The Red Return - Snapper pilot program takes flight in Destin on New Year's Day

Shelton Singletary of Tallahassee shows off two big reds and a black snapper he caught on Jan. 1 while fishing aboard the Sweet Jody with Capt. Cliff Cox.

After three years of countless meetings and endless paperwork, it was a red letter New Year’s Day in Destin as 127 red snapper were brought to the docks.

A total of 17 vessels are participating in the first year of the Gulf of Mexico Headboat Collaborative Pilot program, which allows specified boats to land red snapper and gag grouper. These vessels are located in Texas, Alabama, and Florida.

Included in the 17 are Destin's party boats Sweet Jody, Destin Princess and Destiny — all located at Fishing Fleet Marina.

On Tuesday, the Destiny with Capt. Chris McConnell at the helm backed in with 65 red snapper and Capt. Cliff Cox on the Sweet Jody came in with 62.

"It went well for the first day," McConnell said. "It's going to be a learning process, but it's a good step in the right direction for us to have an allocation for red snapper and grouper."

As each angler who caught red snapper claimed their fish, each was handed a red tag, which is to be kept with their fish until they get back home. Also an official from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was on hand to count the red snapper as well.

The Sweet Jody came in about 45 minutes behind the Destiny with 37 anglers and 62 red snapper.

After going through the process of handing out tags along with the fish, Cox said, "It's different, but I’d rather be jumping through all these hoops than not."

"The best thing to me is not watching those fish float away," added Capt. Reid Phillips of the Destin Princess.


The headboat pilot program has been in the works since 2010. Cox said he was contacted by a man from Orange Beach asking if he was "happy" with the current fisheries management system. After telling him no, "He asked if I was interested in getting something for the headboats fishery management … I said yes."

"Eight of us from around the Gulf started putting something together, working on a plan," Cox said. "We got support from EDF (Environmental Defense Fund). They helped us with legal expenses and set up meeting around the Gulf for us.”

Little by little, the group came up with a package they presented to the Gulf Council in April of 2012 in Corpus Christi, Texas.

"They approved it, so then we had to start jumping through the amendment process, federal register and public comment," Cox said.

Roy Crabtree of the National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Region signed off on the permit in September.

"We kind of went into a fast motion at that point," Cox said.

Out of 79 party boats operating in the Gulf, only eight were interested. To be in the program, boats had to have a catch history from 2011. Some dropped out because their 2011 numbers were not that great or they dropped out for other reasons.

"You had to be a reporting headboat, and you can't have any federal fishery violations," Cox said.

Plus regulators didn't want more than 20 boats in the program.

"Originally we had about that many boats, but the one thing we didn't know was how many fish we were going to get. Everybody was kind of nervous because we didn't know what that number was going to look like."


As soon as the first snapper hit the docks on New Year's Day, some folks via Facebook were already speaking out against the pilot program and questioning its fairness.

“Once again, a select few are allowed to harvest a natural resource that has been denied to the rest of us,” Ralph Humphrey wrote.

But captains dismiss the criticism.

"It will not mess up the 40 day season for the other fisherman, not at all," Cox said. "It won’t take any fish away from them. Basically what we are doing is taking the amount of fish we'd normally catch anyway and spreading it out over a longer period of time.”

The co-chairman of the Destin Charter Boat Association, which represents the Destin fleet, is taking a wait-and-see-approach.

"I applaud them for being courageous and trying something different," said Capt. Mike Eller of the Lady Em. "Anybody trying to think outside of the box is a good thing. It may prove to be not so good or not fair … or be good and fair. But until you try you don't know, and somebody has to take the first leap. It'll be interesting to see how it will all work."


Each boat has a different quota based on their 2011 landings of red snapper and grouper.

"That's something we're trying to keep close to the vest," Cox said. "But as we catch these fish, they are minus out of our account. So mine is minus 62 after today," he said Wednesday afternoon standing on the boat.

Nevertheless, he says, "I'm going to stretch these fish for as long as I can" in hopes of having enough left in his fish account to make it through the end of July.

One of the goals of the pilot program is to reduce regulatory discards. A regulatory discard is a fish that is caught out of season that has to go back.

"The best thing to me is not watching those fish float away," said Capt. Reid Phillips of the Destin Princess.

"We probably threw back about 12 or 13 fish and kept 62 today," Cox said. "Sometimes you just can't run away from them. You drop a line down and you start catching snapper. You can't say we're catching too many, let’s go. It's going to be ticklish working through this process but it's a much better way to manage it than a short derby season that doesn't work."