Gulf Snapper Wars Escalate

Insurrection boils over as feds announce 9-day red snapper season

Posted on March 22, 2013 by Doug Olander, Editor-In-Chief Sportfishing Magazine

Colonists in the Northeast responded to what they considered unfair British tax policies with the Boston Tea Party protest. Similarly, states bordering the Gulf of Mexico last week signaled their displeasure with federal red snapper management; their “tea party” came in the form of a bill introduced in the U.S. House by representative Jo Bonner (R-Ala), as well as individual states announcing their refusal to comply with federal snapper laws.

The bombshell bill — introduced last Friday and catching most by surprise — would extend the waters controlled by each Gulf of Mexico state out to 20 fathoms or nine miles, whichever is farthest.

Some Gulf states’ boundaries extend to three miles and others to nine. But in many areas, even at nine miles, the waters are too shallow to allow access to better reefs and rigs for snapper. The extension to 20 fathoms ensures anglers access to productive snapper grounds within state waters.

Bonner made clear that his bill is intended to give states more say in managing their reef fisheries, especially in light of what he feels is ongoing federal mismanagement.

Earlier in the week in testimony on Capitol Hill, Bob Shipp spoke out in favor of this concept. Shipp, SF’s longtime Fish Facts expert for the Gulf region, is a noted fisheries professor and book author and serves on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (where he is chair of the council’s Reef Committee). Shipp made clear (as he has previously) his belief that individual states can do a better job of managing their reef fishes.

States can set red snapper seasons as they wish within their own state waters, but in the past, most states matched federal snapper seasons (except Texas which for years has allowed red snapper fishing in its state waters, out to nine miles, all year long — with any overage in its federal quota deducted from the total of the remaining Gulf states).

But with the announcement of this year’s astonishing red snapper season proposed to last a record-short 27 days, the growing unrest among Gulf sport-fishing interests has finally boiled over.

Louisiana recently appealed to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to allow it more say in how its meager federal quota can be doled out to anglers, but to no avail. Frustrated, it has just announced that it would join Texas in no longer complying with federal snapper rules, and allow anglers to begin harvesting red snapper starting March 23, rather than wait for the federal June 1 opener.

Moreover, even before the Bonner Bill, Louisiana moved to push its state limit for fish management from the present three miles to just over 10 miles out. That opens up a lot of productive area for red snapper.

Florida has also joined the non-compliance parade, and Mississippi’s governor signed a bill this week extending its state waters out to match the new Louisiana boundary.

All this made federal fishery managers — particularly Roy Crabtree, NOAA Fisheries regional administrator for the Southeast — very unhappy. At the federal level, interpretation of population data suggests that even as red snapper stocks and the average size rise, shorter seasons are required to satisfy the Magnuson Act. But at ground — or in this case, water — level, anglers of all stripes say the same thing: They’ve never seen so many red snapper large and small, and they’ve actually become a nuisance, so thick that you can’t get away from the darn things. I’ve been there, done that and can’t disagree.

So in response to the states’ insurrection, NOAA Fisheries today put out a warning saying in effect that if states go non-compliant (as is already happening), based on federal quotas, these would be the likely seasons in federal waters for red snapper in 2013: Texas — 12 days, Louisiana — nine days, Mississippi/Alabama — 28 days; and Florida — 21 days.

This would also mean that boats with licenses to fish recreationally in federal waters could not bring in fish harvested in state waters once the federal season closed. (Bonner’s bill would allow this, however.)

Exactly how all this will shake out remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure — hold onto your fishing visors; it’s going to be a mighty bumpy ride on the Gulf this summer.