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Gulf Council Plans April Vote; Alabama Sets Snapper Season

Alabama's 2019 red snapper season will open on June 1. Photo by David Rainer

By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

One casualty from the recent partial federal government shutdown surfaced last week when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council met at the Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Ala.

Because of the shutdown, the Gulf Council was unable to publish a notice in the Federal Register on a pending vote on Amendment 50, the state management of red snapper. The Council voted to call a special meeting for February to vote on the measure, but that effort was canceled because of logistics problems.

The Council will vote on Amendment 50 at the next regular Council meeting scheduled the first week of April at Biloxi, Miss.

In the meantime, Alabama set its 2019 red snapper season, which is operating under the final year of an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP).

The 2019 Alabama red snapper fishing season for anglers fishing from a private vessel or state-licensed guide boat will be three-day weekends (Friday-Sunday) from June 1 through July 28, 2019, including Thursday, July 4. Except for the opening weekend, which begins on a Saturday, weekends are defined as 12:01 a.m. Friday through 11:59 p.m. Sunday. This does not apply to for-hire (charter) boats with federal reef fishing permits. Charter boats will operate under federal regulations in 2019.

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Scott Bannon said a vote on Amendment 50 at the April meeting should provide enough time to get the rules changed for the 2020 season.

“We should we able to get it done, but we don’t need any more delays,” Bannon said.

Amendment 50 shifts red snapper management to the states and allots each state a share of the red snapper quota. The preferred alternative will give Alabama a 26.49-percent share, while Florida’s share is a little more than 44 percent.

The 2018 and 2019 snapper seasons in the Gulf are operating under an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) that allows the states to set the snapper seasons under the catch limits. Last year, a 3.78-percent share of the quota was left after the pie had been divvied up. NOAA Fisheries (National Marine Fisheries Service or NMFS) gave Florida that 3.78 percent last year.

That 3.78 percent will be split between Florida and Alabama in the preferred alternative for Amendment 50.

“The eastern Gulf is where most of the harvest of red snapper is occurring,” Bannon said. “That is why we think that percentage should be split.”

Bannon said currently there are no plans to include for-hire (charter) boats in any of the state management plans.

Bannon expects Amendment 50 to pass in some form at the April meeting.

“Right now, I’m confident we will have a state-managed season for 2020,” Bannon said. “Allocation was the biggest concern with the options available. I think we will pass it at the next meeting.”

During the 2018 snapper season, the first under the EFP, Alabama set an optimistic private recreational season of 47 days, mostly on three-day weekends.

However, a renewed enthusiasm for snapper fishing and excellent weather conditions forced Marine Resources to shut down the season after 28 days.

“We will again be evaluating the season as it goes along through Snapper Check,” Bannon said. “We have the option to add days if we feel it’s appropriate, based on the harvest rate.”

Of course, that harvest rate will likely be weather-dependent.

“The weather last year was almost ideal throughout the entire red snapper season, and I think that contributed to the increased harvest rates,” Bannon said.  

Plus, Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zone provides easy access to anglers who want to catch a limit of two red snapper with a minimum length of 16 inches.

Angler off the Alabama coast have been catching 20-pound-plus red snapper on a regular basis. Photo by David Rainer

“In the Alabama reef zone, we feel we have a very healthy population of red snapper,” Bannon said. “They are relatively accessible, and the size of the fish caught has been larger over the last couple of years. That also lends to reaching our allocation of pounds earlier.”

Dr. Bob Shipp, professor emeritus of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama, has been studying red snapper off the Alabama Gulf Coast for decades, and he’s happy to see that the excellent health of the red snapper stock is finally being recognized.

NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Director Dr. Roy Crabtree acknowledged at the meeting in Orange Beach that the red snapper fishery is rebounding at a much faster rate than expected.

“The recovery of red snapper has been very robust,” Crabtree said. “There’s no evidence that it’s not going to continue. It’s a remarkable success story.”

Shipp applauded Crabtree’s confirmation that red snapper resiliency is far greater than NOAA scientists and their computer models predicted.

“I was delighted to hear Roy say that,” Shipp said. “Roy has been aware that the recovery is a lot faster than the models projected. That’s good news. I think everybody is on the same page now in terms of the status of the red snapper stocks. The species is very, very healthy. All the testimony we get from Texas all the way to the Keys is that snapper stocks are really strong.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress passed the Modern Fish Act, which was lauded by the recreational fishing community. However, the effect of the Modern Fish Act is not yet fully understood.

“There are provisions in the Act for the National Academies of Sciences to study the fisheries management plans,” Bannon said. “It also directs the Comptroller General to study the allocations, ensuring they are utilizing all the appropriate data that may be provided by the states and other entities. It’s really an outside look to make sure we’re using all the pertinent information to make management decisions.

“There are some pretty tight timelines, so they’ll have to quickly develop plans to present to NOAA and the regional fisheries management councils.”

In other action by the Council last week, Amendments 41 and 42, which deal with headboats and charter boats, respectively, were postponed until electronic log book data becomes available.

Right now, the charter industry in Alabama will remain under federal guidelines, which is fine with Capt. Johnny Greene, who runs the Intimidator out of Orange Beach Marina.

“Last year, we fished about 50 days, and we may get about 60 days this year with the reduction of the buffer because we stayed within our sub-quota for the past three years,” Greene said. “The buffer was reduced from 20 percent to about 10 percent. When you get 10 percent more, that is significant, especially at that time of year (tourist season).

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the people on the back of the boat who are really going to benefit from this. For the non-boat-owning public, this is their best avenue to reap the rewards of the expanded season.”

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Dr. Bob Shipp has been studying red snapper for decades and knows the stocks are rebounding quickly. Photo by David Rainer

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