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2009 Gulf red snapper season June 1-Aug. 14

In state and federal waters:

State and federal fishery managers have tentatively set the 2009 Gulf red snapper season to run June 1 - Aug. 14. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has proposed the change to its snapper season to match dates set in federal waters.

This action is in response to new data that indicates the Gulf red snapper fishing season needs to be shortened to compensate for overharvest in 2008. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has announced estimates that recreational fishers in the Gulf exceeded last year’s annual red snapper catch limit by approximately 1.2 million pounds.

A federal law requires that harvest levels must be reduced in the year following a previous year’s overharvest. Consequently, the NMFS has indicated that it will shorten the recreational red snapper harvest season in Gulf federal waters (beyond 9 nautical miles from shore) from June 1 - Sept. 30 (122 days) to June 1 - Aug. 14 (75 days). The FWC is proposing the same season change in state waters.

If the FWC had not copied the federal dates, NOAA Regional Administrator Roy Crabtree had announced the federal season would be shortened to June 1 - Aug. 2 (63 days).

In previous years state waters were open from April 15 - Oct. 31. However, in February, the FWC gave in to pressure and slashed Florida’s recreational red snapper season in Gulf of Mexico state waters from 200 days down to just 122 days – a 40% (78 day) decrease.

Now anglers have been told to expect the season to be reduced another 47 days, which would cut the 2009 season down to only 75 days. Rule changes over the past year have shortened Florida’s red snapper season from 6-1/2 months down to 2-1/2 months (June 1-Aug. 14). These cuts come on the heels of the state and federal daily bag limit being cut from 4 fish to 2 fish.

According to NOAA and the NMFS, who say they are forced to rely on the “fatally-flawed” Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistical Survey (MRFSS) method of collecting and estimating fishing data because it is the “best available science,” red snapper are considered to be overfished and undergoing overfishing in the Gulf.

A final public hearing on the proposed rules will take place at the FWC’s June 17-19 meeting in Crystal River. The only good news is that anglers should no longer have as much trouble keeping track of the different state and federal season dates. Previously, the season opened on April 15 in Gulf state waters and April 21 in federal waters.

Depending on how far out you fished, the season close date also varied in the past. Now anglers can catch snapper June 1 - Aug. 14 in all Gulf waters. Despite widespread reports from fishermen complaining that large numbers of snapper are making it difficult to get baits down to grouper below, researchers say red snapper are overfished and undergoing more overfishing.

On Florida’s East Coast, anglers are bracing for what some are calling a “death blow” to the state’s fishing industry and tourism, as NOAA and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) are proposing a 4-month closure on grouper fishing and possibly a longer closed season on snapper. NOAA claims a 2008 red snapper stock assessment indicates overfishing has been occurring since 1970 – at about 8 times the sustainable level, and “total mortality” (landings and discards) of red snapper must be reduced by 87%!.

NOAA says recreational anglers account for 72% of the harvest, adding that it is necessary to “prohibit fishing for all species in the snapper/grouper management complex” (there are 73) in areas where red snapper are most prevalent to reduce discard losses caused by accidentally catching snapper while fishing for other species.” The SAFMC is also considering rules to reduce fishing effort and discard mortality in the commercial fishery.

New Amendment 16 rules – including a 4-month spawning season closure on gag and vermilion snapper – are expected to be in place by July 2009. The amendment: includes a January–April closure for shallow-water grouper species (including black and red grouper) for both commercial and recreational fishermen; reduces the aggregate grouper bag limit from 5 to 3 fish; reduces the gag/black grouper bag limit to 1 (combined); reduces the vermilion snapper bag limit from 10 to 5 fish; creates a commercial gag quota and implements a recreational closed season for vermilion snapper (Nov. – March).

The most recent news (proposed Amendment 17) indicates NOAA plans to close all grouper and snapper fishing in certain areas of federal waters off the East Coast where concentrated landings of red snapper are reported (primarily Georgia and North/Central Florida) for at least 180 days – and possibly for one full year.

The next SAFMC meeting is set for June 8-12 in Stuart, Fla., to review the draft amendment and alternatives. Rules contained in Amendment 17 could be introduced at a Sept. 14-18 SAFMC meeting in Charleston, SC. If a required public hearing is held in Nov. 2009, final approval could be considered during a Dec. 7-11 meeting set for Atlantic Beach, NC. For more information go to www.safmc.net.

Many fishermen have testified during public hearings and scoping meetings that they are catching more red snapper in recent years, especially those fishing off the coasts of Georgia and Northeast Florida.

A spike in 2007-08 recreational landings proves fishermen are seeing more fish than in previous years. NOAA agrees the 2008 stock assessment reflects an increase in abundance (2007 red snapper estimates are nearly twice what numbers were in 1995), however, NOAA says strong year classes in 1998-99 moved through the fishery over the last several years and are partially responsible for the perception that the stock has improved recently.

“Despite those increases in overall abundance, the age structure of the population remains truncated (not enough older fish). Fish are being caught before they become old enough to reach their peak reproductive levels,” NOAA says.

NOAA also just recently started using new research that indicates red snapper live to be 54 years of age – more than twice as long as the previous (2007) estimate of 25 years. According to NOAA, the 2007 assessment showed that less than 1% of the population was estimated as age 10 or older.

“Although the 20-inch size limit allows some fish to spawn before they become vulnerable to harvest, these younger, mostly first-time spawners are less productive than the older and heavier fish,” NOAA states.