In the line of duty

Wildlife and Fisheries' Enforcement agent Sgt. Scott Bullit receives the 2016 Conservation Officer of the Year presented during Thursday's Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission meeting in Baton Rouge. The award was presented by Shikar-Safari Club International's Chris Kinsey, right. Behind Bullit is Enforcement Division Lt. Thomas Risser. Bullit, of Jonesboro, was Enforcement Region 2 Officer of the Year Award in 2012, the LDWF Enforcement Waterfowl Officer of the Year Award in 2014, and the LDWF Enforcement Boating Officer of the Year Award in 2015. While on patrol on the Russell Sage Wildlife Management Area on May 21, 2015, he was shot by Luke Jarrod Hust, who was later convicted of attempted first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Bullitt continues rehabilitation from his wounds and has not returned to active duty.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Other than deer hunting with dogs, there has never been a more pervasive, more passionate, more consuming discussion during Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission meetings than red snapper.

And it continued Thursday.

In March, LWFC chairman Chad Courville called on the Wildlife and Fisheries staff to gather representatives from the three red snapper user groups — two each commercial, charterboat and recreational fishermen — to present their positions on red snapper management.

To a man, their responses hammered, and then some, a federal management system that fails, in large part, to understand Louisiana’s plight in the management of several reef-fish species, not just red snapper.

And, to a man, they said Louisiana’s state agency and commission need to protect the state’s historic red snapper catch. For the recreational sector, it's between 14-15 percent of the total recreational red snapper take from the Gulf of Mexico.

Leeville commercial fisherman Russell Underwood, with 35 years under his belt, credited the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for a “job well done” for this resource. Underwood explained about how a decline in red snapper 10 years ago has been turned around by strict federal regulations that have brought “red snapper comeback 10 fold … I’ve never seen this many fish in the western Gulf, and Louisiana needed to fight hard for what we have here.”

Underwood’s statement seems to verify data showing Gulf waters off Louisiana and Texas have recovered to the point where red snapper are neither overfished nor is there overfishing of this stock. Eastern Gulf waters lag far behind this recovery level.

Steve Tomeny, who began his charterboat operation two generations ago in Fourchon, said Louisiana’s charterboat operators are getting squeezed by federal regulations that require the 1,200 or so charterboats Gulf-wide with federal permits to adhere to federal red snapper seasons. It means those permitted charters cannot take and hold red snapper from state waters during what’s become more liberal seasons in state waters.

While a move to remove charters from the recreational sector’s allowed charterboat red snapper quota (going into its third season) — the move gave charters 45 days instead of the 9-11 days allowed for the recreational red snapper season — federal managers have shut down the greater amberjack season for the rest of 2017.

“I will not land a legal amberjack this year 'cause somebody in Florida caught all the quota for the year,” Tomeny said.

Grand Isle charter skipper Darryl Carpenter said federal managers gave a six-day notice for the amberjack closure, and that left Louisiana charter operations with no time to adjust plans for future trips.

"The (federal) management system has no ability to manage fish … and there needs to be a system to manage for the good of the harvest," Carpenter said.

Carpenter said the Louisiana Charterboat Association backs state management for red snapper and possibly other reef fish.

Stephen Babcock and CCA Louisiana executive director David Cresson spoke for the recreational sector, which, after separation from the charterboat sector, is called the “private” sector.

Babcock said after the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council instituted individual fishing quotas for the commercial red snapper sector 10 years ago, recreational seasons have decreased from 193 days, to 60 to nine days last year.

He said “private” anglers west of the mouth of the Mississippi River do not get a chance to take advantage of the state red snapper season because anglers fishing from Venice — possibly Grand Isle, too — have access to deep, red-snapper rich waters inside the state's nine-mile limit into the Gulf. Anglers farther to the west do not have those same water depths in state waters.

Cresson’s main points were that the GMFMC has failed to move state management plans further along, that Louisiana anglers have supported, through increased license fees, state programs to better manage red snapper and other offshore species, and that more than 80 percent of all anglers support a move to state management for reef fish.

That same day

Almost at the same time during Thursday afternoon’s commission meeting, word came from the GMFMC meeting of approval of a plan to allow Louisiana to manage its historical catch out to 200 miles in the Gulf for 2019-2021. In what can only be called a preliminary vote, the council passed this plan 11-4 with Mississippi and Alabama joining Louisiana’s delegation on the “for” side.

And, in Washington, four congressmen, including Garret Graves, R-La., introduced a bill entitled “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017” to replace the stalled regional fishery management bill Graves tried to push through in 2016.

In other action

After hearing from shrimpers, the commission decided against holding a special late-April meeting to determine opening dates for the spring inshore shrimp season. The seasons will be set during the May 4 meeting in Baton Rouge.

And, the LWFC approved amendments to, then the entire hunting-seasons package for 2017-2018.