ST. PETE BEACH — Dave Markett has been fishing the Gulf of Mexico for more than 50 years, but the Tampa charter boat captain and former commercial fisherman fears his grandsons will not be able to do the same if federal fishery managers move ahead with new red snapper rules this month.
Markett, and more than 100 angry recreational fishermen, packed into a tiny ballroom at the Sirata Beach Resort this week to hear representatives of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council discuss "Reef Fish Amendment 40," also known as sector separation.
"The way things are heading, I think my grandsons will have to pay for a fish before they are allowed to go out and catch it," said the 64-year-old Florida native. "This isn't right. And if it passes, it will be the first step towards shutting down recreational fishing in the Gulf of Mexico."
Most valuable commercial and recreational fish species, including red snapper, are managed under a quota system. Federal fishery managers decide how many pounds of fish can be taken every year without damaging the stocks, then divide that amount between the two user groups (or the commercial and recreational "sectors").
But under Amendment 40, the recreational anglers' 49 percent share of the snapper fishery will be split again between private recreational anglers and the charter-for-hire and party boat operators.
"This is a slippery slope," said Trip Aukeman, director of advocacy for the Coastal Conservation Association. "The next step will be having the guides getting IFQs (individual fishing quotas), which will further reduce recreational fishing opportunities. You won't be able to just go out and fish with your buddy anymore. If you want to catch red snapper, you will have to pay."
In recent years, recreational anglers have faced shorter and shorter red snapper seasons despite an obvious rebound in the stocks. This year, local fishermen had just nine days to catch red snapper in federal waters, which begin 9 miles offshore. Many, including some state officials, feel the federal fishery management system is not working.
As a result, the Gulf states have set their own red snapper seasons, disregarding the federal management plan. Florida anglers had a 52-day season, a boon to anglers living on the Panhandle where red snapper are a few miles off the beach.
Proponents of sector separation contend that it will allow officials to tailor management needs to each group within the recreational fishery. Opponents of the plan argue that it may further reduce the days recreational anglers can catch red snapper and quite possibly, privatize recreational fishing.
"They seem determined to shove this down the recreational sector's throats whether we want it or not," said Markett. "I think the federal government is determined to deny recreational fishermen access to any species that has commercial value."
Many recreational fishermen, including Markett, believe red snapper management would be better left to the individual Gulf states, which could then set bag and size limits, as well as seasons. State officials could also set closed areas so the recreational anglers could stay within their quota.
Under such a system, the red snapper fishery off Tampa Bay, which is usually 30 to 50 miles offshore, could be managed differently than that of the Panhandle, where red snapper can be found a few miles off the beach.
With that in mind, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will hold a workshop Monday from 6-8:30 p.m. in the third floor conference room of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (100 Eighth Ave. SE., St. Petersburg) to gather angler input on everything from red snapper sector separation to the IFQ program.
"We want to put all the cards on the table and hear what people have to say," said Martha Bademan with the FWC's Division of Marine Fisheries Management in Tallahassee. "We are hoping we come away with some really good ideas."
Meanwhile, the Gulf Council is scheduled to meet Aug. 25-29 in Biloxi, Miss. to consider its options. The council's red snapper advisory panel recently recommended taking no action on Amendment 40 at this time. But council members could still move ahead with the plan, which could then come up for a final vote at the council's October meeting in Mobile, Ala.