As a member of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations, Congressman David Jolly knows the importance of good data.
"It's all about the numbers," said Jolly, a Dunedin native who takes a particular interest in fisheries issues. "Without good data, you can't make good decisions."
Jolly, a Republican, represents Florida's 13th Congressional District which covers most of Pinellas County. First elected in March 2014, Jolly quickly recognized the importance of both commercial and recreational fishing to the region's economy.
Most of the commercial grouper catch in the Gulf of Mexico is landed in Madeira Beach, but the region also has one of the top recreational fisheries in the Southeast United States. You name it — tarpon, snook, spotted sea trout and red drum — you can catch it here it Tampa Bay.
When it comes to offshore fishing, there's king mackerel, amberjack, grouper and of course, red snapper, though anglers haven't had much of a chance to catch them in recent years. Tight regulations have limited the local season to weeks instead of months.
Federal officials try their best to manage this complex species. They have a pretty good idea how many pounds of fish the commercial boats land, but when it comes to recreational anglers … that's pretty much a guessing game.
Jolly hopes that is about to change.
His plan for a third-party data collection system for snapper stocks was included in the recent budget deal signed by President Barack Obama.
"This is a significant victory that will ultimately give us a better, more accurate picture of the fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico," Jolly said. "Many in the fishing community, from private anglers, to charter, to commercial, have questioned the government's assessments. Third-party data collection will now expand the information available to the government, particularly for red snapper, and improve the data used to set fishing seasons."
The $10 million for the data collection program will be managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Regional Office in St. Petersburg and Sea Grant Universities, such as the University of Florida and Florida State University.
"In the end, if the research shows a larger fish population than the government suggests, this will open the door for a longer fishing seasons," Jolly added. "A longer snapper season will be an economic and quality of life win for our community."
But don't put on your party hats just yet. The current funding is good for only one year. Jolly has another bill in the works to keep the money coming. "I have a group of people … charter boat captains, commercial operators and regular, everyday anglers that I meet with regularly," he said. "There is one thing that they all agree on — the need for better, more accurate data."
Meanwhile, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is seeking input regarding a new initiative for the regional management of red snapper. Proponents of the plan say state fishery managers have greater flexibility to manage this deep water species. Opponents of the plan say it will trade in big bureaucracy for five smaller bureaucracies.
Whatever happens in 2016, with improved data collection, we'll know more than we did in 2015.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at TTomalin@TampaBay.com or (727) 893-8808. Follow @TomalinTimes.