Feds: Gulf states to keep managing recreational red snapper

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — States on the Gulf of Mexico can keep setting seasons and bag limits for anglers going after red snapper in federal waters when a two-year experiment becomes permanent Thursday.

The rule will take effect with publication in the Federal Register, the U.S. Commerce Department said.

The Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group, said Wednesday that it was cautiously optimistic about the rule for the popular sport and table fish, which is recovering from nearly disastrous overfishing.

“There's still some kinks to be worked out with the data collection” in some states, said Sepp Haukebo, the group's manager for private angler management reform. For instance, he said, in some years before the experimental program started, Alabama's estimates of the amount taken were as low as 30% of the federal estimates for that state.

“They've gotten a lot closer in the last couple of years,” he said, adding that Alabama has announced improvements that should make its tallies more accurate.

Recreational red snapper catches were a contentious issue for years, with seasons getting shorter and shorter as fish got bigger and more numerous. The National Marine Fisheries Service said anglers regularly went far over their limits, and each year's estimated excess would be cut from the following year's Gulf-wide catch limit. State regulators said federal estimates of anglers' catches were far too high.

In 2017, the Trump administration extended a three-day season to 42 days, even though regulators said the extension could add up to six years to the time required for red snapper stocks to recover. The next year, the Commerce Department agreed to experimental permits letting Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Texas set seasons and track their catches in 2018 and 2019. Instead of a Gulf-wide catch limit, each state was assigned a limit in pounds and had to close its season when it reaches that amount.

Now that system, which state officials worked for, will become permanent. It includes deducting a state's excess catch in one year from the next year's total. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries will continue to regulate commercial and recreational charter boat catches.

Florida gets 44.8% of this year's total private angling quota, or more than 1.9 million pounds (868,000 kilograms), NOAA Fisheries said. The agency said Alabama gets about 26.3%, or 1.1 million pounds (509,000 kilograms), with 19.1% to Louisiana, a 6.2% share to Texas and 3.5% to Mississippi. Those work out to about 816,000 pounds (370,000 kilograms) for Louisiana, 265,000 pounds (120,000 kilograms) for Texas and 151,500 pounds (68,000 kilograms) for Mississippi.

Haukebo said Louisiana's LaCREEL program for monitoring anglers' catch is a major reason the Environmental Defense Fund supported making the program permanent.

“Having leaders like Louisiana gave us a lot more faith in the program,” he said.

Haukebo said Louisiana's survey is very similar to the federal one, and the state has many more biologists checking catches at the dock to confirm survey results. Louisiana's results have run within 5% or 10% of federal estimates, he said.

“Their accuracy and timeliness are the best in the Gulf, some might say in the United States. Their LaCREEL program is the golden standard,” he said.