It’s common sense for snapper fishers

Published 9:24 am Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Chris Blankenship, director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, is on a mission, and the next month may be crucial to the outcome of his ultimate goal.

Blankenship was in Silver Spring, Md., and Washington, D.C., last week to continue spreading Alabama’s common-sense approach to the management of the fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Blankenship and the directors of the marine resources divisions of the other four Gulf states visited with senators, representatives and congressional staffers this week on a variety of issues that affect fisheries, especially the red snapper fishery, which has been the center of controversy for the last decade. At present, the red snapper fishery has a short private recreational season in federal waters. The federal snapper season for 2017 has not been set, but it is not expected to be much different than the 2016 dates.

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“The meetings in Washington were to discuss the issues that are facing us with the Gulf fisheries. Primarily, that deals with red snapper and federal fisheries management. Rep. Bradley Byrne has reintroduced legislation that would take away some of the strict quotas. That would give us some flexibility, which is what we need to get away from these short seasons and find some other management strategies.”

One of the goals in Washington is to get Alabama’s state waters border set permanently to 9 miles. Sen. Richard Shelby added a provision in last year’s budget resolution that extended that border to 9 miles, but it expires with the budget. Blankenship hopes Alabama’s Congressional delegation can find a way to keep from having to add that provision to the budget bill each year.

“That would allow us more state management of the reef fish (snapper, grouper, triggerfish, etc.) fisheries,” Blankenship said. “And we’re hoping Congress will make changes in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that will give NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) more flexibility in the way it manages the fisheries. We want NOAA to move away from hard quotas and move to other management strategies that would change overfishing limits and still build healthy fisheries while allowing more access.

“These trips have been vital to getting some things done. We have great advocates in Congressman Byrne and Senator Shelby. They have been great to work with. Representative (Martha) Roby is also very engaging on the fishery issues.”

Blankenship also met with Alabama’s newest member in the U.S. Senate, former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who took new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ seat in the Senate.

“I enjoyed the opportunity to sit down with Sen. Strange and his new staff and go through some of the difficulties we have with the federal government in managing these fisheries and educate him so that he will continue the advocacy we had with Sen. Sessions.”

“I also went to Silver Spring, Md., on Monday to meet with NOAA Fisheries Senior Staff,” Blankenship said.

The trip to Silver Spring was to promote Alabama’s method of determining the amount of red snapper that are caught off the Alabama coast. Alabama is known for its unparalleled red snapper fishing, but Marine Resources contends that NOAA has been drastically overestimating the amount of snapper landed in Alabama each year, which leads to extremely restrictive seasons for the recreational sector. Alabama’s mandatory Red Snapper Reporting Program, otherwise known as Snapper Check, has been in effect for three years.

The Alabama Snapper Check data estimated that a little more than 1.5 million pounds of snapper were landed in 2016 by the recreational sector, which is the charter fleet and private recreational anglers, during both the federal and state seasons.

NOAA Fisheries’ survey program estimated that more than 2.7 million pounds were landed in Alabama. The overestimated catch has been consistent for the three years Snapper Check has been in existence. NOAA Fisheries overestimated harvest numbers by 81 percent in 2014, 68 percent in 2015 and 79 percent in 2016. Blankenship said when the statistics are examined, Alabama is much more confident in the Snapper Check estimate of 1.5 million pounds than the fed’s 2.7 million pounds.

Now that Snapper Check has accumulated three years of data, Blankenship has petitioned NOAA Fisheries (aka National Marine Fisheries Service) to certify Snapper Check and use Alabama Marine Resources data to determine the 2016 Alabama landings as well as use the Snapper Check numbers to set the season dates for 2017.

Blankenship is hopeful that NOAA will be able to provide a timely determination for Snapper Check’s certification and implementation in management decisions.

“They have been very receptive to our program,” he said. “We’ve been responsive to their input, and we feel like it’s more of a formal process to get it certified. We have no reason to think it wouldn’t be certified since we have worked with them and their consultants all through the process.

“And we had a chance to talk to NOAA about the future of their agency under the new administration and any changes to the way they will operate.  The Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, was confirmed the day we were in Silver Spring.  Now that there is a Commerce Secretary, the other appointed positions in NOAA can be filled.  It is a little early to see who may be appointed head of NOAA Fisheries and how that appointment will shape the agency moving forward.  I promise that I will work diligently with the new NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries to help move the agency in the right direction.”

One important item on the NOAA meeting agenda was a push for more fish stock assessments in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’re continuing to press NOAA about what we view as the poor amount of stock assessments in the Gulf compared to other parts of the country,” he said. “We want to keep the pressure on to equitably divide the stock assessment effort so that Gulf species will be given the same priority as the species from the Northeast, Northwest and Alaska.”

Blankenship said a perfect example is the gray triggerfish rebuilding plan, which has shut down the recreational season for triggerfish for all of 2017.

“We’re totally disappointed in the stock assessment on gray triggerfish,” he said. “Most of this could be fixed, if we could get better stock assessments. It’s not fair for fishermen to be stuck with poor stock assessments because NOAA doesn’t allocate enough resources to do the work in the Gulf of Mexico. The next gray triggerfish stock assessment is not scheduled until 2019. The trip to Silver Spring was to keep our Alabama and Gulf of Mexico issues from getting lost in the transition to a new administration.

“When we have most all of the Gulf state directors there, it provides a good unified front on what needs to be done for better fisheries management in the Gulf.”

Alabama will have a chance to witness the tedious process of fisheries management when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council holds its next meeting at the Hyatt Regency at the Galleria in Birmingham April 3-6, 2017.

“This is the first time in a long time we’ve had a Gulf Council meeting in Alabama in a place other than the Gulf Coast,” Blankenship said. “I’m glad we’re having a meeting there. So many people from central Alabama have houses or condos at the beach, where they come down to fish on their own boats or on charter boats. A lot of people who take advantage of the fishery don’t live on the Gulf Coast. We should have a meeting every once in a while in those areas where people can participate in the Gulf Council process and see how well it works or how well it doesn’t work.”