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Super-Short Fishing Season Raises Chorus Of Calls For Management Sea Change

fishing boats
Jessica Palombo

Recreational fishermen spend almost $9 billion dollars in Florida each year. But this year, the fishing season for one popular saltwater fish has been drastically cut. The nine-day red snapper season has boat captains, congressmen and government-appointed fish managers all calling for changes to how fish supplies are managed.

So, you’ve decided you want to fish off the coast of Florida. How many fish you can catch? Well, that depends on what species it is, what kind of license you have, what time of year it is and whether you’ll be in state or federal waters. The federal government collects lots of data about fish from scientists and underwater cameras, and regional fishery councils take the data and set fishing season lengths.

As Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council Executive Director Doug Gregory says: “It’s not a simple issue.”

For recreational fishing boat captains, things aren’t usually simple either. Bruce Williams is one of many charter boat owners who make a living in the coastal Franklin County town of Apalachicola.

He says, “For offshore boats, you gotta have, like, an EPIRB, you gotta have radio, which I have, you gotta have life jackets…”

And he says this year’s federal snapper season, which started June 1 and ends June 9, is a real drag on his business. Last year, recreational snapper anglers had 40 days total of offshore fishing spread out over two seasons.

Williams says, “I mean, there’s all kinds of fish you can catch that the season’s longer on. But it’s just, a lot of people, they get ‘snapper, snapper, snapper,’ in their head, and that’s what they want they want to catch. And if you can’t provide that, then some of them aren’t interested. And that hurts—I mean you obviously can’t make money if they don’t want to go.”

He says he understands fish populations have to be conserved. But it’s frustrating to see what seems like an abundant supply of snapper in the water every day, yet very soon he’ll have to tell his customers they can’t catch it.

And Florida’s congressional delegates are listening. Florida Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL2) have written to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker asking for a reevaluation of the nine-day season.

Southerland says, “I spoke to a charter boat captain two days ago who has lost $76,000.”

Southerland represents much of the coastal Florida panhandle. He blames the Gulf Management Council’s decision partly on faulty fish data. And some of his proposals aimed at getting more accurate fish counts are moving in the U.S. House.

For one:  “When they do a fish survey, that the national Marine Service and NOAA be mandated that they have to count the fish that are on artificial reefs.”

He explains large numbers of snapper congregate around structures like oil rigs, but fish counters disregard that part of the population by counting only fish that are caught. Overall, Southerland says the current administration doesn’t’ do enough to take commerce into the fish management equation.

Roy Crabtree heads the Southeast region of the agency tasked with collecting fish data, the National Marine Fisheries Service. He’s also a member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which voted to shorten snapper season.

“We can and do take economics into account, and we always do economic analyses, but the one thing we can’t do is allow overfishing for economic reasons,” Crabtree says.

He says snapper seem abundant because they are, compared with previous years. But they were drastically overfished for so long that emergency guidelines had to be put in place to allow the population to recover. He says, when making decisions, the council must also consider that state fishing seasons have been extended.

But he agrees there should be more flexibility.

“I’m one who believes that we do need to make some changes in how we manage the recreational fishery,” he says, “but I think we should all make sure that we don’t lose sight of the fact that in many respects red snapper is a great success story because we have made remarkable progress.”

Among the changes the council’s considering, he says: giving charter captains a quota similar to what commercial fisherman have now rather than a season. All the proposals will be vetted at upcoming public meetings.