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Ryan Henry and Harold Schoeffler Jr. with show off some red snapper caught last summer.

Because the federal government shutdown hindered votes on key issues, notably state management for the recreational red snapper sector, the major move from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s January meeting was setting percentages for each state’s take of the overall annual recreational red snapper allowed catch.

Louisiana fisheries managers operated for a couple of seasons with a 15 percent allocation of the total annual recreational red snapper allotment. It was a figure that represented what the state Wildlife and Fisheries’ Marine Fisheries Section believed was the state’s historical take, percentage-wise, from the total catch among the five Gulf states.

That number changed when the move to state management of red snapper seasons and daily creel limits gained momentum during the past five years.

That “mo” resulted in Reef Fish Amendment 50 — state management — but when Alabama and Florida complained issues in A50 didn’t adequately address their unusually large charterboat and headboat fishing operations, the “for-hire” sector was pulled from the annual recreational red snapper allotment and separated private angling and for-hire sectors within the total allotment.

Department of Wildlife and Fisheries assistant secretary Patrick Banks explained what was left sent the Marine Fisheries staff back to work to figure out the “private” percentage. It turned out to be 19.2 percent.

And when it came time for the five states to ask for their split, that’s the number Banks and his staff put to the Gulf Council, and it was the number the 17-member council approved as its “preferred alternative” to move forward with this one section of the state management plan.

The others

The council vote also approved heavily populated Florida for a 44.822 percent share with Alabama getting 26.298 percent, Texas 6.21 and Mississippi 3.55. From all outward appearances, it was the splits each state could support, and asked for, via historical landings.

The compromise

That five-state total left 3.78 percent in the hopper, and the council voted to split that residual between Florida and Alabama.

That concession by Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, Banks said, pushed the measure forward.

“We did not have to give up any fish. We maintained our 19.12 percent, and, yes, we did not get to share in that extra 3 percent, but it brought Alabama and Florida into the fold, it brought them to the table, and made (Florida and Alabama) more comfortable with state management,” Banks said. “Now that we’re at the table (for Amendment 50), four of the five states are in agreement, if not all five.”

Politics aside, the willingness of the three westernmost Gulf states shows how willing those three are to get on with the process of moving to state management. Texas has never bowed to federal seasons, and Louisiana moved to a state season several years ago to allow its offshore anglers more opportunity to take red snapper in deeper state waters near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Clearing confusion

The problem the three westernmost Gulf states have, especially in Louisiana, is not all charterboat operations have taken to the federal for-hire permitting plan, which commands for-hire boats to fish only during a federally mandated season.

Until the Gulf Council’s decision to further separate the recreational sector into private and for-hire subsectors — commercial fishing is the other sector — the state’s old recreational sector had a historical catch value near 15 percent, a number LDWF managers used to set its annual catch parameter.

“When we looked at the private (anglers) landings data, we found Louisiana’s share was more than 19 percent,” Banks said.

That’s where that 19 percent factor came from, and it was a number LDWF folks used for 2018’s exempted fishing permit season, and what will be used when the state’s LA Creel numbers are crunched for 2019’s EFP red snapper season. Like 2018, the state’s non-federal charterboats will have a cut of the total allowed private red snapper quota.

A new quota

In late 2018, the Gulf Council revised its annual all-sectors “total allowable catch” number upward.

The old quota, using the 19 percent private recreational percentage, had state fishery managers set a 743,000-pound limit, and used its federally approved LA Creel system to monitor catch rates through the 2018 season.

With the overall quota increase, that limit will be pushed to more than 810,000 pounds for this sector.

“We don’t know if that translates into more days (for 2019),” Banks said. “Weather and other extenuating circumstances (like) how many decide to fish.”

LDWF marine biologist Harry Blanchet, who teamed with former state biologist Joey Shepard to develop LA Creel, said the first two years of using the program produced on-the-money estimates and closed the private recreational season in the shadow of the 743,000-pound quota, notably just 5,000 pounds short of hitting the mark last season.

In an unprecedented move, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission voted an open, seven-day-a-week season to begin the private red snapper EFP season, and for the first time since a federally mandated June 1 opening, the LWFC opted to open the season the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

In Blanchet’s words, “We were lucky. The (2019) season ran longer than we initially projected. July Fourth was a Wednesday, and there was lousy weather that entire week, and we expected, through our historical projections, more fish would be landed.”

Blanchet said the main shortcoming of LA Creel is it takes nearly two weeks for staff to crunch numbers from email and telephone surveys and dockside counts to come up with its best real-time landings estimate in this fish-counting world.

It was that two-week delay that forced a move to halt the season July 8 last year. The LWFC forced a move to delay the closure until the count came in, and when it came up short — lower catches during that weather-plagued Fourth of July week — more weekend-only days were added to the season.

“When we looked at the (2018) season length, people are very excited about what we might get and where we ended up,” Blanchet said.

What’s next

Banks said Louisiana's position in the council’s failure to include charterboats in the recreational total is that the discussion is not over.

“While some issues were laid to rest in this (percentage) amendment, it’s not laid to rest the work we need to do with the charter fleet,” he said. “All of the states agree with that, but we could not get enough votes at this time to make whatever option or options needed to include charter-for-hire in state management.

“We’re going to move forward with charter-for-hire (discussions) and maybe apply for an exempted fishing permit for charters to see how we would manage (the sector) under a state management scenario,” he said.

The future

If Amendment 50 passes a council vote during its April meeting, Banks said it will give LDWF biologists and managers a good start to working out  details for the 2020 private red snapper season off the Louisiana coast.

“It would mean a fairly seamless transition into the 2020 season with largely the same outlook for recreational fishermen, and it would mean a stable fishing season year to year,” Banks said. “If Amendment 50 fails, it will dramatically change the outlook for recreational fishermen."