Though brief, a season should open in October.

It looks pretty certain that there will be some days this year for catching red snapper in Atlantic waters. Earlier this week, members of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to approve a request to NOAA Fisheries to allow a short red snapper season in federal waters in the South Atlantic beginning in mid-to late October. If approved by NOAA Fisheries, it will be the first time since 2014 that the red snapper fishery has been open in federal waters off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and the east coast of Florida. The Council is requesting that NOAA Fisheries allow an interim annual catch limit (recreational and commercial) of 42,510 fish for 2017 via an emergency rule.

The catch limit would allow for a recreational mini-season likely beginning the end of October, with approximately 6 to 12 days of fishing over a period of 3-day weekends. The recreational bag limit would be 1 fish per person/day with no minimum size limit. Commercial harvest would be allowed with a 75-pound trip limit. The recreational sector is allocated 71.93% of the total catch limit. If the Council’s request is approved, the number of days and specific dates of the recreational mini-season will be determined by NOAA Fisheries. A decision is expected in the coming weeks and will be announced by NOAA Fisheries.

Though it’s a long time coming, anglers along the east coast of Florida will welcome the news. Partyboat anglers may want to try to reserve their spots on their favorite boats now for the red snapper days if the captains will let them, before the days

are announced. Though Northeast Florida down to Ponce Inlet is the stronghold for red snapper fishing on the east coast, the species can be caught to the south on the coast as well. Experienced bottom fishermen out of Sebastian, Canaveral, Fort Pierce and St. Lucie inlets commonly have locations for red snapper, and the fish can even be caught south of those inlets, though less frequently.

In addition to the emergency rule request to allow an opening this year, the Council also approved measures in Amendment 43 to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan with the intent to have a red snapper season in 2018. The amendment would revise the process to calculate the annual catch limit for red snapper, allowing mini-seasons for red snapper beginning in July. If allowed, the recreational fishery would open the second Friday in July (July 13, 2018) and the commercial fishery the second Monday in July (July 9, 2018). The annual opening dates for the fishery were established through an earlier amendment.

Under the Council’s approved preferred alternative, the 2018 annual catch limit would also be 42,510 fish. Because fishing pressure would be greater during the summer months in most areas, it is estimated that the recreational mini-season would last between 4 to 7 weekend days with a 1 fish per person/day bag limit and no minimum size limit. The commercial trip limit would remain at 75 pounds. The number of recreational fishing days would be determined by NOAA Fisheries and announced prior to the July opening. The Secretary of Commerce must approve Amendment 43 before it is implemented.

The Council’s decision to move forward with options to establish an interim annual catch limit and allow limited harvest of red snapper was based in part on the

public testimony and support. Also, the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee had recommended acceptable biological catch levels for red snapper following a 2017 stock assessment using both landings and estimated discards. However, an important development regarding exactly how the Scientific and Statistical Committee calculated those figures spurred them to reconsider their numbers. NOAA Fisheries stated that using recreational discard estimates is likely ineffective for monitoring red snapper removals due to uncertainty in the estimates of discards. It is these discard figures which are reconfiguring the red snapper math of the models, at this time. In addition, the Council considered increases in the numbers of red snapper observed through a long-term scientific survey using fish traps.

There was much discussion on various management alternatives as Council members reviewed public input. Public hearings, workshops and webinars on Amendment 43 were held in August and over 230 written public comments were received on both the emergency rule request and Amendment 43. Public comment was also taken during this week’s meeting.

“We’ve consistently heard from our constituents about the increasing number of red snapper encountered and concerns that harvest has been prohibited for the past four years,” said Council Chair, Dr. Michelle Duval. “The majority of comments support allowing a limited harvest of red snapper.”

Other developments that helped create the possibility of a season this year included the letter from Florida Senators Rubio and Nelson sent to the Sect. of Commerce Wilbur Ross discussing the summer’s extension of federal red snapper days

in the Gulf. In the letter, the two Florida senators requested an opening in Atlantic waters.

Council members also noted the positive social and economic benefits of allowing mini-seasons beginning this year, especially on the heels of recent damage to fishing communities by Hurricane Irma.

State agency personnel will work diligently to collect information from fishermen if harvest is allowed. Personnel will be stationed at boat ramps, marinas, and other locations to gather data, similar to data collected during the 2012-2014 mini-seasons. “The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute will be conducting surveys of private recreational anglers and charter-for-hire crew,” explained Jessica McCawley, Council representative for FWC. “Additionally, biologists will be collecting tissue samples (ear bones and gonad samples) to evaluate the sizes, ages, and reproductive condition of the fish being harvested.” Council members noted that additional data collected during the mini-seasons would be useful in future management decisions.

Private recreational fishermen will also have an opportunity to report their catch information as part of a voluntary pilot project using the mobile iAngler tournament app. The free mobile app will allow fishermen to report their landings of red snapper, the number of fish released, depths fished, and other valuable information. Additional details will be publicized from the Council office as they become available.

“Anglers are encouraged to move away from area populations after catching their bag limit,” said Dr. Duval, “and to use descending devices to reduce the impacts of barotrauma, especially when fishing in depths over 100 feet.” Dr. Duval also noted the rate of harvest in 2017 will determine the length of the 2018 red snapper season.

“We must be cautionary in balancing access to the fishery without negatively impacting the sacrifices made thus far as this important stock continues to rebuild.”

A wide range of management materials from the meeting are available on the Council’s website: http://safmc.net/2017-september-council-meeting/.

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