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Fall Snapper Season Gets Thumbs Up from Council
By DAVID RAINER
Finally, red snapper anglers have a ray of hope that they will be able to catch their favorite species in 2010. Of course, two important steps must be accomplished before anglers will be allowed to catch the fish that made the Alabama Gulf Coast famous – NOAA Fisheries’ blessing on the fall snapper season that was approved by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council last week and the opening of fishing in federal waters that have been closed by the oil spill.
The Gulf Council passed an emergency rule to establish a fall red snapper season in Gulf waters that will allow anglers to fish each weekend (12:01 a.m. Friday to 12:01 a.m. Monday) from Oct. 1 to Nov. 22, a total of 24 fishing days.
“This is great news,” said Barnett Lawley, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner. “We had suggested a season on weekends to stretch it out over a longer period of time. Now we’re waiting on testing to come back to get the waters off the Alabama coast reopened to fishing. All of our snapper reefs are in federal waters.”
Obviously, the reason the Gulf Council was able to consider a fall season is because much of the Gulf of Mexico has been closed to fishing due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Hence, when the regular red snapper season ended on July 24 only 1.1 million pounds of the 3.4-million-pound quota had been landed.
With 2.3 million pounds of the quota left, Roy Crabtree, director of NOAA Fisheries’ Southeast Regional Office, said he felt a decision to have a fall season would be justified. Crabtree said he expects to have the emergency rule and final rule published in the Federal Register by Sept. 15 and the approval of the fall snapper season should come at the same time.
During public testimony, several charter boat captains and recreational anglers asked about the possibility of adding the unused 2010 quota to the 2011 quota.
Crabtree said there is currently no provision in the rules for the fishery management plan that allows that to happen. He said although it could be done it would be a tedious process that could encounter any number of hurdles and advised against it. The Gulf Council heeded his recommendation.
Kevin Anson of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, who sits on the Gulf Council, said a fall season should help the state’s coastal communities restore some composure after a summer of great uncertainty.
“In order to get people out fishing again and regain some normalcy in the Gulf, the council decided to release those pounds in the fall,” Anson said. “We heard public testimony from many folks who wanted a fall season but did not want to go over the 2.3 million pounds because it would have implications on the additional TAC (total allowable catch) that is scheduled to be allocated next year in the recreational red snapper fishery. We decided to take a conservative approach based on what NOAA provided as to the number of days available to fish for the 2.3 million pounds and go with the 24 days on weekends. This is definitely good news.”
Council members debated several fall season scenarios, including opening the season for the entire month of October but settled on the novel approach of weekends only.
Although weekend landings are higher than other times, Bob Shipp, who was re-elected as Gulf Council chair for another term, applauded the approval of the fall season and said it will be an excellent opportunity to determine just what kind of impact weekend-only fishing can have on the total catch.
“It’s a rare occurrence indeed when we’re able to give something that we didn’t think we were going to be able to give,” said Shipp, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama. “As bad as the oil spill was, it did enable us to have a fall snapper season. I think most people were in general agreement. Some people preferred the entire month of October and some wanted just weekends. I think part of that is to see how the weekend opening works. In the future, we may want to do that on a seasonal basis to extend a season over several more months.
“One of the reasons for waiting until October for the reopening was to enhance the possibility that those areas would be open. We didn’t want to reopen it prematurely and have these areas still closed to fishing.”
Johnny Greene, captain of the Intimidator and member of the Gulf Council, does expect the fall season to have a limited appeal to anglers.
“I don’t think October and November will be prime times for people who live far away to come to the coast,” Greene said. “I think it’s going to be people who live within a day’s traveling distance to come enjoy our fishery. It’s not going to require the average person with an outboard boat to take off work to go fishing. It’s going to provide more opportunities. With this we’re getting more bang for our buck.
“Also, I think this is the first time we’ve had a pilot on a (weekend-only) season to see how it’s going to work. This is something that’s out of the box, something that’s never been done before. If it works, maybe we can apply it toward future seasons. If it doesn’t, then at least we’re trying something new. I feel that is a major component to what is happening right now – a willingness to try different things.”
Ben Fairey of the Orange Beach Fishing Association and captain of the Necessity thought the Gulf Council considered all the options and came out with a reasonable solution to the fall season.
“This is great news,” Fairey said. “There were some in the for-hire industry that wanted the month of October. I thought that the 24 days that was chosen will keep us from going over, because we want to stay within our quota for 2010 so we don’t negatively affect the quota in 2011.”
I asked Fairey if he expects his phone to start ringing with inquiries about booking a fall snapper trip.
“I’m very confident it will,” he said. “Between the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach tourism board I serve on and the directed marketing we’re going to do and the loyal customers that follow red snapper season, I think we will have the interest. We used to have a very successful October snapper fishery. Unfortunately, it was taken away because the snapper were overfished. But I think they will be back, because our customers follow red snapper.”
Fairey also feels confident that anglers and seafood consumers will not encounter any red snapper that are contaminated by oil.
“I’ve already done four red snapper collection trips for the University of Southern Mississippi,” he said. “Some of those fish were dissected and they had absolutely zero signs of any type of contamination. I’m very confident in NOAA Fisheries and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to make sure our seafood is safe.”
The daily bag limit of two red snapper with a minimum total length of 16 inches will remain in effect for the projected fall season.
Bill Staff, captain of the Sea Spray, couldn’t be happier with the chance to fish for snapper in the fall.
“I need some sanity,” said Staff, who has been charter fishing out of Orange Beach for 30 years. “I need to go fishing. I need to catch something. I can’t imagine being able to watch a college football game and catch a red snapper in the same day.”
PHOTO: (By David Rainer) Red snapper fishermen will likely have a chance to once again catch the prized fish off the Alabama Gulf Coast after the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted for a fall snapper season.