Now that private recreational fishermen are in the first days of the new 39-day red snapper season in federal waters, there’s a lingering question about any future season or seasons for the hundreds of thousands of recreational anglers throughout the five Gulf States.
After Wednesday’s announcement came from the U.S. Department of Commerce, pro-fishing groups proclaimed a long-overdue win for the private recreation fishing community.
During the same hours, groups long aligned with and supporting commercial fishing and the separation of the recreational fishing sector — it’s been three years since these groups pushed for separate seasons for private anglers and for-hire/charterboat interests — decried the move, even to the point of stating the National Marine Fisheries Service indicated red snapper numbers will continue to increase, but at a much slower rate.
None of those claims were revealed in Commerce’s announcement.
The advance of a 39-day season began in the days following the early May proclamation by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council that set a three-day, June 1-3, private recreational red snapper season in federal waters, that’s nine miles out to 200 miles into the Gulf.
And Wednesday’s announcement came just hours after U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the majority whip, was critically wounded while practicing for the annual baseball game between Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. House and Senate.
“I’d like to offer my thoughts and prayers to Whip Scalise, his staff, the Capitol Police, and their families," Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross said. “Majority whip Scalise and his staff have been incredibly helpful on this and a host of other issues, and I wish them and the other victims a speedy recovery.”
Tuesday night, on the eve of the announcement, Scalise declared the three-day season “unacceptable.”
While Scalise, in his position in the U.S. House took the lead, the American Sportfishing Association acknowledged the work of others in Congress for the push to get recreational anglers some relief from the historically shortest red snapper season.
“We greatly appreciate the leadership of Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, Reps. Scalise, Graves and Scott, along with the Gulf States’ marine fisheries agencies’ directors for working diligently to pursue this action,” ASA Conservation director Mike Leonard said. “(The) announcement providing additional Gulf red snapper fishing days is a welcome relief for the thousands of tackle shops, marinas, equipment manufacturers and other businesses who have suffered from decreasing public access to Gulf red snapper in recent years.”
The 39-day season, one that ended the recreational season on Labor Day, was one of three options offered in an agreement between the ad-hoc congressional panel and Commerce. Other options were a standstill combination of state and federal seasons, and a 27-day season that would afford fishermen the possibility of a season after Labor Day if data showed recreationals did not reach their annual catch limit during the 27-day season.
The five states agreed on the Friday-through-Sunday, 39-day option, a move Graves said left Louisiana and Mississippi agreeing to study their surveys to determine a possible fall recreational season. Graves said state agencies in Florida and Alabama will end their seasons on Labor Day, while Texas indicated it will continue its long-standing, year-long red snapper season.
The Environmental Defense Fund fired a lengthy response to Ross objecting to the very idea of the extended season. EDF claimed, “… even without taking into account the increased fishing that would occur on the weekend versus weekdays, a 39-day season appears to result in a 7.4 million pound overage, representing 197 percent of the 3.7 million pound private angler (catch limit). Even under a 27-day season, the data suggests a 4.45 million pound overage, which equates to 119 percent of the private angler ACL.”
Ocean Conservancy also objected to the new season, and its response pointed out that recreational seasons could be curtailed with its expected over-the-limit catches this year.
Baton Rougean Jeff Angers, the president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, said recreational fishing industry leaders met with Ross in March.
“And he listened,” Angers said, adding thanks to Scalise, Graves and Scott for their work in getting the ear of the newly elected Trump administration.
“The status quo in federal fisheries management driven by radical environmentalists is a man-made fishery management disaster,” Angers said. “While private recreational anglers were limited to a three-day red snapper season in federal waters this year, charterboat operators were granted a 49-day season and commercial fishermen were granted a 365-day season.
“People profiting from our public resources were gifted more access than the American public,” Angers said. “By setting the three-day season, federal fisheries managers essentially told the public the only way they could access this public resource would be to hire a charter boat captain to take them fishing for red snapper in federal waters or to purchase red snapper at the grocery store.”
In separate conversations, Scalise, Graves and Scott said this year’s move is only a first step, and that future seasons will be decided in the coming months.
Scott proclaimed the new season, “… a good first step forward in opening up our nation’s federal red snapper fisheries to America’s sportsmen and women.
“There is still a long road ahead in deregulating this rich natural resource and leveling the playing field for the recreational angler,” Scott said.