By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The old axiom that the more things change, the more they stay the same is certainly true when it comes to the fiasco that has become the red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries announced last week that the private recreational red snapper season in federal waters would last a whopping 72 HOURS. That’s right three whole days from June 1 through June 3. Because of sector separation, which withstood a court challenge earlier this year, the charter industry will be able to fish 49 days, starting June 1.
One of the most extensive artificial reef systems in the world, about 1,030 square miles, sits just off the Alabama Coast. Those reefs produce unparalleled fishing for species like red snapper. Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. made a particularly salient point in a news release recently about the season.
“Alabama has built a great fishery and has worked diligently to rebuild this once overfished species,” Commissioner Guy said. “Now that the fishery is rebuilding, we are catching larger fish, and they are so plentiful that we are being penalized for our success.”
Orange Beach City Councilman Jeff Boyd has been very active on the red snapper issue, and he considered joining a group of irate anglers in another protest. Some are calling for civil disobedience by catching and keeping red snapper while the federal season is closed.
Boyd said a talk with ADCNR Deputy Commissioner Chris Blankenship changed his mind about the protest.
“Chris and I were in Washington recently to meet with Congressmen and NOAA,” Boyd said. “After talking with Chris about the protest, I decided to take a different path. I’ve already asked the Orange Beach City Council, and I feel sure Gulf Shores will do the same, to send a letter to our members of Congress, a letter to NOAA and a letter to the White House that (NOAA’s red snapper) count is wrong and to give us the benefit of the doubt so that we can fish.”
Boyd said NOAA is not factoring the economic impact on the region in setting the seasons and bag limits.
“They are not considering the people who come down here to buy condos and expensive boats to go catch fish,” he said. “A ton of people are coming to Orange Beach just for that reason. Then you’ve got restaurants, tackle shops, fuel docks, all of that. That’s going to affect people like David Walter (Reefmaker). The days of private fishermen building reefs in federal waters is over.
“I feel like what they are doing now is they are forcing people to not fish and get completely out of it and leave the area. Or, they’re going to force them to fish illegally. I’ve never seen regulations be as unfair as this. We can’t catch triggerfish. We can’t catch amberjack. You just about can’t keep anything.”
Blankenship, who was Alabama Marine Resources Division Director before becoming Deputy Commissioner recently, said he understands Boyd’s frustration.
“It is disappointing with all the work we’ve been doing to try to change red snapper management to end up with three days,” Blankenship said. “That doesn’t mean it’s all been for nothing. It just has not translated into more days of fishing for this year. As we’ve been saying for the last several years, changes need to be made in Congress to give us the flexibility to make this fishery better.”
Blankenship said the hard quotas that dictate fisheries closures in the Magnuson-Stevens Act have been the largest obstacles. He has been working with Alabama’s congressional delegation to get that section of the law amended during the reauthorization process.
There was a bit of good news coming from Washington recently. The recently passed budget included language that would permanently extend Alabama’s state waters to 9 nautical miles.
“The 9-mile state boundary will be for reef fish, not just for red snapper,” Blankenship said. “And Senator (Richard) Shelby added a provision in the appropriations bill that would require NOAA to implement a pilot program for management in designated artificial reef areas. That’s something we’ll be negotiating with NOAA over the next 60 days to find a pilot program for 2018 that will give us the ability to manage the reef zones farther than 9 miles from shore.
“That would be a significant change. That’s something we’ve needed to show that we’re able to manage those fish out there.”
That, however, still leaves anglers stuck with a three-day season for 2017, and Blankenship has been getting plenty of feedback from the public.
“People are obviously outraged,” he said. “They know the resource we have out there. They think it’s totally ridiculous that we only have three days to access that resource, as do we at Conservation.
“NOAA uses a very conservative and subtractive system to determine the seasons. Then they add in a 20-percent buffer. And, they’re also still using the MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program) numbers to set the seasons. Alabama Snapper Check will be certified this year so that our landings numbers, which we believe are much more accurate, will be used instead of MRIP for 2018 and beyond. It’s more important than ever for people to participate in Snapper Check.”
Of course, Snapper Check is already online for 2017 because some Alabama anglers are taking advantage of state seasons in Florida and Louisiana.
Plus, Alabama’s state red snapper season is set to open on May 26 and run through July 31.
“We’re excited that we’re opening state waters for Memorial Day Weekend,” Blankenship said. “I think that will make for some good fishing opportunities for families. There are a lot of red snapper of legal size (16 inches total length) on the close rigs and other reefs within 9 miles.”
Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier is certainly glad to have a state snapper season for the fishing-centric barrier island south of Mobile, but he is obviously disappointed with the federal season.
“This will have a very negative impact on our local fishermen but also our local economy and tourism,” Collier said. “Our island offers easy access to the Gulf, so there’s no doubt we have a high volume of recreational fishermen. And the fishermen don’t mince words. They’re seeing it as rather ridiculous.
“We all know there are loads of fish out there. We know that NOAA’s methodology of calculating the fish population is not in sync with reality. We keep hoping that common sense will prevail. If not, we’re going to get to the point of why have a boat or a fishing rod.”
Renowned angler Marcus Kennedy of Mobile hopes the three-day season will finally motivate recreational anglers to get involved in the process. He is so frustrated with the regulations in the Gulf that he has turned to freshwater to have something for the dinner table.
“We’ve been crappie fishing on Big Creek Lake because there’s nothing we can keep from the Gulf to eat,” Kennedy said. “I never thought I’d see the day when the federal government would come in and tell us we couldn’t keep snapper, grouper, triggerfish and amberjack right when the fishing season traditionally starts. It’s very aggravating.”
Because of his equipment, Kennedy and his crew can fish in places where others rarely dare to go, and he is finding red snapper in places where they haven’t been before.
“There is an overabundance of red snapper from 3 miles to 100 miles,” he said. “We were doing some deep drops on the bottom in 400 feet of water, and we were reeling up big red snapper. We’ve never done that before. They’ve overpopulated everything that’s hard bottom or structure. They’re crowding out the other fish and having a negative impact on the other reef species.”
Kennedy has been named to a Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s advisory panel that deals with red snapper. That panel meets this week in New Orleans, but Kennedy is not optimistic.
“NOAA Fisheries is overestimating the recreational catch and underestimating overall population of red snapper in the Gulf,” he said. “They believe there are only three red snapper left in the Gulf. It’s so fouled up I don’t know how we’re going to undo it.
“I know the recreational fishermen are getting the short end of the stick.”
PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Anglers who regularly fish the Gulf of Mexico off the Alabama coast know there is an abundant population of red snapper as shown by these big snapper caught by Chandra Wright and Chris Blankenship on a trip with Capt. Randy Boggs.