LDWF opens year-round snapper season in response to short federal season

Just hours after the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council approved an 11-day 2014 recreational red snapper season in federal waters Thursday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries secretary Robert Barham announced a year-round recreational red snapper catch in state waters.

The new season structure will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

The state’s move expanded its current weekend-only recreational red snapper season that opened in late February in response to the most restrictive federal recreational red snapper season in history. If the federal season follows the form of the last season, the 11-day season will open at 12:01 a.m. June 1 and close at 12:01 a.m. June 12.

“After reviewing what our biologists expect Louisiana’s recreational red snapper landings to be this year, and the recent action taken by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to have a very short federal season, I have decided to support our anglers and the associated fishing industry by opening state waters 365 days until further notice,” Barham said in a prepared statement.

“The Gulf Council’s action is clear evidence that their process is broken, and they give no consideration to the needs of individual states. For two years, I have been trying to persuade the Gulf Council to move forward with regional management, allowing the (Gulf) states flexibility in management by empowering our anglers and fishing industry to decide how they want red snapper managed. That hasn’t happened.”

The state’s expanded season will continue to mandate a 16-inch minimum catch/keeper size on the species with a two-fish per-day creel limit.

Barham was given the power by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission early in 2013 to change the recreational red snapper seasons in state waters. In February 2013, the LWFC voted to open state waters for a weekend-only recreational red snapper catches from late March to the end of October.

Despite a Commission vote to move state boundary waters out to three marine leagues, or 10.357 miles, for fisheries-only purposes, the federal government continues to recognize Louisiana waters extend seaward to three miles.

The LDWF’s response to the difference was outlined in Barham’s statement that “encourage(s) fishermen to use caution and their own personal judgment when fishing beyond the three-mile boundary that is currently recognized as federal waters, as federal agents will most likely continue to enforce federal law. Until the U.S. Congress confirms Louisiana’s action, the battle will continue over Louisiana’s state water boundary.”

A part of the move to open state waters for a recreational red snapper take, the LDWF also requires all anglers to have a fee-free Recreational Offshore Landing Permit to possess a variety of offshore species, including red snapper.

Thursday’s Council vote needs approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The 11-day season came in response to a ruling from a Washington district court that demanded NMFS develop methods to bring the recreational catch in line with its annual quota. A group of commercial fishermen filed the suit after using federal data that showed the recreational sector had exceeded its annual quota in five of the six years between 2007 and 2012.

Council members, including federal regional administrator Roy Crabtree, indicated the reduction to 11 days from 2013’s 27-day season and from a previously announced 40-day 2014 season came in the wake of the judge’s ruling.

Using federal data, the Gulf Council explored the possibility of a 14-day season. Reacting to the district court ruling, a 20 percent buffer was added to the mix, a move that would reduce the season by 2.8 days — rounded up to three — in an attempt to restrict the recreational catch enough to stay within its 2014 quota.

The Gulf Council set 2014’s total annual red snapper quota at 11 million pounds divided into a 51 percent portion for commercial fishermen and 49 percent for the recreational sector. That means the recreational quota for 2014 is 5.39 million pounds.

With Barham’s announced move, Louisiana joins Texas with year-round recreational red snapper seasons in state waters, a term federal managers label as “noncompliance” with federal season rules. Florida, a noncompliant state in 2013, will vote next week on its status for 2014.

According to information presented during Thursday’s meeting, federal managers estimated Louisiana’s take from state waters in a weekend-only season is estimated to be 240,000 pounds this year.

Texas’ take was estimated to be less than 100,000 pounds. The estimated take in Florida, should it opt for a season in its state waters, was 1.2 million pounds. The balance of 286,000 pounds from the 1.8 million pounds estimated to be taken during state seasons comes from a pilot program for what’s now called the “Florida Headboat Collaborative,” a group of Florida Panhandle charterboat operators who sought, and were granted, an Exempted Fishing Permit in late 2013 to extract that catch from the recreational quota.