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Remember the Reds

Why seasons for Gulf of Mexico red snapper are infuriatingly short—for you, anyway.

Confused about red snapper seasons? Is steam pouring out of your ears?

We’ll try to help — but we can’t guarantee that you won’t be steaming mad when you’ve finished reading this. Close to home, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved a short season for recreational red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico starting on the Saturday (May 24, this year) be- fore Memorial Day and running through July 14.

This allows recreational anglers aboard private boats to land up to 2 red snapper per person, as long as the fish are caught no farther than 9 miles from shore on the Gulf Coast. Off Destin, for instance, that range covers waters out to about 100 feet deep. Lots of artificial reefs in that sector will be loaded with snappers larger than the 16-inch minimum. Along the Florida Peninsula — off Clearwater or Fort Myers, say — it’s doubtful many red snapper will be taken within that 9-mile range, where the water is much shallower.

For anglers fishing aboard charter boats, there’s another wrinkle: Charter boats which have a federal reef fish permit must defer to the federal season, even in state waters. That means they may keep red snapper during a projected 11-day federal waters season only, beginning June 1.

Short Season: It’s a Long Story

Recreational red snapper season in Gulf of Mexico federal waters was originally going to be 40 days in 2014. That’s what the National Marine Fisheries Serivce (NMFS) approved back in December 2013. But in subsequent weeks NMFS was asked by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to cut the season to 11 days. The goal: help prevent recreational fishermen from exceeding their quota in 2014 with a 20-percent “buffer.” The request also took into account varying state waters seasons: Louisiana, for instance, allows state waters red snapper fishing on weekends in 2014 — at least until the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife — which has its own fish counting system — may decide to close it.

If federal cutting and buffering of recreational catches sounds punitive, that’s because it is. The Gulf Council said its hand was forced by March 26, 2014, court decision in a lawsuit filed in the summer of 2013. The commercial snapper industry, with support from Environmental Defense Fund, suc- cessfully sued the federal fish management system, claiming NMFS had allowed the recreational anglers to fish too many days in recent years, and hadn’t held the fishermen “accountable.”

Who were the plaintiffs?

What was once a diffuse and diverse lot of commercial snapper fishermen has been reduced in number, organized and energized by the 2007 implementation of catch shares, or Individual Fishing Quotas. The IFQ system is the darling of EDF, and NMFS routinely sings its praises: improved safety as commercial fishers can choose which days to fish; improved prices for the catch by spreading out the landings through the year.

Another benefit to IFQ-holders seldom mentioned in the literature: They needn’t even fish at all. They can simply rake in profits by leasing or selling shares they were given, freely, in 2007.

The annual allocation for this commercial sector was set based on catches in the 1980s, and is a source of major contention. The Gulf Council has been looking at ways to better balance the fishery — for example dedicating a high- er percentage of future snapper increases toward recreational anglers’ limits.

Scientists at NMFS are convinced red snapper are trending upward. The aver- age size of the catch has nearly doubled, and—as Andy Strelcheck, NMFS Fishery Biologist in St. Petersburg points out— “as the abundance of the population has increased, the average number caught per day has also increased. So the total poundage being landed has been increasing at a faster rate than increases in the quotas implemented over the last five or six years.”

That means, because it’s easier to catch fish, and they’re larger, recreational anglers reach their annual catch limits sooner. Thornier still, 2013 figures for the recreational sector showed an even more dramatic rise.

Strelcheck said the 2013 figures were produced by the recently updated survey program, Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP. That program was envisioned by scientists and recreational fishermen as an improvement over the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey, or MRFSS — which was notorious for rendering unusual spikes some years.

Data generated by the new MRIP showed recreational red snapper landings of 9 million pounds during a 49-day season, whereas in 2012, anglers landed a little over 5 million pounds in a 46-day season. Another spike? Evidence of massive explosion in snapper? Faulty calculation? Hard to tell, at this point.

Digging a little into preliminary federal data, Florida Sportsman saw another bizarre and counter-intuitive trend: the number of “Directed Trips” for red snapper appears to rise as the numbers of season days fall. In 1990—a year when red snapper was open year-round — out of anglers surveyed, there were 67,000 “directed trips” made for red snapper. By 2010, during a 53-day snapper season, anglers made 159,000 directed trips. In 2013, a 49-day season: 783,000 directed trips.

Figures like these are extremely impor- tant, as they reflect a process used to extrapolate numbers of fish brought to the docks.

The FWC is trying — like the state of Louisiana—to improve data-collection methods for recreational fishing. The Commission will hold a final public hearing on a Reef Fish Data Reporting System at its June meeting in Fort Myers. The system may require reef-fish anglers to sign up for a free permit, their contacts includ- ed in a database for catch surveys.

In a letter to Penny Pritzker, Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Governor Rick Scott indicated his disappointment “in how the federal system has been managing red snapper and other fish stocks.”

As for our part, we think it’s time for politicians like Gov. Scott — as well as anglers, recreational fishing business leaders and fishery managers themselves — to call an 11-day season what it actually is: A closure.

And, while we’re clarifying terms, let’s call the IFQ system what it is: a fishery management strategy carried out in such a manner as to enable one entity to acquire an excessive share of privileges.

The Magnuson Stevens Act specifically forbids this kind of giveaway, using that very expression: “excessive share.” What’s more “excessive” than an entire fishery set aside, by design or de-facto, exclusively for a few hundred profiteers? (Okay. Requiring throngs of recreational anglers to scrub the decks of commercial boats offloading 5,000 pounds of snapper would be more excessive.

“The whole complex system is being mercilessly manipulated by the commercial industry and environmental groups to restrict access to these resources to few- er and fewer people,” said Mark Ray, a vice chairman for Coastal Conservation Association which intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of recreational anglers’ interests. “This is rock bottom.”

Anglers might recall the rock-bottom closure of another popular fish in Gulf of Mexico waters, back in the late 1980s. The meteoric rise in popularity of a blackened redfish dish at restaurants prompted a catastrophic commercial rush on the red drum stocks.

By 1987, red drum were — and today remain — fully protected in federal waters of the Gulf. Around the same time, a curious thing occurred: Recognizing that sustainable redfish take could not support a commercial industry without compromising fish stocks and public access, Florida de-commercialized redfish.

“A watershed victory for sportfishing conservation,” wrote Karl Wickstrom, after the Governor and Cabinet decision, “to be replayed and savored as a magnificent symbol of achievements possible when dedicated people unite against exploit- ers targeting public wildlife for their own sweet, private profits.”

On January 1, 1989, red drum in Florida waters opened with everyone allowed one fish per day, and no commercial sales.

On June 1 — when federal red snapper season opens for a few days — sport fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico should think about that. FS

Originally Published Florida Sportsman June 2014