States could take reins of 2018 red snapper season

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Local anglers have long been asking for the states to take control of red snapper management in federal waters.

By Katie Landeck | Panama City News Herald

GAINESVILLE — After a tumultuous 2017 red snapper season, Gulf states are angling to take over management of the popular species from the federal government this spring.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is in talks with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council about launching a pilot management program next year. All five states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida — have been invited to apply for an exempted fishing permit, which would allow the states to take the lead.

“This will get the states more control,” said FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.

More state control is something many local anglers long have called for.

This past season saw those calls grow into yells after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration set a historically short three-day season. The outrage sparked by the decision led to the Department of Commerce stepping in at the insistence of regional congressmen to lengthen the season to 42 days.

The framework for what an FWC-run season would mean remains uncertain for several reasons.

Any proposal set forward by FWC, which could control both recreational anglers and for-hire vessels, will have to be approved by the fishery council in January. Nalley said it’s still too early to know details such as the dates, catch limits and lengths of the season, partly because data from last year is still being processed. Preliminary results from the season say with the extra days, recreational anglers exceeded their limits, catching 153 percent of their allowable catch. When a species is overfished, federal law requires the anglers to pay it back the following year through a reduction in that year’s allowable catch.

But there are two factors further complicating the issue. First, there are two stock assessments going on — one done by NOAA and one done by an outside party as anglers have requested — and the results of those studies could indicate red snapper wasn’t actually overfished at all. Second, a pending lawsuit says extending the season violated federal fisheries laws by not relying on the science, and the outcome of the case could affect the season.

“There’s a lot that’s still at play,” Nalley said.

If the state-control proposal goes through, FWC staff said at last week’s meeting one of their big goals would be to test data collection and monitoring methods, including likely using a mobile app for fishermen to report their catch.

The reaction at the commission meeting was favorable.

The commission also briefly talked about the possibility of establishing individual fishing quotas (IFQ) for for-hire vessels. IFQs are a management technique where portions of the total allowable catch are assigned to captains, usually based on historic catch data. Because of their inherent accountability, they are already used in the commercial industry to help control overfishing, but they also have a reputation for being unpopular because they can establish winners and losers.

The proposal is being driven primarily by the fishery council, not FWC, and would not be put in place until 2019 at the earliest.

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