Catch-22? Captains grapple with the pros and cons of snapper experiment

During the first week of the pilot program for the headboats, which kicked off Jan. 1, the Sweet Jody brought in some big red snapper. Deckhand Clifton Cox had his hands full cleaning the snapper.

The party boat captains who are able to catch red snapper as part of a pilot program are thrilled with how things are going so far, but it has others seeing red.

"I've built my business in 22 years on red snapper, and now three of the local boats can keep them every day of the week, and the other 100 of us in the for-hire industry with a federal reef permit can't keep them," said Capt. Jim Westbrook of the New Florida Girl. "It's pretty hard to sell a white snapper, when the guy down the dock has gag grouper and red snapper for the same money … it's actually impossible.”

After three years of countless meetings, the Gulf of Mexico Headboat Collaborative Pilot program, which allows specified boats to land red snapper and gag grouper, went into effect on New Year's Day.

A total of 17 vessels are participating in the first year of the pilot program. 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.

Each of the boats has been allotted a bank of red snapper for the year. The number was reached based on their catch history from 2011. Once they have reached their allotted number, they are barred from catching the area’s signature fish, but the captains are hoping that their allotments will carry them through the end of July.

"I had the opportunity to get in the program," said Westbrook, who also owns the New Florida Girl's American Spirit. "And I still do, they are two boats short because they couldn't find boats that would get in it that would exercise that kind of social injustice.”

“I won’t do it," he continued. "I didn't do it because it’s no different than 100 hamburger joints and only three of you get to use ground meat and the rest of you don't. Who's going to be out of business?" Westbrook said.

Westbrook has had party boats in Destin for 22 years. In January, he says he usually runs seven to nine trips.

"This January I ran zero. None of my customers that call will go with me because I can't keep snapper. And for the same price down the dock they can …" Westbrook said.

Westbrook’s fellow captains are sympathetic, but are savoring the boost during the traditionally lean winter.

"We are trying to prove this is a better way to manage this fishery,” said Capt. Cliff Cox of the Sweet Jody. “We're happy we can, but not happy others can't," he said

While he admits to “getting hammered” for participating, Cox said the experiment is "definitely working. We haven't been this busy since we were able to keep snapper."

But it's more than just keeping the snapper. Cox explained that they are gathering data from the customers as well, such as where they are from and what they think of the program.

"All this will be important when go back to [regulators]," Cox said. "The end goal is to get it passed for all headboats to do it.”

In the meantime, the snowbirds from the north are booking trips as well as folks driving over from Milton, Pensacola and Panama City.

"The word has gotten out and we're getting a lot of military guys," Cox said.

Renee Wagner who books trips for the Destiny and Destin Princess said the red snapper has definitely helped their winter business. She said they have already fished 10 trips in the first two weeks of February.

"February is usually slow … maybe two trips," she said. "And two days it was absolutely full. I've never seen that. We've got a good crowd coming this weekend," she said looking ahead at the books.

Cox summed up the experiment this way.

"The beauty of this is more people get to experience red snapper," Cox said.


FWC proposes 2014 Gulf recreational red snapper season

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has proposed the 2014 Gulf recreational red snapper season dates in state waters.

If approved in April, the season would be 52 days long, starting the Saturday before Memorial Day, (May 24 this year) and remaining open through July 14, closing July 15. The Commission could choose to change the season length and dates at the April meeting. Starting the season the Saturday before Memorial Day could increase recreational fishing opportunities for anglers by giving them the chance to fish for red snapper in state waters during the holiday weekend.

The federal season is scheduled to be 40 days long, starting June 1 and remaining open through July 10. This season is subject to change if NOAA Fisheries data indicate that the recreational red snapper quota will be caught before or after the end of the federal season.

State waters in the Gulf are from shore to 9 nautical miles. Federal waters extend from where state waters end out to about 200 nautical miles.