Monday, March 19, 2018

Red snapper seasons a complex state, federal issue

With high winds and rough seas predicted for this weekend, many offshore anglers might stay in port this morning, the first day of red snapper season.

"That's the problem with living here in Tampa Bay," said Dave Bayes of Dogfish Tackle in Seminole. "You have to run 30 miles to find fish, and if the weather is bad, that is just not going to happen."

Red snapper season used to be uniform throughout federal gulf waters, with most Gulf Coast states mirroring those dates in their state waters. But this year, states set their own seasons, and federal regulators are adjusting their dates in their areas to balance out the state changes.

Florida established a 44-day season this year for anglers to target red snapper in state waters, and the federal government, which regulates waters that begin 9 miles offshore, set its dates as today through midnight June 26.

If state governments, such as Florida, establish a longer season than federal regulations prefer, the federal season is adjusted to account for the additional harvest expected in state waters.

So in Texas, where the state season is open 365 days a year, the federal season will last just 17 days. But in Mississippi and Alabama, where federal and state seasons coincide, the season will last 34 days.

For diehard anglers who wait all year to catch what is often described as the best-tasting fish in the Gulf of Mexico, a couple of extra weeks of snapper fishing can make or break a summer.

Complicating matters even more is that Florida is really like two states. In the Tampa Bay area, anglers must run several hours to get to the water depth the snapper prefer to live in. But in the Panhandle, or "Lower Alabama" as the locals call it, you can catch red snapper just a few miles offshore, in state waters.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the agency that manages most inshore species, including spotted seatrout, snook and tarpon, usually follows the lead of federal fishery managers when it comes to species that traditionally are managed on a gulfwide basis. But this year, Gov. Rick Scott and several other Gulf Coast governors wrote a joint letter to Congress asking that control of red snapper stocks be turned over to the states.

"As one of the top fishing destinations in the world, no one understands Florida fisheries better than state and local communities," Scott wrote. "The current unilateral, regulatory framework administered by the federal government for Red Snapper lacks flexibility and has undermined the expertise of our state fishery officials and local fishing communities."

Recreational anglers, angered by years of increasingly restrictive federal regulations, applauded the move by the state. "It was good to see the state finally stand up to the feds," said Bayes, who talks to hundreds of offshore fishermen every week. "People feel the state has better science. They think they can do a better job managing the stocks."

But Tampa Bay's offshore anglers might suffer as a result of the state's move. Local anglers don't catch red snapper in state waters.

"I've seen two fish inside the 9-mile boundary," said Steve Papen, an offshore charter boat captain who has customers booked every day during snapper season. "Both were 4 inches long and I hooked them while I was catching bait. We just don't catch them in state waters."

So while the 44-day state season might be 18 days longer than the 26-day federal season off Florida, it actually hurts local anglers. If Florida officials had gone along with the federal plan, as their counterparts in Mississippi and Alabama had done, local fishermen would have a 34-day snapper season in both state and federal waters.

Snapper, prized for their delicate, white flesh, are a particularly hard species to manage because they live so long.

"We have aged red snapper to 57 years," said Robert Allman, who works at the National Marine Fisheries research lab in Panama City. "It is really important that we try to protect the older fish."

Most of the fish caught by recreational anglers are 3-5 years old. But as snapper get older and bigger, they produce more and higher-quality eggs. The snapper fishery is currently about one-third of the way through a 30-year rebuilding plan devised by federal officials.

The good news is the species is no longer being overfished, and the number of young red snapper dying in shrimp nets has dropped dramatically, as the nation's domestic shrimp fleet has shrunk, in part because of natural and manmade disasters, as well as competition from imported, farm-raised varieties.

All this doesn't mean much to your average bay area weekend warrior who has to spend $600 in gas to make the long run offshore to catch a couple of fish.

"A lot of guys pool their resources, chip in for gas, and go catch some snapper," said Bayes of Dogfish Tackle. "It is worth making the run if everybody knows they will be coming home with a couple of fish."

But Bayes, and many other recreational anglers, would like to see state and federal officials come together and develop a weekend fishery, where weather will not be as great a factor.

"They say we can fish for 26 days, but in reality, we are lucky if we can fish half of those because of the weather," he said. "Nobody wants to make a 30-mile run when it is rough."

Louisiana's state waters are open weekends only (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) March 23 to Sept. 30 and anglers may keep three fish, instead of Florida's two.

"Give us a weekend-only fishery year-round," Bayes said. "It will do a lot for the local economy and in the end, when you factor in weather, we will fish the same number of days."


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