Captain's Log: Red Snapper Sector Separation Reality

Special to The Log

On Tuesday of this week the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council will host a public hearing in Panama City on the concept of sector separation in the red snapper fishery. I’ll be there, and I think you should too if you value this resource and the economic impact it provides our tourism-based community. As a charter captain, restaurateur, and commercial fisherman, I see this issue from many perspectives and empathize with all of them. The reality is sector separation can be really good for the long term sustainability of our community, economy, and fishery.

Destin and the panhandle of Florida cater to angling visitors. Some anglers bring their own boat, while others find it more convenient to utilize a head boat or a charter boat. Some visitors choose not set to foot on a boat at all; they come for the fresh seafood that’s a cornerstone of Destin's and the Panhandles’ heritage. All of these forms of access to our fisheries are important.  Yet, that sharing of the resource has gotten out of balance. This is really where the concept of sector separation came from — the imbalance.

In the fisheries world, private vessel anglers who access the fishery through their own or a friend’s boat are currently tied at the hip to head boat and charter boat operators. All are seen as one in the recreational sector and must share a quota of fish meant for the sport fishing community. Over the 36 years that I’ve been fishing for red snapper I’ve seen both the for-hire operators and the private anglers have the upper hand on catching the lion’s share of the recreational sector’s red snapper quota. Sector separation is quite simply leveling the playing field. Setting a secure level of access for each component of recreational fisheries not just one while ensuring better harvest accountability to maintain the world class red snapper fishery we now enjoy.

Less than 15 years ago with the introduction of the GPS navigation, reliable outboard engines published GPS readings everyone became a fish killer, not just the Pro's. The recreational sector began to constantly over fish their annual allocations. To address this, the Gulf Council had only two options under their control to manage recreational fisheries, reduce seasons and bag limits in federal waters and more tightly regulate the federally permitted for-hire captains.  

The council started by putting a moratorium on federal for-hire permits and limiting fishing opportunities for those holding those permits to the more restrictive regulations between federal and state waters.  This left a loophole for private anglers and their advocacy organizations have exploited it. They promote states to expand their state-water seasons, resulting in more opportunities for them to fish for red snapper, all the while knowing that the increased take requires the federal season to reduce in order to compensate for the additional fish coming out of the water. 

The state water loophole ignores the simple fact that only so many fish can be caught per year, that it’s all one stock no matter where the fish are caught.  This has culminated in exorbitant state water season fishing opportunities for private vessel anglers and state licensed guides who fish in areas that have a viable state water fishery while federally permitted captains and their angling visitors only got a nine-day red snapper season this past year. Exploitation of the state water loophole and the imbalance it has wrought is really the driving force behind sector separation.

States are clearly catering to private anglers and while that loophole can’t be closed, states have sovereignty to allow fishing in their waters as they see fit. Sector separation can level the playing field.  As its own sector, the private anglers and their advocacy groups can still ask and be given by states the seasons they desire in state waters.  Yet, the fish they catch will go against their own federally recognized quota, not the combined quota with the for-hire operators as it does now.  In turn, the for-hire sector will have its own quota to live within.   By separating the charter for-hire fishing businesses and their saltwater angling customers from the private recreational anglers, each group gets an even ability to both catch red snapper and just as important, be accountable to stay within their quota.  

It's time to balance the imbalance brought on by unfair rules and regulations that don't give equal consideration to all anglers and sea food consumers. Go to the nearest public hearing on amendment 40 and support fair access for everyone. Support your local charter for hire Captains and their customers. And support a new modern management plan for all recreational anglers.

Attend the Aug. 12th public hearing in Panama City 6 p.m. or make comment in support of your Destin Charter Boat Fleet by supporting amendment 40 at gulfcouncil@gulfcouncil.org. 

Gary Jarvis, is captain of the charter boat Backdown 2 and president of the Destin Charter Boat Association.