By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
With a new pacemaker in place, Dr. Bob Shipp is preparing to oversee the thousands upon thousands of fish from the Gulf of Mexico and Alabama’s coastal waters that will be tossed onto the counter at the weigh station during the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR), scheduled July 21-23 at Dauphin Island.
Shipp, Professor Emeritus of the University of South Alabama’s Marine Sciences Department, will serve as head judge at the weigh station during the 84th rodeo, which happens to be his 35th behind the rodeo scales.
Shipp started as an assistant judge to the late Roy Martin in 1982 and became the head judge when Martin retired in the late ’90s.
During Shipp’s time as head judge, the ADSFR was recognized in 2011 by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest and oldest fishing tournament in the world.
“It’s become probably the biggest single event in Lower Alabama during the summer,” Shipp said. “It’s the focal point of all the activities with thousands and thousands of people who come to Dauphin Island and coastal Alabama. Plus, you’ve got people from Tennessee and Georgia and other states who come down just for the rodeo.
“What I think is really interesting is that it has become as much a spectator event for non-fishermen as it is for fishermen themselves. It used to be that fishermen were pretty much it. But now with all the display tanks and Most Unusual category, it’s just a great venue for tourists.”
Shipp said the other big change he’s experienced during his rodeo time is how marine science has flourished at the rodeo in the last 10 to 15 years.
“Way back when, there were a couple of us down there for the science,” he said. “Now we have scientists from all over the country and Europe, too, to collect specimens. I would have to count how many masters’ theses and Ph.D. dissertations have come from the rodeo. And the Jaycees (Mobile chapter that hosts the rodeo) have been so supportive.”
One species that has been studied extensively at the ADSFR is Alabama’s favorite reef fish, the red snapper, which has been the center of controversy for numerous years because of season restrictions instituted in federal waters.
“We’ve been able to gather a tremendous amount of information on red snapper in terms of growth and age structure at the rodeo,” Shipp said. “That information is going to be used, eventually, to change the management regime for snapper. That also includes grouper and the other snapper species like vermilion, gray and lane snapper.
“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of data that has pointed out the importance of artificial structures off of Alabama. We’ve got more than 15,000 artificial reefs that have totally changed the ecosystem and built up the reef fish fishery. That’s due in part because of the rodeo support and the information gathered at the rodeo.”
As part of his continued work at South Alabama, Shipp makes several research trips annually into the Gulf to gather red snapper specimens. The research, funded by the Alabama Marine Resources Division, gathers catch data and video footage during the trips. One species that scientists won’t be able to process for this year’s rodeo is triggerfish, which is closed for all of 2017. Shipp, however, has seen plenty of triggerfish on his research trips.
“We’ve been out several times and the videos show huge, huge triggerfish,” he said. “They’re also very curious. They come right up to the camera.”
Shipp said during the trips, the bottom-reading electronics will reveal new spots to probe to determine if the structure is natural or man-made and to see what kind of marine life is present.
“When we put the camera down, it’s amazing,” he said. “We have never had a single one of those spots that wasn’t just loaded with snapper.”
Thanks to a change in the federal red snapper season, which runs each Friday, Saturday and Sunday through and including Labor Day, there will be tons of big red snapper brought to the rodeo weigh station. Don’t forget to report your catch on Snapper Check.
The rodeo kicks off this Saturday, the 15th, with the Roy Martin Young Anglers Tournament, which sees about 2,000 youngsters head out to catch any number of fish species. The Roy Martin event is open to all young anglers 15 and under. And the kids will compete in several species not available during the ADSFR, including sea robins, croakers, hardhead catfish, spadefish, oysterfish, pinfish and whiting.
For the big rodeo, those anglers who wish to participate in the jackpot events will have to make captain’s meetings at one of two venues, Orange Beach and Dauphin Island. The meetings for the Raymarine Big Game Jackpot, the Jesco King Mackerel Jackpot and the ADSFR Catch & Release Shark Category will be held at J&M Tackle in Orange Beach and the rodeo site at Dauphin Island. The Catch & Release Shark meeting is set for Thursday, July 20 at 5 p.m. at J&M Tackle in Orange Beach and the ADSFR site on Dauphin Island for a mandatory sign-out. The King Mackerel Jackpot sign-out will be Thursday at 6 p.m. at J&M and Dauphin Island, while the Big Game Jackpot will hold its meeting also at 6 p.m. at the two locations. If the participant or representative is unable to attend the captain’s meeting, a boat representative has until 5 a.m. Friday, July 21 to complete the mandatory sign-out at the ADSFR site for the Big Game Jackpot, King Mackerel Jackpot, ADSFR Catch and Release Shark Category and optional cash prize divisions.
Anglers in the big rodeo will compete in 30 categories, 15 inshore and 15 offshore. There is also a Speckled Trout Jackpot. The speckled trout anglers will fish in two divisions – motorized and non-motorized.
The Live Weigh-In competition for speckled trout and redfish will return at the Dauphin Island site. The Live Weigh-In has been a popular addition to the rodeo and numerous trout and redfish have successfully been measured and released to the wild.
The rodeo will continue the special prize category started last year for lionfish. Rodeo anglers are urged to bring as many of the invasive species to the weigh dock as possible. Lionfish, which threatens the Gulf Coast ecosystem because it has almost no natural predators, is the rodeo’s exclusive spear-fishing category, and the winner will be decided by the number of fish brought to the weigh station.
Rodeo tickets are available at the usual outlets as well as online at www.adsfr.com.
After the rodeo is finished, Shipp will return to another familiar role – Alabama representative on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. Shipp was appointed to a third term on the Council. Shipp knows the Council’s top agenda item is obviously red snapper.
“I think there is going to be a lot of effort to turn red snapper management over to the states,” he said. “I know most of the legislative people along the five Gulf states are tired of trying to fight these silly regulations that we have in place now.
“If the Council can’t come up with something better than they have now, I think states will eventually take it over. I think there’s also a lot of disagreement about the state of amberjack and triggerfish, but those are not nearly as serious as the snapper situation.”
Shipp said it’s hard to resolve what the NOAA Fisheries computer models indicate and what anglers and even the research trips show about the red snapper population.
“Because of the artificial reef efforts, not just Alabama but the other states as well, we have created a tremendous amount of snapper habitat that did not exist before,” he said. “The population has expanded increasingly rapidly. The problem is the way the feds view the population. They need a ratio of ages. They want so many 4-5-6-year-olds. With the population expanding as rapidly as it is, all these young fish are entering the population and it screws up the model.
“This goal of rebuilding the snapper stock by 2032 was put in place in the 1990s. Here they are looking 30-35 years in advance with no way to address the changes in habitat. Our hurricane people, with all the data they have, can’t even predict four days out. So how can you predict 30 years out for a fishery. It’s insane.”
Shipp said another reason will likely factor into the transition to state-managed reef fisheries.
“Each state has different habitat,” he said. “Alabama has artificial reefs. Alabama and Texas have oil rigs. Florida has a lot of natural bottom. Everything is different, so it makes much more sense for the states to manage it.”
PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Dr. Bob Shipp has been a judge at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo at Dauphin Island since 1982 and has seen countless red snapper and king mackerel come across the scales. Shipp also heads research trips into the Gulf of Mexico to study the red snapper population.