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Federal limits bring on fishing frustration

If you want to catch a tasty red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico today, you’re too late. The red snapper season ended at 12:01 a.m. this morning after running for just nine days.

It’s undoubtedly why I observed a frustrated angler at a St. Petersburg, Fla., launching ramp Saturday yelling at a passing U.S. Fish & Wildlife boat: “Put your red snapper rules where the sun don’t shine!”

Why are anglers in Florida (and every other Gulf state) so frustrated? First, the federal red snapper season ran from just June 1 through June 9. Winds kept the Gulf rough for a third of the time, including the first Sunday, limiting the number of boaters who could make the 40-plus mile run offshore to where red snapper traditionally are found.

With most anglers working during the week, that essentially made last Saturday and Sunday the red snapper season for most Gulf recreational fishermen. So, on Saturday, I pointed my Pursuit (Special Kay) west and ran 44 miles to reach a depth of 132 feet (the Gulf is shallow along Florida’s west coast) to catch our allowable limit of two red snapper per person. Did we catch more fish? Lots, but after we iced our six allowable red snapper the rest had to be released.

I took note of other boats that made the long run to deep water. Looking to the horizon in all directions, I only counted 13 boats widely scattered and it occurred to me that even with a great bite on, there aren’t that many boats out chasing red snapper so the take can’t be that large. And here are likely reasons: (1) you must have a boat big enough to run 45 miles or more offshore; (2) we burned about 65 gallons of fuel, which means our six snapper cost $51.55 each; (3) Catching more of the apparently plentiful red snapper that you can’t keep will bring you to a boil.

The regulators say these rules are for the good of the fish and the fishermen. But old-time anglers I’ve talked with say red snapper fishing is better than it has been in at least 40 years. They believe it’s thanks to an extended period of tight harvest regulations as well as the use of devices on shrimp nets that allow millions of young snapper to escape from ending up as dead bycatch.

Here’s another notable observation: Besides being more numerous, the plentiful red snapper population boasts larger fish these days, according to hundreds of reports from anglers in the five Gulf States (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas).

So why are the feds squeezing out recreational fishermen with unjustifiably short seasons in which logic seems to say we can’t possibly land our so-called quota? For one thing, it’s because the feds measure the harvest in pounds, not number of fish. So, when their SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess) method of presuming when the pounds that will be taken by recreational anglers is reached, they slam the door.

It’s a fact that red snapper grow fast and live long. So we’re catching more big ones and logic says we’ll now catch fewer before reaching the pounds set by the feds. But while these restrictions might be arbitrarily contrived by fish managers, they are mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and a recent court decision. That said, these rules are based on acknowledged unscientific harvest surveys done by, well, federal scientists.

Recreational fishermen aren’t the only angry birds. From Florida to Texas, upset state fishery managers are reportedly moving quickly to put their own harvest surveys in place, using such capabilities as smartphones for anglers to report their catches when they hit the docks.

It’s no wonder, then, that the boating and fishing industries are currently pushing hard for revisions during the ongoing reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, seeking substantive legislative changes to improve saltwater recreational fisheries management. Clearly, the federal government, with its expanding and increasingly complicated regulatory pronouncements, has demonstrated a bias toward commercial fishing at the expense of the nation’s recreational anglers. That needs to end.

Restrictions not supported by good science negatively impact boat dealers, marinas, gas sales, bait and tackle shops, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and motels, charterboats, fishing families and many more. It’s past time for all of us to demand that our U.S. senators and representatives support major changes in Magnuson-Stevens.

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