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Gulf Council Hopes for Fall Snapper Season

June 2010

By DAVID RAINER

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council continues to hold out hope that there still could be a red snapper season in the northern Gulf this year.

At its meeting in Gulfport, Miss., recently, the council passed a recommendation that an emergency rule be implemented that allows the regional administrator to extend snapper season to the end of the year if the quota has not been met.

“Previous to this action, the official season was June 1 to September 30 even though we anticipated the quota would be completed by July 24,” said Bob Shipp, chair of the Gulf Council and head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama. “But now with this situation, if the conditions change and if the quota is not reached, then this will give the regional administrator the authority to extend the season into the fall and winter.”

Shipp admits that every day the oil spill continues the more dire the situation becomes. In fact, the area closed to fishing in federal waters has now been extended to Panama City.

“One of the downsides is that even if they do get this thing under control, those areas that have been in contact with oil will have to undergo detailed analysis on the impact on the species that live there and make sure they haven’t accumulated any toxic levels of oil or contaminants,” Shipp said. “The best scenario is if they cap this thing and the closed areas start to shrink. But that doesn’t mean they will be reopened right away.”

When I asked Shipp if it would be unrealistic to think there would any significant red snapper fishing off the Alabama coast this year, he didn’t project all doom and gloom.

“I wouldn’t be quite that pessimistic, but if we have a snapper season it will be mid-fall to late fall or early winter,” he said. “I don’t see anything through September.”

Capt. Johnny Greene, who runs the charter boat Intimidator out of Orange Beach and sits on the Gulf Council, was glad to see the council recommend the emergency rule.

“I was very proud to see the reception from the fellow council members toward the disparity we’re going through and the compassion they have in trying to extend our ability to catch red snapper to Dec. 30,” Greene said. “That’s a big deal for us. Hopefully, they get this thing capped and get it cleaned up so we can salvage a fall season off Alabama.”

During public testimony, Capt. Maurice Fitzsimons, who helped start Zeke’s Charter Fleet in 1992 and is still involved in the marina at Orange Beach, said the charter industry is near a tipping point.

“A lot of the trips the boats have built their business on over the years are corporate charters,” Fitzsimons said. “If we let this corporate business get away for a year, they’re going to play golf in Myrtle Beach or go pheasant hunting in South Dakota and you’ve lost that charter. They’ve already found a new way to spend the money. When the money is gone, business is gone. The thing we’re asking for is a fall fishing season. That would be the most beneficial thing you could do for us in Orange Beach, Ala.

“Right now we’ve got captains doing whatever they can do to make their boat payments, their house payments, whether it’s a vessel for hire or looking for odd jobs. We’re shut down. Boats cannot even get out of Perdido Pass. There are no people on the beach, the hotels and condos are empty or nearly empty. We’ve got three restaurants (at the marina) that are not even in the 25-percent volume range from what they’ve been in years past. Plus, we were down 70 percent in the charter office prior to June 1.”

Roy Crabtree, Southeast Region administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said all the agency’s resources are busy sampling the Gulf of Mexico to analyze the impact of the oil spill and determine if a fall snapper season is feasible.

“We have vessels out sampling in different capacities,” Crabtree said. “Some are sampling water chemistry, finding where oil is and what’s beneath the surface. We have other vessels out sampling fish and shellfish to see if they are contaminated with oil or hydrocarbons.

“We have a lot of vessels and a lot of people working on this. We’ve got universities involved. We’re hiring charter boats and commercial vessels for sampling. All we have to do is make sure we have someone onboard who can ensure that the samples are collected from a certain area and remain in the chain of custody.”

Crabtree said the agency gets projections every morning of where the oil is and where it is likely to be in 24 and 48 hours. If an area has had oil over it or is projected to have oil over it in 48 hours, it will be closed to fishing.

Crabtree is hopeful that the trend toward closing more of the Gulf will be reversed and areas can be reopened.

“Once the oil recedes from an area, we’ll identify those as high-priority areas to have vessels to go in and sample the fish and shellfish,” he said. “The way the protocol works is if we can show the animals there are clean, we can open that area. We haven’t done that, yet, but I’m hoping we can soon. The high-priority areas we’re looking at right now are off the western coast of Louisiana where the oil has pulled back. Then down off the west coast of Florida.

“We had originally identified areas off Alabama and the Panhandle of Florida to sample, but the oil moved back over those areas, so the closures have actually expanded there. I had hoped we would be able to open some of those areas with the opening of red snapper season, but it worked out just the opposite.”

Because the extent of the oil spill is unprecedented, Crabtree said it’s virtually impossible to determine a timetable for any relief for Gulf anglers.

“Everything depends on how long the leak goes on,” he said. “It’s hard for me to judge once the leak is stopped how quickly things will clear up and how quickly we will start to open all these fishing areas. I hope it’s very quickly, but I just don’t know. There are still a lot of things we have to figure out. I think it’s too soon to say what the long-term impact is on fish stocks. I think a lot of the adult fish move away from it, but we don’t know the effect on the eggs and larvae, which are much more vulnerable.

“The good thing is we have not seen evidence of large fish kills. Normally, if we get a red tide, for instance, we get reports of dead fish floating. I have not had reports like that. Right now, the main concerns are on the impact on habitat like the marshes in Louisiana and the impact on eggs and larvae.”

In other action, NOAA Fisheries will implement an emergency closure of the gag grouper fishery in the Gulf starting Jan. 1, 2011 for 180 days with an option to extend it another 180 days.

“During that period, we will re-examine the stock assessment and the bycatch issues associated with the red grouper fishery,” Shipp said. “When these are examined, then we will determine if we can have a short season for gags in the later summer or fall, but it’s not too optimistic. It may be closed for all of 2011.”

PHOTO: (by David Rainer) Charter boat captains and recreational anglers on the northern Gulf Coast hope a fall red snapper season will be scheduled if the oil spill is contained and federal waters are re-opened to fishing.

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