Fishing boats stream out of the pass leading from Destin Harbor into the Gulf of Mexico most any spring day, and the flow becomes a flood once the season opens for red snapper, the region’s most popular prize.
New rules for catching the tasty fish are giving hope to commercial charter boat captains from Florida to Texas that the 2015 season will be one of their best in years, yet those same regulations have recreational anglers crying foul about what they see as government overreach.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently announced a 44-day federal fishing season that will begin June 1 for charter boats to catch red snapper in the Gulf. That’s far longer than the nine-day season last year.
Charter captains see the rule as an improvement after years of shortened seasons because of fears the Gulf had been overfished for red snapper and needed time to recover.
“It’ll definitely be a shot in the arm for the charter boat industry,” said Mike Jennings, who operates two fishing vessels out of Freeport, Texas.
Recreational anglers will miss out, however. Under a two-tier system being implemented for the first time, anglers who fish just for fun will be limited to a red snapper season of only 10 days, just one more than in 2014.
The disparity has recreational anglers fuming. They say the federal government is encroaching in an area it doesn’t belong and wrongly favoring an industry over ordinary people.
“We believe they are taking a public resource and putting it into private hands because it’s the easiest way out. It goes against the heritage of our country,” said Johnny Marquez, Mississippi director of the Coastal Conservation Association, a group for recreational anglers.
The Texas-based organization has filed suit to block the new rule, but a judge in New Orleans has yet to decide. Some members of Congress are advocating a move to let states, not the federal government, set rules in the future.
The regional fisheries administrator for NOAA, Roy Crabtree, said the agency is trying to balance the need to protect the red snapper population with the desires of anglers while also taking into account a patchwork of state rules and enforcement difficulties across the Gulf.
“I don’t think any of us are happy with a 10-day federal season,” Crabtree said.
Partly in response to the tight federal limits, Alabama said this week it would open its state waters to recreational snapper fishing in July but warned that anglers could face big fines if they venture into federal waters and are caught.
Such a problem was tough to imagine 25 years ago in Destin or Orange Beach, Alabama, main fishing ports on the northern coast.
For generations, people headed out into the vast Gulf and caught all the red snapper they wanted. Restaurants specialized in cooking the fish, and Midwesterners drove all night to get to the dock for an early morning start to a day on the Gulf.
“It’s as good a table fare as you can find. It’s easy to catch, easy to prepare, and everybody can fish at the same time,” said Jennings, president of the Charter Fisherman’s Association. “It’s a fish that makes you want to come to the coast and fish.”
But something happened in the 1980s: Studies and everyday anglers found that snapper weren’t so plentiful anymore, and the fish that did make it into boats seemed to be smaller than in years past.
Federal regulators began imposing limits on red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, both by reducing the number of days approved for fishing and by limiting the number of fish each person could keep per day. This year, both for charter and recreational anglers, the federal bag limit is two fish a day, each with a minimum length of 16 inches.
But rules are different in each of the five states that border the Gulf – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. For instance, recreational anglers can catch red snapper year-round in Texas waters, but in Florida the fish can be caught in late May, June, early July and then the fall.
Marquez, director of the recreational anglers’ group in Mississippi, said the short federal season won’t just harm anglers who fish solely for fun or food. It will also lead to fewer sales of all the things that anglers need to go out on the Gulf: Rods and reels, tackle, boats, fuel and bait included.
“There’s a ripple,” he said. “It puts a tremendous pressure on the industry that backs private-boat fishing because it’s just about killed the opportunity to go off shore.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.