ST. PETERSBURG — After months, some might say years, of bad news, Tampa Bay area anglers finally have something to smile about.
Red snapper, a species usually off limits after a short summer season, was fair game this fall.
Since Oct. 1, offshore anglers have been able to fish every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for this highly prized but tightly regulated sport fish. The season continues this weekend and closes at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 22.
"I have to commend the National Marine Fisheries Service for opening up the fishery," said Dennis O'Hern of the Fishing Rights Alliance, a recreational fishing advocacy group that often finds itself at odds with the federal government. "They listened to the fishermen for once. I don't hand out compliments very often, but in this case, they earned it."
Red snapper is one of the few recreational fisheries managed on a quota system. Last spring, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council increased the overall allotment for the year for red snapper by nearly 2 million pounds.
However, in July, just 53 days into the season, federal officials shut down the harvest, estimating, based on various data, that anglers had reached the limit.
But something made officials reconsider that assumption: the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in April. At one point during the summer, thousands of miles of prime red snapper fishing areas were closed to the public.
With less water open to fishing, they decided, fewer red snapper were caught.
"We didn't have a choice but to react," said Gainesville's Ed Sapp who represents Florida's recreational anglers on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. "If we didn't do something quickly then we would have lost the unused portion of the quota."
Managing fisheries is a notoriously slow and, at times, agonizing process. It is not uncommon for a new rule or regulation to take 18 months to go into effect.
"The normal rule making doesn't allow us to act this quickly," Sapp said. "It's bureaucracy."
A large portion of the recreational red snapper catch comes from federal waters off Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle. In Florida, federal waters in the gulf begin 9 miles from shore. But because this was the area most affected by the spill, fishermen were forced to fish in other areas and caught only one-third of the 3.4 million-pound allotment.
Ted Forsgren of the Florida Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association also applauded the red snapper reopening.
"The oil spill just devastated Florida's economy," Forsgren said. "They did something good, but the real question is, what are they going to do next year?"
Red snapper is widely viewed as a conservation success story. The species was once on the verge of collapse in the early 1990s until marine biologists discovered that millions of juvenile red snapper died each year in shrimp trawls.
Bycatch reduction devices on shrimp nets have helped rebuild the stocks, and now red snapper are common offshore, especially off the coast of Tampa Bay.
"From what I hear, red snapper are everywhere," Forsgren said. "The species is doing very well."
This red snapper miniseason has also helped local tackle shops. "It's been great," said Dave Bayes of the Seminole-based Dogfish Tackle Company. "People are really motivated to go fishing."
Bayes said he hopes federal fishery managers consider taking a "weekend management" approach to the red snapper season next year. "By spreading it out over eight weeks, you stand a better chance of getting a break in the weather," he said.
In the Panhandle, where most of Florida's red snapper are caught, local charter captains have nothing but good things to say.
"I have been fishing up here for 37 years, and I have never seen it so good," said Pensacola charter boat captain Ben Fairey. "It has really been unbelievable. We really needed a fall season."
Roy Crabtree, director of the southeast region of the NMFS, was glad, for once, not to be the focus of recreational anglers' anger.
"I'd rather be opening up a fishery than closing one," said Crabtree, who started his career as a tarpon guide in the Florida Keys. "People have been catching lots of fish, and from what I hear, they are pretty big. I'm always happy when the fishing is good."