June 13, 2013

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

High winds and waves during the two opening weekends of red snapper season is the perfect example of why Capt. Randy Boggs has promoted a novel concept for the head boats that fish the Gulf of Mexico.

Boggs, who owns two head boats docked at SanRoc Cay Marina in Orange Beach, has pushed has pushed for a pilot program that would allow up to 20 head boats to choose their days at sea. Head boats are walk-on charters that charge a daily fee per head and typically carry more anglers than charter boats, which are most often booked by groups.

The red snapper season has been embroiled in a battle between several of the Gulf states and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which sets fishing regulations in federal waters. 

Several states – Texas, Louisiana and Florida – had set seasons in state waters that were not in compliance with federal regulations. NMFS implemented an emergency rule that shortened the federal seasons in the non-compliant states.

Texas, which has a 9-mile state waters boundary, has never closed its state waters to red snapper fishing, but only a small percentage of snapper are caught in Texas state waters. Louisiana opened a weekends-only season from April through October in Louisiana state waters. Florida had set a 44-day red snapper season within its 9-mile boundary for state waters. The other three states have 3-mile boundaries for state waters. Only Alabama and Mississippi were in compliance with the federal regulations.

However, charter boats in Texas and Louisiana sued NMFS. The day before snapper season opened on June 1, the District Court in Texas voided the NMFS emergency rule that shortened the season in federal waters for the states that were not in compliance. The court ruled that all five Gulf states will have a red snapper season from June 1 through June 28.

Now that the 2013 snapper season dates have apparently been settled, the main thing Boggs wants is for all the controversy to end.

“All this negative publicity about red snapper season has adversely affected the fishing here,” he said. “I was talking to one of the largest rental property businesses down here, and they said their business was up. But our charter industry is down, because people hear all this negativity, negativity, negativity in the news about red snapper season.”

Those who do venture into the Gulf in search of red snapper are having an easy time putting a two-fish limit on the boat. And those who think the head boats catch only small fish might reconsider after viewing the recent catch on Boggs’ Reel Surprise.

“We’re seeing fish on head boat trips that weigh anywhere from 7 to 24.5 pounds,” Boggs said. “Snapper are easy for the recreational anglers to catch. It gives people access to the fish. The downside is we had 7- and 8-foot ground swells this week, which made it borderline safe to fish.”

The solution Boggs is pushing is to start the “Head Boat Pilot Program” that will give head boats the needed flexibility to take advantage of the outstanding red snapper fishing in the Gulf.

“It’s an experimental fishing permit to conduct a scientific experiment,” he said. “It’s called a rights-based fishery. I believe that when you buy a fishing license you should get two fish per day for ever how long the season is; this year that would be 56 fish. Why should you be limited to a derby fishery and have to harvest all those fish just in June? What difference does it make if you go in June and catch two, July and catch four or October, when it’s nice and cool, and catch 10?

“What the program does is allow the recreational angler who comes on a head boat to be able to harvest the fish that we normally have caught in the past, based on our catch from 2011, which was the shortest season we’d had at that point at 44. We had no idea the season would get shorter. On head boats, we count and weigh every fish that comes off each head boat. When NMFS talks about computer modeling, they’re using the head-boat data, because they know exactly what we’re harvesting.”

Boggs said the head boat data indicates each boat will fish an average of 100 days per year with an average of 30 passengers.

“My premise is why should I have to take those people fishing in six- to eight-foot seas when the weather is bad,” he said. “A lot of the factory workers in Alabama get the week of the July 4 off, and this year they’re going to completely miss red snapper season. The working-class people who come to the Alabama Gulf Coast are going to miss the snapper season because of all the bureaucratic mess with the fisheries. Why can’t we set aside those fish we normally catch so we can go out when the weather is good.”

The plan, which has been approved by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, would allow those in the program to start fishing January 1. Each head boat would be equipped with an electronic monitoring device. Each captain must notify NMFS and local law enforcement that the boat is going out to catch red snapper. The regular bag limit of two fish per person per day applies. The boats must notify NMFS an hour before landfall, and each angler must have a receipt showing they harvested the fish legally on the head boat.

“There has been a lot of talk at the Gulf Council about whether a system of separate quotas for charter/for-hire boats and private recreational anglers would be feasible and enforceable,” said Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship. “The Marine Resources Division feels that this type of pilot program would go a long way to providing answers on this type of sector allocation.  We want to look at any options that would give our citizens more access to the great red snapper fishery we have built through our artificial reef program.”

“We surmise this will allow us to maximize our time on the water,” Boggs said. “If this is implemented, I plan to go out during the winter and have a one-fish bag limit. When the bait moves out, we can go out, and without high-grading, we can catch everybody on the boat a red snapper between 10 and 20 pounds, which is a great value for an $85 fishing trip. We can extend our season and manage our business. If I wanted to, I could fish every Saturday. If the weather is rough, I could go another day. That way, I can manage my business and it provides the working-class people with access to the fish without beating them to death in bad weather.”
Right now, 13 boats have signed up for the program, spread from Tampa, Fla., to Galveston, Texas. Head boats from Orange Beach and Dauphin Island are on board.

“All this plan does is provide purely recreational anglers who don’t own a boat with access to the fish,” Boggs said. “Randy Boggs can’t harvest one fish. Every fish has to go home with a purely recreational angler who has paid to be on the boat. This provides a safer platform for the people to catch fish.

“What I’m hoping it will do is it will spark the recreational community to say this ‘rights-based fishery’ is a pretty good idea. Let’s get an iPhone app that when I go fishing that I can let the fisheries managers know that I harvested two fish that day and it comes off my bag limit. I get an approval number and I can go fishing the next day. Basically what we will be doing is having an electronic checking station on the head boats. Then we can prove without a shadow of a doubt that we’re not overfishing. This gives me the same number of days, but scattered out when the weather is good.”

It would not be a year-round fishery because of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. If the plan is implemented, the season can start on January 1, but the season must close when NMFS deems that the recreational red snapper quota has been reached, which would likely be in July under current regulations.

“We would be silly to save many days after the end of snapper season,” Boggs said. “We’re looking at possibly a six-month season. But being able to scatter out the days instead of a 30- or 40-day season would be much better that the current derby fishery.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Those who contend that big fish are never caught on head boats didn’t witness the red snapper taken on a recent trip on the Reel Surprise, shown backing into its slip at SanRoc Cay Marina in Orange Beach. Larry Johnson, a regular customer, landed this 24.5-pound whopper that was weighed on certified scales. Deck hand Tristan Ellis unloads a [INVALID]r of nice snapper for one family that went on the six-hour trip.