Boat operators question snapper rules
A new rule that forbids charter boats and party boats that hold a federal fishing license to fish in state waters for red snapper except for a two-month summer season has left area operators questioning the wisdom of such restrictions and its effects on the area's economy.
Red snapper is an overfished species in the Gulf of Mexico, and has been for 20 years, a spokesman for the federal government explained.
"Red snapper is coming back; and it is much stronger than it was 10 years ago, and it is coming back because of the rebuilding plan," said Steve Branstetter, team leader for red snapper management for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service.
Branstetter said that a recreational fishing survey from October 2008 revealed that the total allowable catch - set at 2.45 million pounds for recreational fishing and 2.55 million for commercial fishing - was exceded by more than 500,000 pounds.
He said the U.S. Congress has mandated that overfishing of red snapper be ended by 2010.
"If you overrun the quota you're still overfishing. We set the federal season from June 1 to Sept. 30, but unfortunately Florida and Texas didn't develop compatible regulations," Branstetter said.
The bag limit for red snapper in federal waters was reduced to two fish at 16 inches or longer in addition to the shorter season, which was cut short by one month in 2008. The 2009 season is set to open June 1, but it is not clear when the season will end.
Texas opted to keep the red snapper season open year round, with a four-fish limit.
The National Marine Fisheries Service set a rule in 2008 that requires operators of federally permitted Gulf of Mexico commercial and for-hire reef fish vessels to comply with the more restrictive rederal regulations when fishing in state waters for red snapper, greater amberjack, gray triggerfi sh and gag.
The rule does not apply to recre- ational fishermen who take their own boats into state waters to fish for red snapper.
It mostly affects the charter services and the party boats that work out of Deep Sea Headquarters, Fisherman's Wharf and Dolphin Dock. Area boat captains have reported that they have had to turn away Winter Texans and other Port Aransas visitors who would like to fish for red snapper during the wintertime.
"The state needs to come into compliance. For-hire fishing accounts for 50 percent of the total harvest. Between Texas and Florida, they add up to a substantial amount of fish," Branstetter said.
"It's unfortunate that everybody has to bite the bullet right now. We realize this is a big impact to the charter boat fishery along the coast," Branstetter said.
The fisheries management specialist said another red snapper assessment will be conducted in 2009, and it is possible that the quotas will have to be reduced even more.
"The rules could be draconian. We might have to shut the fisheries down," Branstetter said.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has disagreed with the feds regarding the recovery of the red snapper population in the Gulf.
Robin Riechers, TPWD's Coastal Fisheries Division science director, said the bigger issue is Congress's mandate to rebuild the red snapper population by the year 2032.
"We can still rebuild the fishery, but not have the negative impacts on local business in Port Aransas. We are trying to provide some of that balance; we think you can have both and that's the reason we have not matched what is going on in federal waters," Riechers said.
TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith sent a letter dated Dec. 22, 2008 to Peter Hood, a fishery biologist for the NOAA Fisheries Service's Southeast Regional Office in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"We have serious concerns regarding these proposals and respectfully request that you do not adopt the … interim rule that proposes to require all vessels with federal commercial or for-hire reef fish permits to comply with the more restrictive of state or federal reef fish regulations when fishing in state waters," Smith wrote, citing several reasons for the state's opposition to the rule.
"First, the proposals, if adopted, would result in a person fishing on a private boat in state waters being subject to different restrictions than a person fishing on a charter vessel with a federal permit or a recreational angler," Smith contended.
"Second, this rule is being applied to species other than those first contemplated or intended. Lastly, these proposed rules could preempt and interfere with a state's regulatory authority," Smith wrote.
"In making the decision not to adopt regulations compatible with the federal regulations, the TPWD balanced the issues of continuing to rebuild the red snapper stock while considering the economic and social implications to Texas businesses and local communities," Smith continued.
Smith urged the federal fisheries service to continue to work with the state "to ensure that any regulatory decisions consider all aspects of the fishery, including the biological aspects as well as impact of the regulations on local businesses and communities."
Riechers said the new federal rule on charter and party (head) boats has created a confusing situation.
"We see this as a back door way that hurts those who are trying to get out there and take people fishing," Riechers said.