(CN) – Decades before artificial reef building was a scientific exercise carried out with public-private partnerships, local charter boat captains in Orange Beach, Alabama would haul chicken coops, old cars and refrigerators out into the Gulf of Mexico in an effort to build habitat for fish like the red snapper.
Today, Orange Beach, which sits next to the state line near Florida, bills itself as the red snapper capital of the world.
“It's almost like a holiday for us,” Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said. “The opening day of snapper season, I don't know if you remember the scene from ‘Jaws’ where everybody is going out the pass looking for the big shark? It looks something like that.”
But overfishing in the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico led to the federal government managing the red snapper fisheries.
From about 1994 to 2014, red snapper season on the Gulf Coast shrunk to only a few days under federal oversight.
That hurt Orange Beach’s charter fishing fleet.
“All of a sudden, your season's cut down to nine days, you can't pay for the boat, can't pay for the insurance,” Kennon said.
With the fish still recovering, the federal government finalized a rule Thursday that hands the management of recreational red snapper fishing in federal waters over to the Gulf Coast states: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
“The Gulf red snapper stock is not undergoing overfishing, and is not overfished but continues to be managed under a rebuilding plan that ends in 2032,” according the rule published by National Marine Fisheries Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The rule allows the states to monitor how much red snapper is caught off their coasts and set their own dates for how long their season can last, even tweaking the number and minimum size of red snapper going into anglers’ coolers.
The 2020 red snapper season in Alabama will run in June and July, according to Scott Bannon, marine resources division director for Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“In Alabama, we're going to be very cautious to make any other changes. We're just really, for the near future, going to concentrate on the season length,” Bannon said.
The final rule solidifies a temporary one enacted in 2017.
“Although under state management for measures controlling certain harvest activities, red snapper would remain a federally managed species,” the rule states.
According to Bannon, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which oversees the red snapper fishery, helped push for the rule.
Under the temporary rule, states such as Alabama asked the federal government for exemptions and it monitored the number of fish anglers caught and adjusted its season accordingly.
“We showed that we could manage within the quotas that we were allotted,” Bannon said.
Under the rule, recreational anglers in Alabama can reel in about 1.1 million pounds of red snapper a season, or about 26% of all the red snapper caught in the Gulf Coast by recreational fishing.
According to Bannon, giving the states control of its recreational fishing and extending the seasons cuts down on “panic fishing” and does not push anglers to go out into possibly unsafe weather.
The rule published Thursday does not apply to commercial fishing, nor to red snapper caught through charter fishing.
When the final rule was proposed, the federal government received 31 comments during its public comment period. Only two opposed the move.
Over the years, the federal government has faced criticism for how it has managed the red snapper population. In 2013, a group of commercial fishermen sued the secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service alleging they mismanaged the fishery by allowing recreational anglers to overfish.
In July 2017, Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund challenged the temporary rule extending the recreational red snapper season from three days to 42.
NOAA and NMFS improperly implemented the rule, the environmental groups argued, and an extended recreational fishing season would “substantially exceed annual catch limits designed to prevent overfishing and will delay the rebuilding of the red snapper population.”
Both sides asked the court to voluntarily dismiss the suit October 2018.
In a statement, Meredith Moore, director of fish conservation at Ocean Conservancy, said the extension of the fishing season was a different circumstance than delegating management of red snapper fishing to the states.
“Ocean Conservancy is generally supportive of the state management approach as it offers the opportunity to better tailor fishery management for the recreational sector, but we note that this must be done in a way that meets the requirements of our federal fisheries law,” Moore said.
Congressman Bradley Byrne, a Republican who represents the area around Mobile, Alabama, supported the rule when it was first announced. The temporary rule, he said in a letter to NOAA fisheries in October, did not cause commercial and charter fishing operations to “lose out.”
The Environmental Defense Fund said Wednesday that it was cautiously optimistic about the rule for the popular sport and table fish, which is recovering from nearly disastrous overfishing.
"There's still some kinks to be worked out with the data collection" in some states, said Sepp Haukebo, the group's manager for private angler management reform. For instance, he said, in some years before the experimental program started, Alabama's estimates of the amount taken were as low as 30% of the federal estimates for that state.
"They've gotten a lot closer in the last couple of years," he said, adding that Alabama has announced improvements that should make its tallies more accurate.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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