The Wild Side.July 29, 2012

— It’s amazing that amidst the excitement stirred by the annual Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, there would be angst approaching anger stirred by the way federal agencies are managing our near-coast and offshore fishery.

During the last three years, the lightning rod for this growing discord is the red snapper.

Most saltwater fishermen know the problem: The National Marine Fisheries Service applied the term “overfished” to red snapper more than a decade ago, a designation that put restrictions on daily take and instituted a recreational season.

In the main, recreational anglers recognized the problem, agreed with those moves and went looking for other species to make their offshore trips worth their while. Mangrove snapper, amberjack, cobia, grouper, even the deep-water tunas, dolphin and wahoo, took up some of the slack. Some anglers shifted their focus from offshore platforms and reefs to inshore species like speckled trout and redfish, which, too, filled the bill.

But in the years since, especially the last three off Louisiana’s coast, the explosion of Gulf of Mexico red snapper has left everyone venturing from marinas and camps across the southern parishes wondering about a management scheme so obviously flawed that it ignores what the anglers are seeing — and catching.

Since 2010, the constant report from oil platforms and deep-water reefs is that there are so many red snapper that it limits the ability to catch the other species that filled in the gap left in the snapper restrictions.

The folks who enjoy scuba and skin diving tell of dives that take them into huge schools of red snapper.

Instead of being able to celebrate what they see as obvious rewards from years of a two-per-day catch and ever-shortened seasons (this year a June 1-July 16 season), fishermen’s frustration with federal regulations has grown. It has gotten to the point where congressional staffs from the five Gulf of Mexico states openly talk about increases in complaints and the need to do something to hold the National Marine Fisheries Service and its underling, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, accountable for what the fishermen believe is a flawed application of the marine sciences when it comes to managing red snapper and other species.

The other species? The NMFS and the GMFMC have closed the recreational greater amberjack season during the last two Junes and Julys, months of heavy offshore recreational activity.

Earlier this year, and unexpectedly, the GMFMC closed the recreational and commercial catch of gray triggerfish, a hard-to-clean, but tasty fish that had taken the place on the tables for rec anglers.

Grouper species come on an off closed-season periods regularly, and it’s almost as difficult to know what seasons are open, or closed, as it is to understand why we’re playing less the $3 for a gallon of gas one Sunday, and 40 cents a gallon more by the end of the week.