TAMPA — The state and federal recreational angling season for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is long closed, but the controversy over newly proposed federal regulations is just getting started. The battle pits Florida charter boat captains and guides against authorities seeking to save a once-fading fishery that some argue already has been saved.
“We’re catching them like crazy,” said Dylan Hubbard, who works on a boat out of Hubbard’s Marina at Johns Pass. “You can’t get away from them, there are so many out there.”
Federal officials are looking to make changes they say will further help red snapper populations, though for-hire recreational boat captains say the limited quotas and permits, and expensive electronic monitoring devices that would be required on their vessels could put them out of business.
They also disagree with the philosophy of the regulations, which would take the overall recreational quota and split it between for-hire captains who take anglers into the Gulf and those who fish on private boats.
Both sides agree the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico has rebounded immensely since the 1980s, when overfishing and shrimp nets decimated their populations and forced wildlife officials to strictly limit the season and impose harsh quotas. Over the past several years, the bag limit and number of days in the state season for the popular and tasty sport fish harvesting has increased as red snapper became more plentiful.
In federal waters, though, where most of the fishing occurs, the recreational season has dwindled to nine days in June, the fewest it ever has been.
Now a move is afoot to tweak the recovery plan to better coordinate state and federal seasons, and tinker with quotas for the red snapper fishery, which is not fully restored to where it was 30 to 40 years ago.
Anglers chafe at the short federal season now that the snapper population is rebounding; they’re arguing for something closer to the state’s season, which covers Gulf waters within nine miles of the coast, as more realistic. That season lasted 52 days and ended the second week in July.
For-hire vessel captains say their livelihood is at stake.
“There are 500 guide boats in the state that will be affected and 1,500 charter boats and 200 party boats,” said Mark Hubbard, who runs Hubbard’s Marina, which is home to several charter vessels that during the season fish for red snapper mostly in federal waters.
Under the proposed amendments, such for-hire vessels could be required to install a fish-counting system that costs $1,000 to buy and install, and $80 a month for an electronic link to the government’s system, he said.
“It’s wrong,” Hubbard said. “It’s not good for the fishery, it’s not good for the state of Florida. It will put people out of work.”
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The main objection from the for-hire vessel operators is the change that would split the recreational fishermen into private and for-hire sectors. The government maintains that the split will enable a more thorough tracking of the fishery, but charter boat captains say it is an unneeded restriction on their business that will force some to hang up their boat keys. They say a recreational angler is a recreational angler regardless of whether they’re using a private or charter boat.
The number of federally permitted for-hire boats has dropped by more than 300 in the past eight years, according to the NOAA Fisheries Service. Still, Florida for-hire captains last year held the most permits of the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, 804 out of 1,368.
The reduction in permits, the government says, is partly the reason the red snapper fishery has been recovering.
Most of the red snapper harvest comes from Gulf of Mexico waters beyond the nine-mile mark in waters regulated by NOAA Fisheries Service, which takes recommendations from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, said Charlene Ponce, spokeswoman for the council. The council is holding public hearings in all five Gulf states before making its recommendations in the fall, she said.
There are big discrepancies between the federal regulations and those of the states that border the Gulf, she said, and that is among the key issues that need to be addressed to continue the species rebound.
She said the reason the federal red snapper season was only nine days this year is to offset seasons in Texas and Louisiana, which are year-round.
The red snapper fishery is growing, Ponce said.
“It’s still under a rebuilding plan, and there’s a stock assessment coming up next year that will help us understand where it is,” she said.
She confirmed that the council is considering splitting private anglers from charter boat operators and imposing regulations on either or both. Doing that, she said, would provide more flexibility in the management of the two sectors.
Keeping tabs on for-hire boats also would give the council a more complete understanding of what is being caught and where, which would create a better picture of how the red snapper fishery is doing, she said.
In Florida, recreational anglers and commercial fishermen share the fishery almost equally.
“Due to their popularity as table fare and as a sport fish, red snapper populations in the Gulf of Mexico have been overfished since the early 1980s,” said a history of the species posted on the state’s fish and wildlife commission’s website. “Efforts are in place to rebuild the populations throughout the Gulf of Mexico.”
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Regulations for red snapper fishing in the Gulf were overhauled in 2008, reducing the bag limit and cutting the harvest season for recreational anglers in federal and state waters. The red snapper commercial fishery also began implementing a lower quota.
The regulatory measures worked. An assessment of the Gulf red snapper stock in 2009 showed that overfishing had stopped, though scientists said precautions should remain in place until 2032 to fully reinstate red snapper populations.
“This is encouraging news and indicates that the stock is rebuilding,” the commission website said.
In 2010, the NOAA Fisheries Service increased the total allowable catch for the Gulf red snapper fishery from 5 million pounds to nearly 7 million pounds, and lengthened the season to nearly two months. The season has been cut almost every year since then, though, down to the nine days this year.
Recreational fishermen have an ally in Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who in April fired off a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“I am very disappointed ... in how the federal system has been managing red snapper and other fish stocks,” Scott wrote. “The recreational red snapper season in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico will be only a few days this year ... all while anglers have watched red snapper become more abundant as the stock continually improves.”
Public opinion on the issue is being sought by the state and federal governments, as the council is expected to make its recommendations to the NOAA Fisheries Service in October.
The next information session, hosted by the state, is scheduled for 6 to 8:30 p.m. today in the third-floor conference room of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, 100 Eighth Ave. S.E., St. Petersburg. The council also is holding public hearings.
One took place in St. Petersburg two weeks ago; the next two will take place in the next two months in Mississippi and Alabama.
The council can only make recommendations to the NOAA Fisheries Service, which determines the final outcome.
Pat Kelly, president of the Florida Guides Association, said some of the association’s members are against the proposals. If the guides and charter boat captains already have the reef-fish, for-hire federal permits, they likely are not against the changes because they stand to benefit, he said.
Still, he said, the average recreational angler will be hurt, particularly those who can’t afford their own boat to travel 30 or more miles into the Gulf to catch red snapper and must hire one to get to the fishery.
“It’s not fair to the recreational fisherman,” he said. “Not everybody’s got a boat to get out there.”