By JANET McCONNAUGHEY Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The group that manages Gulf of Mexico fishing in federal waters says states can keep managing anglers’ catch of red snapper after this year. The popular sport and table fish is still recovering from nearly disastrous overfishing.
The Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council announced the decision Thursday in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries called the decision a major victory for the state’s private anglers.
Environmental groups said, however, that more work was needed to prevent overfishing because each state counts its recreational catch differently. That makes it “difficult to know just how much fishing for red snapper is actually occurring across the Gulf,” said Meredith Moore of the Ocean Conservancy.
“We think it really could work. But the really technical data issue has got to be cracked,” she said.
Sepp Haukebo, manager of private angler reform for the Environmental Defense Fund, expressed cautious optimism.
“As a Gulf angler myself I am hopeful, but guarded as we move toward a solution that should allow us to spend more time fishing for red snapper and less time arguing over them,” he said in a news release.
Louisiana officials say the data, despite the limitations, is an improvement over previous National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries data, and the states are working to improve it still more.
“Each state’s data collection program has been certified or otherwise accepted by NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf Council as the best scientific information available,” Patrick Banks, Louisiana’s assistant secretary of fisheries, said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press.
Red snapper has been a hot issue in the Gulf, with seasons getting shorter and shorter as fish got bigger and more numerous. In 2017, the Trump administration extended a three-day season to 42 days, even though regulators said the extension could add up to six years to the time required for red snapper stocks to recover.
Last year, regulators agreed on a two-year pilot program under which each state sets dates for and keeps tabs on the recreational red snapper catch in federal waters off its coast. If approved by the U.S. commerce secretary, this would become official policy.
The federal government still regulates commercial and charter boat catches.
Although charter boat captains aren’t affected, Shane Cantrell, executive director of the Charter Fisherman’s Association of Surfside, Texas, called the decision awesome.
“It’s been very much needed, and I think the states are best positioned to regulate the private anglers,” he said.
Each year, commercial boats are allocated 51% of the total quota for red snapper. Private anglers are allocated about 58% of the remainder, with the rest available for charter boats. This year, 2.8 million pounds (1.3 million kilograms) are available to people who go out in chartered fishing boats, with nearly 4.3 million pounds (1.9 million kilograms) for anglers on their own.
And while the recreational anglers’ quota used to be Gulf-wide, it is now divided by state, with each state responsible for setting the dates for each season.
Any Gulf state that goes over its quota will have it subtracted from the following year’s quota. If it catches less, the uncaught amount can be carried over, Louisiana’s news release said.
Banks said the Gulf-wide system often hurt Louisiana anglers because better weather off Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi gave anglers there a better chance.
“Now we have a certain amount of fish reserved just for us,” he said in the news release. “Our Wildlife and Fisheries Commission sets the season for our anglers to catch that set amount of fish and they can set that season whenever they want that best fits our anglers and ensures responsible harvest levels.”