Setting the red snapper season off the Alabama Gulf Coast has had more twists and turns than the Barber Motorsports race course.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) first set the season at 40 days, but that was just the drop of the green flag.
Then came the ruling from a federal judge in Washington, D.C., on a lawsuit brought by several commercial fishermen with the aid of the Environmental Defense Fund. The judge ruled that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries (aka National Marine Fisheries Service or NMFS) had not properly handled the years the recreational sector had exceeded its quota, a 49-percent share of the total quota.
Because the judge ruled the recreational sector must stay within its portion of the quota in 2014, the Gulf Council had to redo its recommendation to comply with the judge’s ruling. A larger buffer was instituted, which takes pounds off the top of the quota. Plus, NMFS decided to use the 2013 landing rates from the new, unproven MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program) instead of using the rates from the previous system.
An 11-day season was recommended by the Gulf Council at its meeting this spring in Baton Rouge. However, after the 11-day season was announced, Louisiana rebelled and decided to expand their state-only season to year-round with a two-fish bag limit.
That makes Louisiana, Texas and Florida all non-compliant with federal regulations. Texas has maintained a year-round snapper fishery for years in state waters, and Florida has already opened its state waters to red snapper fishing. Both Texas and Florida have 9-mile boundaries for state waters. Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have 3-mile boundaries for state waters.
Because of those states that have bucked the system, NOAA Fisheries set the federal season at nine days, starting June 1.
“Those states having snapper seasons outside the federal season decreases the number of days the federal waters are open, because they account for the catch from state waters in the overall quota,” said Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division.
“With a season that short, we are considering a number of options to deal with this situation,” Blankenship said. “The Alabama Legislature passed our bill to extend state waters to 9 miles. We’re working with Congressman (Bradley) Byrne and others in our congressional delegation to have these additional waters federally recognized, and they are very receptive to that. I’ve met with Congressman Byrne the last two weeks, and he is working to build a coalition of other Gulf Coast legislators in Washington to help get that passed.”
One of the options Marine Resources is proceeding with is its own data-collection system for red snapper. The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board voted recently to approve the red snapper reporting system proposed by Marine Resources.
NOAA Fisheries’ data collection has been a point of contention for many years, and it changed the way the data was collected in 2013, which skewed the numbers severely. Blankenship said the federal survey has produced wild swings in estimates of harvest from 400,000 pounds to last year’s 4 million pounds.
“The way (the survey) is managed by the federal government makes the data inaccurate,” Blankenship said. “That is the largest topic of conversation of fishermen in Alabama. Even NOAA Fisheries is not confident in the results. Since they changed the system in 2013, the catch rates per day were up drastically. They did not run the new system along with the old system to have some comparable data. It’s not just in Alabama. NOAA Fisheries is not overly confident with the landings numbers in 2013. But they feel they are required to use those numbers because of the ruling in the lawsuit.
“Using those 2013 numbers has had a drastic impact on the length of the season. By implementing our own reporting system, we will be able to have a true picture of what’s being caught off Alabama. We won’t have to extrapolate the data from a telephone survey, and all the things that go into the way the feds do it. We’ll have a much more accurate picture of what’s really being caught off Alabama.”
Alabama’s red snapper reporting system will include a Smartphone app similar to Game Check that will require easy-to-input information. For those who don’t have a Smartphone, a toll-free number (1-844-REDSNAP) will be available for touch-tone phones. Drop-boxes will also be available for use at Boggy Point, Cotton Bayou, Fort Morgan, Billy Goat Hole on Dauphin Island and the ramp at Bayou La Batre, Blankenship said
Marine Resources will be able to use boat ramps as data collection sites because of Alabama’s limited shoreline and small number of boat ramps. Anglers using the drop-box reporting method will fill out paper forms with a carbon copy with their catch information. Anglers will tear off the carbon copy and keep it for their records. Those reporting catches of red snapper will need their boat registration number, how many people were onboard and how many red snapper were caught and kept.
Blankenship said there hasn’t been any negative feedback on the state reporting system for red snapper.
“We’ve had real good consensus,” he said. “Everybody is so unhappy with the way the federal government is managing this fishery, not only with the stock assessment but also the data collection. We know having this information from the fishermen in Alabama will help us as we try to take over state management of this fishery. And we’ll have landings data with a much higher confidence level even if we have to stay under management by NOAA Fisheries, which should help reduce the buffer that NOAA takes off the top of the quota.”
Blankenship said the stock assessment done by the feds needs improvement as well, which is why Alabama is working on its own stock assessment.
“Dr. Sean Power, Dr. Will Patterson (both from the University of South Alabama) and John Mareska of Marine Resources are on the Gulf Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, and they’re working to get more information included in the federal stock assessment from Alabama’s work on artificial reefs,” Blankenship said. “We’ve got about 17,000 artificial reefs off Alabama. The artificial reefs off Alabama produce so many red snapper that they’re moving to places that traditionally haven’t had red snapper, like the shelf off of Florida and northwest Florida. Florida has started a good artificial reef program as well.
“I can tell you there are more red snapper out there in the Gulf than we’ve ever had since I’ve been involved in the fishery. And I started as a 14-year-old teenager working on charter boats. It’s time for the federal science to catch up with reality. In Alabama, we know what we have. Our staff and the scientists we work with at the local universities are working to produce that information in a peer-reviewed way to show what’s really out there.”
Although Marine Resources is working on the problem on a number of different fronts, including state management of red snapper, Blankenship realizes the frustration anglers have with such a short 2014 season.
“This year is indeed a crisis,” he said. “This has brought a lot of people together so that we can work toward a long-term solution. Things we are trying to do in Alabama are gaining traction in other states. There’s not a lot of good news for 2014. I think this is going to be a very difficult year, but we are truly working to fix this long-term so we won’t keep having these conversations every spring. We want this fixed, and we want to be managing this fishery so we can do it right.”
Bob Shipp, a member of the Gulf Council and the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board, is in favor of turning the management of red snapper over to each Gulf state.
“State control makes sense because the snapper stocks, and other fish, are different off each state,” said Shipp, who is retiring as head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama this year. “In Alabama, we probably have the healthiest snapper stock of any state in the Gulf. We could have a longer season and larger bag limit than states like Texas and Mississippi. The states have a great history of fisheries management, and they would do a far better job than what we have now. The current system is just insane, absolutely insane.”
Images courtesy David Rainer