Snapper season opens Sunday in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But you better not blink, because it shuts down again just nine days later.
"When you take weather into consideration, that will probably only give us four or five days to fish," said Dave Bayes, an avid angler who manages an offshore fishing specialty shop called Dog Fish Tackle in Seminole. "The fishermen down here in Tampa Bay feel like the runt of the litter. No fish for us."
If you are a red snapper fishermen who lives in the Florida Panhandle, where these prized sportfish can be readily found inside the 9-mile state waters, you are already catching red snapper. The state season opened May 24 and runs for 52 days.
But if you fish off the coast of west-central Florida, you can't find red snapper that close to shore. You have to run 40 miles out, well into federal waters — and thus subject to federal restrictions — to find them.
This species, prized for its fighting ability and flaky, white flesh, is managed by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administrations Fisheries Service. But the federal agency has no control over state waters, resulting to two sets of rules.
The federal season, the one that matters here, was supposed to last 40 days. But a lawsuit filed by some commercial fishermen in Texas derailed those plans.
The state, however, decided to stick to its original plans, meaning fishing within the 9-mile barrier is allowed for the 52-day season.
"This matter was brought to our attention," said Amanda Nally, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "The commissioners kept all of these factors in mind and decided to stick with the 52-day season to maximize fishing opportunities for all Floridians."
Florida isn't the only state to go its own way. Texas and Louisiana both extended red snapper season in state waters to 365 days a year. Louisiana also wants to have its state waters, which extend only 3 miles offshore, extended to 9 miles (like Florida) so it can have more control over snapper stocks in its waters. These inconsistent state seasons account for about half of the recreational quota.
"It has created a lot of problems," said Roy Crabtree, southeast regional director of the NOAA Fisheries Service. "It has created difficulties with enforcement and stock assessments. There are also uncertainties as what the catch will be from year to year. It is hard to gather any real scientific information from a nine-day season."
The good news is that later this summer, federal fisheries biologists will begin a new stock assessment of red snapper that should be completed by the February 2015 meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the agency that actually makes the rules that govern the recreational and commercial red snapper fishery.
"Derby fisheries don't work in the recreational sector," said Harlon Pearce, a Gulf Council member from Louisiana. "You should be able to fish for red snapper year-round, and when the quota is met, you stop fishing."
Pearce, and others in the fisheries management business, believe the best way to manage the snapper stocks is to divide the stocks among the three users groups: the "harvesters" or commercial sector, the charter boat fleet and the recreational fishermen.
The idea of splitting the recreational landings between two groups (recreational anglers and charter boat captains) doesn't sit well with most weekend warriors. Nor does the idea of a tag or permit system for snapper. "But that way the fishermen can come home and record their catch," he said. "That is the best way to get an accurate number."
Bayes, meanwhile, is bracing for a bad June. "It is usually my best month next to December," he said. "But when you run 40 miles to catch a fish you tend to stay out longer and use more tackle, fuel and food.
"This nine-day season is just going to be devastating," the tackle shop manager said. "They are leaving us with nothing but scraps."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8808.