States offer plan to extend Gulf red snapper season

TPWD/COURTESY after a dismal three-day Season Texas and four other Gulf Coast states seek a weekend red snapper recreational fishing season throughout the summer.

There is no doubt the National Marine Fisheries Service has fishermen along the entire Gulf Coast seeing red this year.

In the blink of an eye, the red snapper season for recreational fishermen came and went June 1-3. And because of bad weather, no one is happy.

Seeking recourse, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said it would be holding public meetings in La Marque, Corpus Christi and Port Isabel on Monday to get input on extending the federal recreational season this summer.

The idea came up last week after fisheries officials in five Gulf states broached the concept with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

There are actually two plans on the table. One is a two-day, Saturday-Sunday option that would begin June 17 and continue through Sept. 4.

Texas allows a year-round harvest under a four-fish, 15-inch minimum length daily limit in state controlled waters stretching nine nautical miles offshore, but under the plan state waters would be closed Monday through Friday until after Labor Day.

The second plan allows a Friday-Sunday three-day fishing weekend beginning June 16, but would require state waters to be closed Monday through Thursday through Labor Day. It could also impact fishing days in state waters during the fall.

Both plans call for extended fishing days July 3 and 4.

If approved, the bag limit will remain the same in state waters, but will be two-fish with a 16-inch minimum in federal waters on opened days.

The plan does not impact federally permitted charter boats or commercial harvest.

Prior to 1997 there was no federal season for red snapper. Since then, recreational fishing days have steadily been decreasing in response to a declining fish population. Since 2008, the dates have remained under 100. In 2014, fishing days dipped to an at-the-time low nine before rebounding to 10 and 11 the next two years then to three this year.

This year’s red snapper season has been a hot issue along the coast since it was announced. Louisiana went so far as to seek control over the snapper fishery off its shore, while members of Congress began legislation to give Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi control out to the nine-mile marker. Those states currently manage waters out three nautical miles. Only Texas and Florida have control to nine miles.

Texas opened the snapper season with TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith penning a rare public note of displeasure.

“If anglers are outraged by this decision, they should be! It remains impossible to fathom, much less explain, how we could continue to have record high stock assessments of red snapper, yet couple that with record low opportunities for anglers to fish Gulf waters. The time has come for a substantive change within the current management structure of the Gulf Council to allow the gulf coast states the ability to manage the fisheries along their coastlines in a manner that is not only based on relevant science, but one that is also in the best interests of the anglers and the resource they enjoy and value so much,” Smith’s statement said in part.

Under the current management plan, 51 percent of the total Gulf harvest is allotted to commercial operations. This year that meant the total recreational catch could not exceed 6.7 million pounds while the commercial harvest was set at just over 7 million pounds.

The fishery is important from a recreational standpoint in Texas. TPWD said for 2016 there were more than 5,200 party boat trips averaging 40 fishermen per boat and more than 16,000 recreational trips on boats with an average of more than four fishermen per boat.

“This type of fishing effort clearly speaks to the importance of recreational angling for red snapper in Texas and the economic impact that it has on local businesses and communities. Now, near 20 percent of our anglers in our angler mail surveys list red snapper as a key preferred species,” said Robin Riechers, TPWD Coastal Fisheries director.

In Texas, at least, Riechers said over the course of a year 70 percent of the red snapper catch comes from state managed water, a reflection of the more liberal season inside the nine-mile mark.

According to the department, red snapper populations have been increasing in the western Gulf. Using that and other data collected by the state and others, TPWD believes the current stock can easily take more recreational fishing pressure.

“The most recent red snapper stock assessment suggests that red snapper populations in the western Gulf of Mexico are building and are at the highest they have been in recent history. Several factors may be contributing to this: decreased fishing pressure from the shortened federal seasons, decreased by-catch in shrimp trawls, and increased habitat availability from oil rigs and the state’s artificial reef program. This increasing abundance trend has been going on for awhile now,” Riechers said.

He added the same doesn’t hold true in the eastern Gulf waters, but the National Marine Fisheries Service manages the western and eastern stocks as separate populations except when setting catch limits.

Riechers believes one long-term solution would be a more regional approach to management, which would allow more recreational opportunities.

“Barring this action, NMFS needs to improve its stock assessment process so red snapper management decisions can be made using the most recent data. For example, the last update to the red snapper stock assessment was completed in 2014 so this year’s season was based on projections from data collected prior to 2015. Additional changes could also be made to the Magnuson Stevens Act to give greater flexibility on rebuilding schedules which could also help to restore more fishing opportunity,” Riechers said.

All public meetings will begin at 7 p.m. Locations include: Galveston County Extension Services Office, Main Meeting Room, 4102-B Main Street, La Marque; Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Carlos F. Truan Natural Resources Center, Room 1003, 6300 Ocean Drive, Corpus Christi; and Port Isabel Event and Cultural Center, 309 Railroad Ave., Port Isabel.

Those unable to attend the public meetings can participate in a live webinar at noon Tuesday. To participate, you must register online at goo.gl/rO6ELT. Participants will be allowed to ask questions and make comments during a live chat during the webinar.

Public comment may also be given online at tpwd.texas.gov/business/feedback/public_comment/.

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