Outdoor Alabama Weekly
Alabama Snapper Season Set for 28 Days
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Oh, what a tangled web the 2013 red snapper season has turned out to be.
Anglers and charter boat captains report there are more red snapper than they’ve seen in a long time, or ever. Yet, because of the stipulations in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the 2013 red snapper season in Alabama will be June 1 through June 28, the shortest ever. At least that’s where it stands right now.
The reason Alabama is singled out is because the seasons are even more uncertain at this point for the other states. Unless a court intervenes, Louisiana will have a nine-day season in federal waters, while Florida’s federal season is set at 21 days and Texas’ at 12 days. Like Alabama, Mississippi’s federal season is 28 days.
The reason for the discrepancies is compliance with federal regulations in state waters. Louisiana opened a weekend-only season in state waters with a bag limit of three fish. Texas doesn’t close state waters to red snapper fishing, and Florida will have a 44-day season in state waters. State waters extend 9 miles in Florida and Texas and 3 miles in the other three states.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council passed a recommendation for an emergency rule at its February meeting to allow the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to adjust the federal seasons of those states not in compliance. That rule has been published in the Federal Register and has been enacted. At its April meeting, the Gulf Council voted to rescind that emergency rule on an 8-7 vote, but Dr. Roy Crabtree, the NMFS Southeast Regional Director, announced Tuesday that the request to rescind the emergency rule has been denied.
“There is a lot going on on a lot of different fronts,” said Alabama Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship, who said the rumor Alabama would go non-compliant with federal regulations is false.
“With us having only 3 miles of state waters, there are not enough fish for us to go non-compliant,” Blankenship said. “Then you would have a situation where people might go into federal waters and come back into state waters during the time the federal season was closed. I don’t think it would be fair to our citizens that you’re putting them in a situation where they might be tempted to break the law.
“In Louisiana, (the federal agents) were writing warnings for the first few weeks of their state season. Now they have shown that they are going to enforce the regulations in Louisiana. I would anticipate they would do the same in Alabama if we were to go non-compliant.”
The states of Texas and Louisiana, as well as a Texas charter boat association, filed lawsuits against NMFS to keep the agency from reducing the snapper fishing days in federal waters off the non-compliant states.
“NMFS has until May 24 to reply to the lawsuits,” Blankenship said. “It could be pretty close to that day before we know anything else. Texas has asked to have a hearing before the start of red snapper season. It’s still all up in the air right now.
“Where it matters for people in Alabama is that if there is an injunction and NMFS can’t close the waters off those states in non-compliance, it has the potential to reduce the number of days of red snapper season off of Alabama from 28 days to 22 days.”
One bit of good news recently was the announcement that red snapper had been taken out of the “overfishing” category.
“That really doesn’t really change anything as far as management goes, at least not initially,” Blankenship said. “There are two definitions here – overfished and overfishing. Taking red snapper out of the overfishing category means we are no longer taking out more snapper than are reproducing. We’ve all been saying that for a while, that there are more snapper out there, that with these very stringent seasons we’re not catching what we could or should be able to catch.
“The bigger point will be when it is designated as not being overfished. What that means is the red snapper stocks have officially recovered. That will likely be a while yet.”
Administrators and anglers have been anxiously awaiting the latest stock assessment on red snapper, which should be available some time the first week of June, Blankenship said. A significant swing in the stock assessment could change the season parameters, once again. If the stock assessment is favorable, anglers could get more days to fish later in the year. But Blankenship isn’t predicting the outcome of the assessment.
“I don’t have a good feel for it,” he said. “There is some data that shows more snapper now. Then there is fishery independent data, where they’re pulling trawls, that shows the numbers of the younger year-class fish were lower because of the oil spill. I don’t know how that will affect the overall assessment. I have a feeling it’s going to show we have more snapper, but I’m just not sure.”
However, that isn’t all the pending action involved with red snapper. Alabama Congressman Jo Bonner has introduced legislation that would extend Alabama state waters to 20 fathoms (120 feet). The Gulf Council has already passed recommendations that it proceed with discussions on a regional management plan for red snapper.
“As we are trying to move to different management strategies, there are four pieces of legislation in Washington that would do that in different aspects,” Blankenship said. “So, when I say there is a lot going on with red snapper management, there are really a lot of different fronts.”
So, what is a red snapper angler who plans to fish off of Alabama to do?
“Right now I’d plan to fish June 1 through June 28,” he said. “That’s what the season is set for at the current time. Being less than a month away, that’s what we’re planning for in Alabama. The only way I think that would really change is if a judge in one of the lawsuits grants an injunction or makes a ruling on that.”
Blankenship said the current Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is under discussion as it comes up for reauthorization, basically has the Gulf Council boxed in as far as options to deal with fishery management.
“Because of Magnuson-Stevens, there is no flexibility for the Gulf Council to do anything outside what the SSC (Scientific and Statistical Committee) recommends as to the total biological catch,” he said. “The council can’t exceed that. Even if there is flawed data going into the model to come up with the assessment, the Gulf Council – or even the states if we go to regional management – is still bound by the quota set by the SSC.
“Those are the things being discussed by the states, to make changes to Magnuson-Stevens that would allow more flexibility and common sense. I think there is so much unhappiness with the situation right now that something is going to be accomplished. I think we can make some changes, working with Rep. Bonner, Sen. Richard Shelby and Sen. Jeff Sessions.”
Blankenship said the ultimate goal is to have the fisheries off Alabama managed by the Marine Resources Division.
“I think if we can move to regional management, where we have more of a say in the way we set our seasons, and eventually where we do our own stock assessments, we could manage the stocks off Alabama,” he said. “That’s where I would eventually like to end up.
“Our fish stocks, like redfish, speckled trout, sheepshead, Spanish mackerel, all those we manage in state waters, are in very good shape. It would take some additional funds for data collection for us to do a good stock assessment, but I have no doubt that we could do it and allow people to have more access to the great fishery we have off the Alabama Gulf Coast.”
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Because of a difference in seasons along the Gulf Coast, the red snapper season in federal waters will be different for all states except Alabama and Mississippi, which will have 28 days to land snapper. The snapper season in Alabama is June 1 through June 28 with a daily bag limit of two fish at least 16 inches in total length.###