NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The U.S. Commerce Department says recreational anglers in the Gulf of Mexico will have 39 more days to fish federal waters for red snapper — even though this could add years to the species' recovery from nearly disastrous overfishing.
The agreement means private recreational anglers "will substantially exceed" a catch limit designed to prevent overfishing, and "may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as 6 years" past its 2032 goal, according to a notice made public Wednesday.
However, the National Marine Fisheries Service predicts that red snapper numbers will keep growing, just much more slowly, the notice said. It said Gulf states' economies are being hurt and different approaches to management are "undermining the very integrity of the management structure," so "the Secretary of Commerce has determined that a more modest rebuilding pace ... is a risk worth taking."
Gulf state officials praised the decision to reopen the federal season off Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida for three-day weekends through Labor Day, plus three holidays.
"This is an historic collaboration with the Department of Commerce and the five Gulf states to reset the framework of federal red snapper management," Chris Blankenship, acting commissioner of Alabama's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said in a news release.
The Commerce Department's press release said it's the first time in a decade that the five states have agreed to align their seasons with federal seasons, and called it "a significant step forward in building a new Federal-State partnership in managing the Gulf of Mexico red snapper stock,"
However, an environmental group and a charter captains' association estimate that private anglers will take nearly triple their allocated 3.4 million-pound (1.5 million kilogram) quota of the sport and panfish under the plan, potentially canceling next year's recreational season entirely.
"The current system is failing private anglers and they deserve a fix," Mike Jennings, president of the Charter Fisherman's Association said in a prepared statement. But, he said, "It has to be done in a way that gives them more flexible access while still adhering to science-based catch limits."
Earlier Wednesday, his group and the Environmental Defense Fund had emailed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, asking him to delay any decision until he had good scientific estimates of the likely catch.
They said a rough estimate using available federal figures indicated that anglers would go 7.4 million pounds over their limit during a 39-day season, "even without taking into account the increased fishing that would occur on the weekend versus weekdays."
Holly Binns, the Pew Charitable Trusts' director for ocean conservation in the southeast U.S., said, she believed the other two groups used conservative methods for their estimate.
"We have a lot of questions about the science and the legality behind this decree," she said.
A three-day anglers' season that started June 1 had been set because anglers went over last year's quota. Each year's overage is subtracted from the following year's quota.
Florida and Alabama have agreed to keep state waters closed after Labor Day, "eliminating the vast majority of private angler catch that has occurred in the fall," the federal notice said. It said Louisiana and Mississippi, which keep close tabs on anglers' catches, have agreed to use their figures to decide whether to hold a fall season. Texas will keep its waters open, but "accounts for less than half a percent of private angler catch of red snapper in its fall season," the notice said.