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Red snapper

Louisiana’s recreational fishermen planning to head off the state’s coast in search of red snapper likely will have three new letters in their angling alphabet — E-F-P – Exempted Fishing Permit.

It’s this new federal directive to all five Gulf States that will likely guide recreational fishermen through what could be a red snapper season similar to the extended season of 2017.

This new EFP was outlined by state fisheries biologist Myron Fischer during Thursday’s Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission monthly meeting.

Fischer and staff began work on this program more than three months ago.

In late September, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, informed the five Gulf States of its willingness to follow a U.S. Senate report in the 2017 Consolidated Appropriations Act directing NOAA to “develop and support a fishery management pilot program that allows state to lead reef fish management activities in designated zones over artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.”

An EFP is an accepted method to implement and gather data from these “pilot programs.” In short, this permit will allow fishing activity which would be prohibited by federal regulations though federal agencies and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, and is designed for data collection, a more detailed study of the productivity of the understudied artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, and, Fischer said, “encourages states to propose methods for monitoring abundances of fishes.”

Fischer further outlined the state’s response to the NOAA advisory, addressing major points for private anglers, all recreational fishermen and charterboat operations. Those included:

• A fishery limited to red snapper for 2018 and 2019 along the Louisiana coast out to 200 nautical miles;

• An annual quota of 743,000 pounds for private anglers and 317,000 pounds for charter operations with a variety of catch-monitoring methods, chief among them the recently NOAA-certified LA Creel, the state’s widely accepted catch-data system, and closure of the season when LA Creel and other monitoring methods ascertain catch approaches quotas;

• Anglers must have a current state saltwater fishing license. Mandatory participation in the state’s no-fee Recreational Offshore Landing Permit program and mandatory check-off for voluntary participation in the EFP plan. Without both, anglers will be in violation of federal fishing regulations;

• Vessel registration is required under the federal EFP rules, and trips for red snapper must be registered to include “marina of departure.” And expected time and location for return landing. Web sites and apps will be developed to allow posting of catches, if the anglers so choose;

• A test for state management and validation of “near real-time landings data to manage and provide full accountability;”

• Evaluate the possible differences in anglers’ effort and catch near and above what was described to be “hard structures offshore of Louisiana,” namely oil/gas platforms, state-approved artificial reefs and natural sea bottoms.

This plan comes amidst uncertainty about a recreational red snapper season in federal waters this year, and this EFP is being developed by each of the five Gulf states with the possibility of a closed season in federal waters.

Under the LDWF’s directive the EFP for private anglers would begin May 25, the Friday leading into Memorial Day weekend, and run Fridays-through-Sundays — July Fourth and Labor Day would make the only four-day weekends (and Labor Day only if quotas have not been met) through the summer months. There is also a proviso which mandates an “angler in charge” designee to handle all vessel and trip-registration requirements.

The state’s plan has a deadline of 11 a.m. Jan. 18 to the NOAA office.

The LDWF Fisheries staff has scheduled a Jan. 16 invitees-only meeting to hash out the final draft plan to send to the NOAA.

Already gaining some traction is a plan to open a straight-run season with no closed weekdays to allow this EFP pilot program to determine fishing effort and catch during those days.

The LDWF already has the weekends-only information gathered from the special 39-day season in 2017, and at least two groups are pushing for expanded weekday opportunities to help further refine the state’s approach to setting red snapper seasons in 2020, or until state reef-fish management is granted and removed from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

Further explanations of the EFP and its requirements will be forthcoming if, and when, the state’s plan is approved by NOAA.