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Fla. tightens snapper rules
But the state rejects tougher limits federal officials wanted.
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008
Overfishing has pressured red snapper for decadesand to rebuild the stocks, Congress requires Gulf of Mexico catches to stay below federally set quotas. But some gulf states - including Texas, Florida and possibly Alabama - aren't cooperating.
[Bill Serne | Times (2007)]
Florida regulators passed new restrictions on recreational red snapper fishing in state waters Thursday but rejected more serious cutbacks favored by federal regulators.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's decision to chart its own course primarily affects the Panhandle, where red snapper can be caught close to shore, bolstering spring and summer tourism.
But Tampa Bay area anglers may feel repercussions as well.
For one thing, federal regulators may have to tighten recreational snapper fishing even farther in federal waters, which begin 9 miles offshore, said Roy Crabtree, regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Overfishing has pressured red snapper for decades, Crabtree said. To rebuild the stocks, Congress requires Gulf of Mexico catches to stay below federally set quotas. But some gulf states - including Texas, Florida and possibly Alabama - aren't cooperating.
"This is going to make it quite a bit more difficult for us to do what the law requires," said Crabtree, who wouldn't rule out the possibility of a complete recreational shutdown in federal waters if too many snapper are caught in state waters.
Recreational anglers and charter boats in West Florida typically target grouper, often in federal water. Though grouper is the prize, red snapper can be a welcome catch that helps justify the fuel and bait cost of going offshore.
Last month, the federal Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council reduced the daily recreational "bag limit" from four snapper to two and limited the season from June to September, a two-month reduction.
It also reduced the commercial quota. Diners saw little effect because imports and other snapper species replaced true Gulf red snapper on restaurant menus.
State regulators usually follow the federal lead on recreational fishing in the gulf, which the wildlife commission's staff recommended as well with red snapper.
But the federal cutbacks created a firestorm in North Florida.
"The economic impact on the Panhandle will be devastating," Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, wrote to the wildlife commission. "There are over 180 for-hire fishing boats operating in Panama City and Destin. The charter fishing sector in these two cities alone ... infuses $44-million in state and local taxes."
At Thursday's commission meeting in Panama City, hundreds of anglers, politicians and business owners echoed that message.
The council voted to accept the bag limit reduction from four to two in state waters but maintained the current six-month season of April 21 through Oct. 31.
"It lets us survive," said Pensacola charter boat captain Dale Perkins, who predicted that a new stock assessment in 2010 will show that red snapper have rebounded.
"We are still the home of red snapper, white beaches and Blue Angels," he said.
The wildlife commission hopes that reducing the bag limit, plus other conservation measures, will be enough to rebuild the stocks, said spokesman Lee Schlesinger.
"The economy is terrible here," he said. "We felt this was kind of a give and take."
Crabtree, the federal administrator, acknowledged that restrictions could cost jobs but said "the long-run cost of allowing overfishing to continue is much greater."
The combined recreational and commercial quota is about 6.5-million pounds now, but that could double or triple once stocks rebound, he said. "We need to keep that in sight."
If Thursday's action is any precedent, state and federal regulators could face another schism next year, when the Gulf of Mexico council expects to impose a 45 percent fishing reduction in the gag grouper catch.
About 300 Tampa Bay recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and business owners packed a meeting of the Gulf of Mexico management council last month to complain that proposed grouper restrictions could end their fishing and damage the economy.
As with snapper, recreational grouper anglers and charter-boat captains face a substantial reduction in their bag limit and a longer closed season - in grouper's case, right at the height of the tourist season.
"I think we are going to see a growing confrontation between federal fishing agencies and the state fish commission," said Ted Forsgren, Florida director of the Coastal Conservation Association, a recreational lobbyist.
In 2005, Forsgren's group successfully sued federal regulators over one aspect of red grouper restrictions. In that battle, the Florida's wildlife commission also broke with federal regulators on some rules and sided with the recreational fishermen.
"The same thing is happening now with gag," Forsgren said. "Everything is going to intensify."
Bag limit lower, season same
The daily bag limit for gulf red snapper was reduced from four to two in state and federal waters.
The season will remain six months long from April 21 through Oct. 31 in state waters but was reduced to four months in federal waters.