Shorter red snapper season ahead for Gulf Coast
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Charter boat and recreational fishermen will have only 11 days beginning June 1 to reel in red snapper from federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico this year, down from 42 last year.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council approved the emergency change by a 15-1 show of hands Thursday in Baton Rouge.
"It's an insult to the recreational anglers and associated fishing industry of Louisiana," Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Randy Pausina said.
Charter fishermen said the change would damage their business, but council members said it was needed to ensure the future of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.
"How could you make a living in just 11 days?" Tom Steber, president of the Orange Beach-based Alabama Charter Fishing Association, asked as he drove home from the meeting.
Steber and Pausina said the council and NOAA Fisheries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, use faulty data. Pausina said Louisiana collects its own, more accurate, data and should be able to set the length and structure of red snapper seasons to fit quotas set by national regulators - a total of 11 million pounds this year, with 49 percent allocated to recreational anglers.
U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La., have introduced separate bills calling for such state-by-state regulation.
Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham reacted to the shortened season by extending the season in Louisiana waters from weekends only to 365 days a year, starting Monday.
That could prompt regulators to cut the federal season even shorter, said Pamela Baker, Gulf of Mexico director for the Environmental Defense Fund's Oceans program.
"Closures and limited seasons are never going to work, they haven't worked for years and it is time for the Council to step up," she said in a news release.
She suggested quotas for charter fishing boats and, for private anglers, harvest tags like those used by deer hunters.
Tags would be expensive, Pausina said. "Louisiana doesn't need it. We have a very, very precise fish counting program," he said.
The limited federal season must next be approved by the Secretary of Commerce. NOAA Fisheries has scheduled a teleconference Friday to comment.
The emergency vote came two weeks after a judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that federal regulators had been mismanaging the recreational red snapper catch for years.
In a suit brought by commercial fishermen, U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein said the regulators, including the council and NOAA Fisheries, failed to ensure that anglers stayed within their expected catch and failed to hold them accountable by cutting back subsequent seasons enough to compensate for previous excesses.
The council and NOAA Fisheries set the recreational seasons according to estimates of how long it will take anglers to catch their limit.
Commercial boats, which are allocated 51 percent of the annual quota, are regulated differently. Since 2007, each boat has been given a quota and must stop fishing for red snapper when it hits that limit. They always have stayed within their quota but recreational fishermen have exceeded their share in six of the past seven years, Rothstein wrote.
Fishermen also contend that quotas are being set unreasonably low because they have been seeing more and more red snapper, and the fish are moving into areas where they had not been seen for decades.
Scientists say enough fish must be left in the water to continue such growth until the species has recovered from overfishing.
Adding another layer to debate, the council decided in February that, in future years, recreational anglers should get a greater share. It would keep the 51-49 split up to 9.12 million pounds but give anglers three-quarters of the additional share. If that applied this year, recreational fishermen would get more than 53 percent of the 11 million-pound total.
A vote Thursday to keep the current division failed on an 8-8 tie.
The National Restaurant Association weighed in Thursday on the commercial fishermen's side of that fight, joining a coalition of chefs, restaurateurs, restaurant associations, seafood suppliers, fishermen, consumers and conservationists.
A final decision on that question is expected in August.
Janet McConnaughey reported from New Orleans and Nelson-Gabriel from Pensacola, Fla.
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