'It actually exceeded our expectations' - Pilot program for red snapper tagged a success

Tina Harbuck
Snowbirds were elated to catch red snapper for the first time in about 15 years. The fish were made available due to a pilot program for headboats where they were issued a certain number of tags for the fish. Fred Milani shows off a huge red snapper he caught on the Destiny earlier this year.

It raised a few eyebrows in the beginning, but the Gulf of Mexico Headboat Collaborative Pilot program which allowed specified boats to land red snapper and gag grouper has been successful.

“It actually exceeded our expectations,” said Capt. Cliff Cox of the party boat Sweet Jody, which participated in the two-year program that wraps up at the end of the month.

About 20 vessels from Texas, Alabama and Florida participated in the pilot program. Included in the count were three Destin boats — Sweet Jody, Destiny and Destin Princess.

Each participating boat was allotted a certain number of red snapper (at least 15 inches and two per person) they could keep for the year. The number was reached based on their catch history from 2011. Once they reached their allotted number, they were done on red snapper.


What the pilot program did was open it up for anglers on these headboats to catch red snapper year round, instead of just June or July when the season might be open.

“It’s been great and I think all the other captains would agree,” Cox said.

“Last year we had more fish and we went through the tags fast. This year we haven’t had as many fish … we still have tags left,” he said, noting they hope to use them in the next few weeks.

“Our customers thought it was tremendous,” Cox said.

For the Snowbirds that come down from the north each year, last year was the first time some were able to keep a red snapper in about 15 years.

“It was cool thing,” Cox said.

“It was good to see some of the old timers catch a snapper,” said Reid Phillips, captain of the Destin Princess.

“It’s been hugely successful,” said Randy Boggs, captain of the Reel Surprise out of Orange Beach, Ala. who helped to write the pilot program.

“The program has gone well and we have stayed within our quota,” Boggs said.

Boggs, who’s been a captain for 17 years and operates a 54-slip marina in Orange Beach, says the pilot program has been successful on several levels.

“It has increased the recreational fisherman’s access to the fishery. It has increased safety on the sea because we didn’t have to go in rough weather.

“The quality of the anglers experience has gone up … because I’m not tired, the deckhands are not tired,” Boggs said from multiple trips in a “fishing derby” type season.

In the past, charter boats and headboats captains holding a federal permit had seen their number of days to catch red snapper dwindle away, however, they got a bit of an increase this past season with 44 days. The boats with federal permits were doing two and three trips a day in order to catch red snapper in the short amount of time.

“We didn’t take anything away from the recreational fisherman or the charter boats because we caught the same number of fish … just scattered out throughout the year,” Boggs said.

“It’s the same dead fish, whether it’s killed in June or July,” he said.


With only about 20 vessels in the program, not everybody was happy once the program was implemented.

“I ran into a little attitude and animosity on the docks at first,” Cox said. “There was some angst against it.”

“But somebody has got to ride the first rocket,” Cox said, noting somebody had to try something new.

“Unfortunately some of the boats in town got the short end of the deal, but I think this is the way it should be. Those that have a federal permit should be able to manage their fish. I wish it was across the board for everybody,” Phillips said.

“It helps everybody, the customers, the business owners and the fish,” Phillips said.

“There’s less pressure on the fish,” he said, because you are spreading the tags throughout the year, instead of trying to catch all the fish in June or July when the season is normally open for 10 to 40 days.

As for those who had animosity against the pilot program.

Phillips said, “They are not looking at the total future.”


Once the data from the two-year pilot program is compiled, those that were part of the venture have high hopes of it moving forward.

“We are working to get it implemented full time for all the head boats,” Boggs said, noting about 50 headboats on the Gulf Coast have expressed interest in wanting to participate.

Cox and Phillips went a step further and said they would like to see it across the board for party boats/headboats as well as charter boats.

“I think it has proved this kind of fishery can work,” Cox said.

Boggs said through the program they provided real time data on the red snapper, they stayed within their weights and quotas and increased access to the “American public” to catch the fish.

“They are not our fish. We’re just stewards of the fish. The fish belong to the American public,” Boggs said.

“We think it’s going to go forward,” he said.

“Within the next two years we should see this program come into play.”