporting system in the nation,” Guy said. “And I want to thank Alabama Interactive. They worked very hard to get what we wanted.”

Guy commended the work done by the directors and staff of the four divisions, WFF, MRD, State Lands and State Parks.

“They create a large economic impact in Alabama. According to recent data, residents and tourists spend $7.5 billion on outdoors-related recreation in Alabama,” Guy said. “That creates $494 million in tax revenue and about 86,000 jobs. It provides more than $2 billion in wages. And none of your tax dollars go to what we do. That is something to be proud of for the hunters and fishermen of our state as well as our agency.

“And I want to thank the (Conservation Advisory) Board for the work they do. Change is always difficult, and I want to thank the Board for their leadership with Game Check.”

The Alabama Mandatory Red Snapper Reporting Program, known as Snapper Check, showed once again that the harvest of red snapper has been significantly overestimated by the federal government, according to Blankenship.

Combining the reporting of Alabama’s charter fleet and private recreational anglers for both the federal and state seasons, the Alabama Snapper Check data estimated that a little more than 1.5 million pounds of snapper were landed in 2016.

The federal estimate through NOAA Fisheries’ survey program indicated that more than 2.7 million pounds were landed in Alabama.

Blankenship pointed out that in the three years the Alabama Snapper Check has been in existence the discrepancy between the estimates has been dramatic. The federal survey has overestimated harvest numbers by 81 percent in 2014, 68 percent in 2015 and 79 percent in 2016. One aspect that should be noted for the 2016 season is that Alabama state waters were extended to 9 miles for the state season. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby has that extension in the budget bill for 2017 as well.

“We are much more confident in our 1.5-million-pound estimate, when you look at the statistics, than their 2.7 million pounds,” Blankenship said. “We feel our estimate is more accurate.

“We needed three years of data to have the (Snapper Check) program certified. We finished our third year in 2016. We have been diligently working with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) to have them use Snapper Check to account for the 2016 Alabama landings, and to use it in 2017 to estimate the landings for Alabama to set the season dates.”

Blankenship said of the three methods used by anglers to report their snapper catch, the touch-tone phone method accounted for only 8 percent, and the data gathered over the phone was not reliable. MRD proposed to the Board that the phone reporting method be deleted for 2017. Blankenship said reporting compliance was about 70 percent for the charter fleet but a disappointing 25 percent from private recreational anglers.

In other news, Blankenship said MRD received $12.5 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for a three-year artificial reef program.

“We just used $2.1 million to refurbish some of our inshore reefs that had been built 20-25 years ago,” he said. “We put new material on those reefs. We built a new 9-acre reef just off of the Grand Hotel at Point Clear.

“Just this week, we partnered with the CCA (Coastal Conservation Association) to build a memorial reef to Bernie Heggeman, a Mobile fisherman who drowned a couple of years ago while on a fishing trip. The CCA and other groups, like the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club, donated $137,000 to help build the reef, and it was just completed this week south of Bayou La Batre.”

Blankenship said an additional $2 million would be spent in 2017 and 2018 on inshore reefs, and work would also be done on offshore reefs, with several 25-foot-tall pyramid reefs scheduled for deployment. MRD will also take bids soon to sink two ships as artificial reefs. He said the division also continues to work with the Army Corps of Engineers on a new artificial reef zone in state waters from 6 to 9 miles offshore. Money has already been set aside to deploy 600 reefs in that zone when the Corps permit is approved.

Blankenship proposed a change in the blue crab fishery because of a decline in the annual harvest in the last several years. The changes would require that all egg-bearing crabs (known as sponge crabs) be immediately returned to the water. The addition of escape rings to the traps would allow undersized crabs to get out of the traps. Another change would require a biodegradable panel on the traps to disable traps that are lost or not checked in 90 days. Also, the king mackerel recreational daily limit would increase to three per person for 2017.

WFF proposed only a few changes for hunting seasons. Calendar dates were the biggest changes, while the regulations for the feral hog special nighttime season from May 1 through August 31 have been clarified. Sykes said no firearms will be allowed during that hog special season unless the hunters or landowners acquire a special permit from the WFF district offices.

Sykes said changes are ahead for the depredation permits for deer, which will now be handled by the WFF Technical Assistance staff instead of Conservation Enforcement Officers. Waterfowl hunters will see a reduction in the pintail bag limit from two birds to one. Also, no changes are proposed for the waterfowl hunting on Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area at the present time, Sykes said.