On April 17, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will vote on whether to set the red snapper season in state waters consistent with the season set for federal waters. Much is at stake in this decision for recreational anglers and charter for-hire operators that participate in this fishery.
Gulf of Mexico red snapper have been overfished for decades. Fortunately, beginning in 2007, wisely crafted federal laws got us serious about rebuilding the population.
The population is growing faster than anyone anticipated, and is returning to many places throughout its historic range. For example, for the first time since the early 1970s, anglers that own private boats, folks that hire charter boats like mine, and people that fish on headboats have all enjoyed relatively good red snapper fishing off the Tampa Bay area.
Thatís great news for the Gulf and for the local economy.
Unfortunately, the commissioners have indicated that they will entertain a 40-plus day red snapper season in state waters (waters extending to 9 miles), which creates severe inequities. If the state fails to set dates that are consistent with the federal season, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has indicated it most likely will reduce the expected 27-day season in federal waters (waters from 9 miles out to 200 miles) to approximately 22 days to account for overharvest.
After federal waters are closed, Florida would allow its recreational anglers and state licensed guide boats to continue fishing for red snapper in state waters for an additional 18 days. However, due to conditions in our permits, federally permitted charter boats, the bulk of Floridaís fleet, will not be allowed to participate in this extended state season.
The irony of this red snapper measure that allows state guide boats to participate in the extended season is that it effectively disenfranchises state guide boats south of the Florida Panhandle as well. Rarely if ever does anyone catch red snapper in state waters south of the Big Bend. Theyíre just too shallow for that species.
Most private recreational boat owners south of the Panhandle wonít find fish in state waters, either. No one wins here.
With the stroke of a pen our Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission could turn our access to red snapper on its ear. The forgotten recreational angler in this mix is my customer and all others that fish on federally permitted charter boats. Over one million people a year visit Florida and use our charter fleet. Who will they fish with?
This issue of deciding who gets to fish for red snapper and where is confusing and complicated. I understand that our FWC wants to increase our access to red snapper. Despite the rebounding population, we can only take so many fish before we send the population back in the wrong direction.
So, for the related sakes of conservation and economics, we have to share and divide our allocation equitably. In order to ensure as much fair access to our red snapper fishery as possible, I encourage the FWC Commission to adopt the federal season length.
Capt. Mike Colby has fished out of Clearwater Beach since 1980 and is the owner of the Double Hook Charter Service.