March 13, 2014
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
It’s obvious to Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, that recreational fishing surveys conducted by the federal government are unable to provide accurate data on the red snapper catch off Alabama.
That is why Blankenship has asked the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board to approve a regulation that would establish a system for anglers who catch red snapper off Alabama to report their catches to Marine Resources.
“The reporting of red snapper regulation would require people to report how many red snapper they kept after each trip during snapper season,” Blankenship said. “We want to make it as easy on the fishermen as possible to report their catches. We will have a Smartphone app similar to Game Check that will require a little less information and easier-to-input information. If you don’t have a Smartphone where you can use your app, you can use your touch-tone phone. You’ll need your boat registration number, how many people you had onboard and how many red snapper you caught and kept.”
Because of Alabama’s limited shoreline, Marine Resources will be able to use boat ramps as intercept sites for the survey as well.
“In the event somebody doesn’t have a phone to use or the battery goes dead or whatever, we’ll have drop-boxes at Boggy Point, Cotton Bayou, Fort Morgan and Billy Goat Hole on Dauphin Island,” Blankenship said. “We’ll have paper forms with a carbon copy for people to fill out their information and put it in the drop-boxes. They’ll tear off the carbon and keep it.”
Blankenship said Marine Resources is testing the system right now to make sure the bugs are worked out if the Conservation Advisory Board approves the request.
“We hope to have this regulation approved by the Conservation Advisory Board at its next meeting and have it up and running by June 1, the opening day of snapper season,” he said.
Blankenship said the fishing public is frustrated with the short red snapper season when all indications are that the red snapper stocks are in much better shape than indicated by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries’ scientific models.
“I think most everybody will agree that the red snapper management at the federal level is not working,” he said. “We have a lot of fish out there, and the season has become increasingly shorter.
“I think there are two things we need to do to wrestle this away from the federal government or at least to get the management correct. First is to do our own stock assessment. We’re working on that internally, with the University of South Alabama and Auburn University to do a stock assessment on some of the reef areas off Alabama. The other piece of information that is needed is an accurate count on how many red snapper are being landed in Alabama.”
Blankenship said the federal estimates of the number of red snapper caught off Alabama have varied wildly throughout the years, which leads Alabama officials to question the validity of the surveys. He said the percentage of red snapper caught by recreational anglers, which includes charter boats, off Alabama has ranged from as low as 14 percent to as high as 45 percent in the federal survey. Blankenship said the percentage of snapper caught off Alabama that is most likely accurate is between 30 and 33 percent.
“Over the past 10 years, using the federal data collection system, our landings in Alabama have fluctuated between 400,000 pounds and 4 million pounds a year,” he said. “That’s just not possible. We think the correct number is somewhere in the middle. We keep telling the federal folks that they are not capturing the catch correctly, that some years it’s undervaluing Alabama and some years it’s overvaluing Alabama and other states. So it’s important to have the reporting of red snapper so we can get the true number. We’ll run that number concurrently with the federal system. We’ll do both. That way we’ll have a way to compare.
“The federal system, on its face, is not a bad system for a year-long fishery. But when you have a short season (41 days) like red snapper, it’s not adequate. You only have a certain number of assignments at certain marinas or ramps on certain days during the season. If those days are bad-weather days, it’s going to make your catch look paltry. If the survey days happen to be the good-weather days, it’s going to inflate the overall catch.”
Blankenship also said NOAA Fisheries changed the times when the anglers were surveyed in 2013, adding more afternoon assignments.
“With the change in the system, it’s really difficult to calibrate what happened in 2013 to previous years,” he said. “But Alabama is uniquely situated with our small coastline that we think we can have a census of the red snapper that are landed here. We have the ability that Louisiana, Texas and Florida don’t have.
“And we have such a huge economic interest in getting this right.”
Blankenship said saltwater fishing in Alabama has a $727 million economic impact in the state.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is holding public meetings throughout the Gulf on a proposal to adjust the allocation of the red snapper quota. Currently, the commercial sector gets 51 percent and the recreational sector gets 49 percent. The alternative proposal would leave that percentage in place up to 9.12 million pounds of the quota (total allowable catch). Any fish above the 9.12 million pounds in the quota would be split with 75 percent allotted to the recreational sector. The quota for 2014 is 11 million pounds.
Blankenship said that proposal will likely be voted on at the Gulf Council’s specially called meeting in late May in New Orleans.
He also said Alabama has objected to a provision the Gulf Council passed at its February meeting that would allow federally permitted charter boats to fish in state waters during an open season when federal waters are closed to red snapper fishing. This has the potential to shorten the snapper season for everybody.
“Previously, federally permitted charters couldn’t fish in state waters if federal waters are closed,” Blankenship said. “That restriction was removed at the February meeting by a 9-8 vote. By rescinding (regulation) 30-B, boats in Florida, Texas and Louisiana, states that have seasons outside of the federal framework, will be able to fish for red snapper in state waters, which counts against the quota, which has the potential to shorten the federal season off the coast of Alabama.
“Alabama filed a minority report on that. That means if you disagree with something the Gulf Council does, you can file a minority report that you disagree, and it will be reviewed by the Secretary of Commerce (Penny Pritzker). Not only did we disagree with that, we felt the data used for that did not meet the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, so we’re hoping that will be overturned by the Secretary of Commerce.”
Blankenship also said he hopes the 3-mile limit for state waters will be extended to 9 miles for fisheries management. Alabama House Bill 403 would do just that.
“That bill has passed the House and passed the Senate Committee,” he said. “We hope it will pass the Senate soon. It will still take some federal concurrence to recognize that. But we have good support from Sen. (Richard) Shelby, Sen. (Jeff) Sessions and Congressman Bradley Byrne on that.
“We’ve got some red snapper between 3 and 9 miles, but if we get our boundary out to 9 miles we would increase our reef-building efforts in that area. That will give us options and tools for the future.”
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Red snapper are abundant on the natural and artificial structures off the Alabama coast. Determining how many snapper are landed off Alabama during the short season, however, has been inconsistent, to say the least. Alabama Marine Resources Division wants to implement a reporting system to accurately count the red snapper harvested off Alabama.