May 16, 2011
On the threshold of a snapper boom, tighter limits and missed opportunities. Just what the heck is going on here?
By David Conway, Managing Editor
Some 30 miles from the Florida-Alabama state line, we were positioned atop a real smokin' joe, a red snapper school thick and hot over an artificial reef.
“Looks just like a smokestack,” Brian Bracknell said, looking at the sonar.
Down on deck, anglers were snatching up snappers left and right. Mate Barry Bracknell boxed the keepers, rebaited hooks and vented shorts and let them go.
It wasn't just fast fishing that had lured Florida Sportsman across the state line. For the benefit of Sunshine State fishermen, we wanted to find out how our neighboring state could, one, engineer an amazing fishery, and two, have it pulled away by the federal regulatory process.
Orange Beach was the ideal port, a town with 120-plus charterboats, and a huge recreational fleet to match.
For the Bracknell brothers it was a typical summer day. Brian moved his Crowd Pleezer from spot to spot, each one an artificial reef, and each brightly lit on the depthfinder with fish. He also found a few more spots en route. Fourteen customers caught their limits of red snapper, two fish each, plus a few kings, bonito, triggerfish and a nice cobia. What's more, the crowd had a heck of a lot of fun doing it.
There was never really any doubt that they'd get their limits of reds. The Bracknells, and their colleagues over in Alabama, are more or less farming red snapper with their half-century-old artificial reef building program. The process is simple, as Brian explained.
“You go to their spots, mark the fish, and find the biggest ones—big red dashes on the screen—up high and drop down the baits. If the porpoises don't scare down those fish, they'll bite. Take a few fish, and move on to the next spot. Don't wipe it out. We all fish the same way around here, and we all maintain the resource.”
One other thing those Alabama charterboat captains do: They all set out a required number of artificial reefs every year. In the case of Zeke's Marina in Orange Beach, where Crowd Pleezer docks, captains are required to set out 10 reefs a year for multiple passenger boats, and 5 per year for six-pack passenger boats. Most of them also set out plenty of their own private structures for their own fishing.
“I put a lot of time and effort into building the habitat with artificial reefs,” said Brian Bracknell. “It has to be done. It's not only good for red snapper fishing, it's good for all fishing down the line. I build about a dozen a year on average, but this last year I put out 48.”
In Florida, only three counties, Escambia, Okaloosa and Bay, possess permits which allow private individuals to buy and set out their own artificial reef structures. It's no coincidence that they are all right next door to Alabama. Significantly, in Florida, “private” artificial reef coordinates are made public knowledge, through our state's ponderous regulatory system. Experts say reef numbers kept private produce better results for the fishery overall because private anglers protect their stocks by not overfishing them.
Many Alabama captains and anglers will attest that the red snapper fishing is the best it's ever been.
“I've been fishing here for 30 years, and it's the strongest, healthiest fishery in anyone's memory, and it just keeps getting better,” says Maurice Fitzsimmons, captain of the Miss Celeste in Orange Beach and a catalyst behind the artificial reef program. “I remember when you couldn't go out and find a snapper to save your life. Now the older gentlemen, in their 60s and 70s, say that they've never seen the fishing this good.”
Even in the Florida Panhandle, the red snapper fishing is picking up, and bigger, and more fish are being landed than in years past. Anglers like Sean O'Neill, of Pensacola, point to their catches this spring and summer off reef restoration projects such as the Bay Bridge 1 and 2, dropped only one year ago, to prove the success of their artificial reef building efforts.
Why then, if the fishery has been producing, has NMFS just cut back the red snapper limit to two fish per person per trip and shortened next year's season? This year's season runs from April 21 to Oct. 31. NMFS is currently considering three season lengths for next year. They are May 15 to Oct. 15, June 1 to Sept. 30 and June 1 to Sept. 15. They will allow a public comment period on their final recommendation for the season's dates before they make their final ruling by mid-December.
Here's where fishing for the species that's so easy to catch gets pretty hard to understand.
“The trouble is,” Fitzsimmons says, “the NMFS stock assessment doesn't take into account any of the snapper that we have on our reefs. Not a single red snapper in Alabama is counted. They only assess the natural bottom habitat. Using their own numbers, that means that 50 to 60 percent of the red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico are not counted in their stock assessment.”
Andy Strelchek, Fisheries Biologist for NMFS, says that his agency has heard that objection to their stock assessment methods for years.
“There are multiple sources of information that we use to compile a stock assessment,” Strelchek says. “They include fisheries dependent info, like catch and landing data. For that, we do take samples Gulf-wide, and that includes fish taken from those artificial reefs. We also take fisheries independent information, and one of those is called an index of abundance. Those samples of fish are taken largely from natural habitat, not from the artificial reef areas.”
Over the years, this popular fishery has been plagued by similar controversies and complex problems, not the least of which involves the destruction of millions of pounds of juvenile red snapper in shrimp trawlers' nets. Yet, somehow, the fish themselves, and the anglers who love them, keep fighting back.
Framed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, the new regulations are part of a federal plan to bring red snapper populations back to a healthy spawning ratio by the year 2032. The total allowable catch of 9.12 million pounds of red snapper this year has been reduced to 6.5 million pounds next year, split roughly in half, 3.3 million for commercial harvesters and 3.2 for recreational anglers.
As for that matter, Capt. Fitzsimmons has this to say:
“It's a crying shame that a hundred licenses take 51 percent of the red snapper out there. That's only 100 commercial operators in the Gulf of Mexico that are outdoing all the thousands and thousands of recreational anglers on the Gulf Coast. Probably a third of those licenses are non-active. So that leaves about 65 commercial operators out there.”
The minimum legal keeper size is 13 inches for a commercial harvester and 16 inches for a recreational, to limit death of undersize fish on commercial boats. To that same end, recreational anglers may be required to possess dehooking devices and venting tools to increase survival rates.
Earlier this spring, a U.S. District Court judge in Houston ordered NMFS to come up with a rule by December 12 of this year that will enact measures to reduce the red snapper bycatch mortality by 74 percent. Researchers say that shrimp trawler bycatch destroys approximately 80 percent of each year class of Gulf red snapper, according to statistics furnished by the Coastal Conservation Association, lead plaintiff in the suit.
The new season and bag limits have already wreaked havoc with the charter fishing fleets from Alabama eastward through Florida, where red snapper have a star's following among anglers who come from around the Gulf Coast, and the Midwest, to fish for it.
“A lot of the captains who have built their reputation as red snapper specialists are really hurting right now,” says Tony Kennon, Director of the Orange Beach Red Snapper Tournament, which began in 2004 as an effort to create funds for the creation of public reefs to improve fishing. Prior to their work, all reef-building was by private individuals who kept reef numbers to themselves. Proceeds from the tournament go directly to reef building, and the federal government, through the state of Alabama, matches by triple whatever amount the tournament contributes to the reef-building fund.
This year's tournament raised a total of $400,000 for those efforts. That will result in 400 reef pyramids deployed from this year's tournament proceeds. They've also purchased two barges to be sunk for artificial habitat. To date, since it began in ‘04, the tournament has deployed over 900 artificial reef structures in Alabama waters, and all their locations, with exact coordinates, are made public a year after deployment, right before the tournament's opening day, of course. The tournament also pays a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. to protect anglers' interests on the political scene. It's an ingenious system whereby fishing effort actually leads to fisheries enhancements. Catch more snapper, have more snapper, in other words.
Such community-sponsored habitat improvement is not unheard of in Florida. Among others, the St. Lucie County Chamber of Commerce's Fishing Frenzy, held in July, raises funds for building artificial reefs. In Mexico Beach, local anglers have organized very successful reef-building efforts there.
The negative impact of tighter snapper regs on sportfishing trips and local businesses across the northern Gulf Coast is the most recent blow to a region already hard hit by the big blows of Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina in '04 and '05.
“Now, because of the new rules, we're going to have to change the emphasis of our tournament,” Kennon says. “We're going to make it more of a rodeo style contest to encourage anglers to pursue a variety of species, from kingfish to cobia to grouper. There is, after all, so much more than red snapper in our waters. We also need to encourage a shift in mentality, away from the filling-the-cooler mentality toward a sportfishing, fun attitude toward the resource.”
While anglers, charter captains, tournament organizers and business owners complain of the compound effects of the curtailed season, they also complain bitterly of the methods used by NMFS to make decisions. At the same time, they also know that the rulings might have been even worse—an even shorter season, or a closed season altogether.
“What it comes down to is this,” one longtime local charter captain told me. “It's sort of like they're going out to count how much corn a farm can produce, and they're turning their backs on the cornfields and looking into the woods and saying, nope, there's no corn growing there.”
Everyone hopes that improved statistical methods of stock assessment or actual improvements in the stocks of red snapper themselves in the coming years will eventually lead to increasing bag limits and longer seasons for the red snapper, both on the Gulf Coast and in the Atlantic.
That idea may look like a pipe dream right now, but judging by what's happened in Alabama, that dream may be made more likely by a little more properly placed pipe, concrete and limestone down in the depths of say, 70 to 150 feet around Florida's coasts. We might take those lessons from our neighbor to the west, where the crimson tide also means waves and waves of good red snapper fishing.
The Wizard of Artificial Reefs
Over 40 percent of the red snapper caught by recreational anglers in the Gulf of Mexico are caught in Alabama, while the state only has 35 miles of coastline, plus Dauphin Island. Thank Alabama's outstanding artificial reef building program. Now, happily, even more Florida Panhandle anglers are seeing better catches of the prized fish, and that'
s because they too are getting into the reef building act, according to David Walter, owner of Walter Marine, home of Reefmaker artificial reefs.
“It's also because we're so overpopulated with red snapper here in Alabama that the fish have got to go somewhere else to eat,” Walter says.
For 50 years, owing to a 1,200-square-mile federally sanctioned reef zone, Alabama has been building habitat and fostering a world-renowned red snapper fishery. This is also a de facto nursery for snapper, where deadly shrimp trawling is not permitted.
Into the ‘80s, people were dumping cars and other wreckage into the waters, and they worked pretty well as habitat, but they didn't hold up well during big storms. Today, professional reef builders like Walter are perfecting the science of building habitat. Walter has created generations of reef structures made of concrete and rock, each with successive improvements in habitat-generation and staying power.
A built, deployed reef pyramid from his company costs $995, turnkey, on the bottom. The company charges $250 to move a reef that might have been discovered by other anglers. They provide customers a digital picture of the GPS point at deployment for their own records.
“More than half of what we do is public business. We're doing about 300 to 400 private reefs this year, and about a thousand public reefs,” said Walter's son, Stewart. Walter Marine has been operating since the late '80s, and more information about their company can be found at www.reefmaker.net.
“Our second generation reefs all went through the hurricanes,” Walter told me at his outdoor factory and headquarters in Orange Beach, which is kind of a Willy Wonka-style factory enclave overseen by Walter's easygoing, Jimmy-Buffett presence. “Now, for the third generation, we've added limestone to the structures which have a better pH balance to attract and foster marine growth and the food chain, and we're seeing great success with these.”
Walter is an imaginative, creative industrialist who sees no bounds to the limits of what habitat restoration can do for our oceans. In 2005, his company completed a big public reef project off Florida's Martin County, well-chronicled at www.martinreefs.com, under the Reefmaker Deployment and Photos link.
“We're also looking for operators over in Florida to get started doing this in their waters, if you know of anybody,” he says. “We just have enough work here and we can't ship them all the way over to your state, but you need them there. I could tell stories all day long about how I've fought with politicians in Florida to allow individuals to build their own reefs, and I don't know why more people don't get involved.”
Captain Maurice Fitzsimmons also sees room for improvement in Florida's reef building practices. “I think Florida has rested on its laurels as a sportfishing capital, with a lot of good natural bottom and coral structure, but with enough pressure on a resource, that kind of stellar reputation tends to tarnish. Now they're scrambling to get back into the artificial reef building program. All along, we've maintained our fishery by working at it.”
In Florida, two other companies build and deploy artificial reefs, Artificial Reefs, Inc. and Reef Ball.
“If you want to have a private artificial reef program, you have to have a large area for people to set out their structures, and you have that area available in Florida waters,” Walter says. “Right now, Florida regulations make it very difficult to get those reefs out there. So tell your legislators to get in gear, and get these reef-building programs in action,” Walter encourages.