Snapper fishermen could have more than twice the number of days to hit offshore rigs in 2013 if a proposal recently announced by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission ultimately is implemented.
"On a 40-day season, if it’s rough out there (in the Gulf of Mexico) for 20 days, you have a 20-day season," Commissioner Ronald Graham said of the 2012 season structure announced last month.
Graham proposed the notice of intent the commission passed. It would open red snapper fishing on the Saturday before Palm Sunday (March 24 in 2013) and allow fishing Friday through Sunday through September.
The proposal, which could be approved during the next meeting and wouldn’t go into effect for at least 120 days, was supported by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries officials.
"I think the intent here is clear: a lot of recreational fishermen don’t have a lot of trust in the federal regulations and the (Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management) council," LDWF’s Randy Pausina said. "I think (the proposal) is going to open up a lot of dialog in the future."
Commissioners also tabled an LDWF proposal to extend the state boundary to include just more than 10 miles of Gulf waters.
National Marine Fisheries Service’s Roy Crabtree, who oversees the Gulf council’s operations, attended the commission meeting and attempted to justify the current red snapper management plan.
He said he was hopeful the total allowable catch, set this year at 8 million pounds (split between recreational and commercial). The recreational quota is expected to be 3.96 million pounds.
"I expect it will go up again next year, if we don’t catch too much this year," Crabtree said.
Each year, officials work up quotas and can actually penalize fishermen for exceeding the quota the previous season.
Crabtree and LSU professor James Cowan Jr. pointed out that one of the main management goals was to increase the number of large snapper.
However, Commissioner Billy Broussard said the federal catch estimates showed that the existing Gulf-wide management of red snapper is offtrack.
"If Alabama can pull 2 million (pounds) off their coast and maintain their size and daily limits, and Louisiana can pull 200,000 pounds, something is wrong," Broussard said.
When Broussard said the proliferation of larger red snapper should mean the quota is reached quicker, Crabtree said regulators considered that when they set up season structures.
"That’s been factored in," Crabtree said. "The season was shortened and the TAC was increased."
Splitting up the Gulf into separate management regions was broached, and Crabtree said red snapper sampling already is split into east-west regions at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
However, he quickly said it would be difficult to manage the species in smaller units — for instance, state-by-state management.
"You’re going to have to allocate the quota and decide how much (of the TAC) each state gets," Crabtree said. "As you partition the quota up into smaller and smaller areas, the uncertainty … increases."
However, CCA-Louisiana’s David Cresson said his organization believed red snapper would be better off being managed by the states.
"If you look across the Gulf at the fish that are doing well are fish that are state managed. There’s just no denying it," Cresson said. "The fish that are in trouble are federally managed.
"We think our guys do a better job."
Broussard continued to say the estimated recreational catch off the coast of Alabama, which far exceeds that off Louisiana, proves the regulations are flawed.
"You can’t make me believe the Gulf from the Mississippi River to Brownsville (Texas) can’t support more harvest than off the coast of Alabama," he said. "You read some of the reports and you would think red snapper are on the brink of extinction.
Commissioner Michael Voisin pointed out that Texas currently is not in compliance with the federal regulations, and questioned what impact Louisiana going out of compliance would have on federal regulations.
"If a state said, ‘We’re going to allot more fish to be caught in state waters,’ I can shorten the season," Crabtree said. "That’s the only authority I have.
Texas claims nine miles of waters, as does Florida in the Gulf. Louisiana’s boundary encompasses only three miles of territorial water.
Capt. Chris Moran, who owns a marina and is a charter captain out of Fourchon, said he fully supported Louisiana not just going along with federal management.
"It’s time to draw a line in the sand," Moran said. "It sheds light on the system.
"I’m watching guys buying golf clubs, play baseball and take up other hobbies instead of fishing."
He said a decline in the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo was proof that federal regulations are killing the industry.
"Last year was a flop," Moran said. "When you see the oldest rodeo on the Gulf die, that tells you something."
The bottom line, Broussard said, is anglers are tired of seeing more and more snapper while seasons are shortened each year.
"There’s no confidence," he said. "The threat of taking more days out of the federal season is about laughable because with 30 days there’s not much you can do."
In a related matter, LWF commissioners tabled an LDWF proposal to extend the state waters to three marine leagues, or 10.357 miles, off the coast.
LDWF Secretary Robert Barham said he believed the proposal was based on a 2011 state law.
"It is our obligation to implement what is passed by the state," Barham said.
If passed and upheld, adding more than seven miles to the state’s territorial waters would mean anglers would have much more water in which to fish under state regulations.
Voisin questioned whether or not extending the state boundary would put anglers at risk of being ticketed by the U.S. Coast Guard for breaking federal snapper regulations if the commission decided to move out of compliance with federal regulations.
Barham admitted that could happen, but said it was a non-issue for him.
"If (the U.S. Coast Guard) takes action … that’s in their purview, not in mine," he said.
There is one part of the state law that brings into question the legality of any state extension of the boundary. The pertinent clause states that Louisiana’s jurisdiction "shall not extend to the boundaries recognized (in the law) until the U.S. Congress acknowledges the boundary …."
Voisin asked if, since no such congressional action has been taken, any move by the commission would be valid.
Again, Bahram shrugged off the question.
"In the interim, (legislators) have clearly stated what they believe is the boundary by passing a law and having it signed by the governor," Barham said.
And he challenged the commission to act to force a decision on the validity of the law.
"If we do not implement the act, do you think anything will occur?" Barham asked.
The commission is set to take up the issue during their regular June meeting.