Anglers demand better planning

Published 10:38 pm Thursday, November 12, 2009

Alabama’s charter fishing fleet and recreational anglers took their protest of severe restrictions on seasons and bag limits to the water last week in show of solidarity at Perdido Pass in Orange Beach.

About 70 boats lined up in the pass with fog horns blaring for two hours on Nov. 7 as motorists traveling over the Perdido Pass Bridge honked in support. Numerous supporters also lined the railing along the pass.

Capt. Ben Fairey, president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association, said the protest served two purposes – to get individual association members involved and to illustrate the industry’s plight to the public.

“The main thing today was to bring awareness that the for-hire and recreational sectors need to work together to move this forward,” said Fairey, who captains the Necessity. “The snail’s pace this thing is moving right now is putting our guys’ backs against the wall. As everybody knows, there are plenty of red snapper. The main goal is to get together and work out some common sense solutions to this problem.

“Unfortunately there are so many rules and regulations that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has to go by that it creates the problem. It takes so long to get anything done. I hope in the near future we can get a new stock assessment, and that takes time. That’s what so many people are asking because we’re seeing so many snapper. And sometimes the stock assessments don’t agree with what we’re seeing and we want to know why.”

The charter industry suffered another setback recently with the unexpected closure of amberjack season when NMFS officials determined the quota had been exceeded, a mandate of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

“Unfortunately, the amberjack closure came on very short notice,” Fairey said. “That came on top of the red snapper closure. What we’re proposing is that we want better data collection so we don’t get in this situation where we have a sudden closure. We need to be able to plan our business better. If we have electronic log books in the for-hire industry, (NMFS) will be able to keep up with what we’re catching so we don’t get into the position we’re in now with a sudden closure with no notice. There is a log book pilot program being looked at now.”

Tom Steber of Zeke’s Landing Marina, where 30 offshore charter boats dock, echoed the common sense approach touted by Fairey.

“We’re trying to get some national attention and get somebody with some common sense to open their eyes and say, ‘OK, this whole picture is wrong,’” Steber said. “We want to talk about closures of fisheries with bad data. We’re asking for some common sense to look at it before you just shut an industry down.

“We’ve got a situation here where the whole ecosystem has flipped. We’ve got so many snapper out there and they’re so aggressive. They’re the piranha of the Gulf of Mexico. They’re eating the juvenile cobia, amberjack, triggers, vermilions. They’re moving in the bays, so they’ll be eating the speckled trout, the white trout. They’re eating each other.”

Steber said a fishing trip with Gov. Bob Riley and his grandson last summer is a perfect example of how snapper stocks have been underestimated.

“Gov. Riley’s grandson has a cigar minnow kind of dangling in the water as the captain rounded up on a spot,” he said. “The snapper are trying to bite the bait before he could get it in the water. There were snapper all over the surface. The governor turned around and said, ‘There are a lot of snapper.’

“Gov. Riley has supported us from day one. He sent (Conservation Commissioner) Barnett Lawley and his Chief of State, David Stewart, with us to Washington.”

Gov. Riley also joined fellow Gulf Coast governors – Haley Barbour in Mississippi, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Rick Perry in Texas – in a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke asking that NOAA take more time and consider the impact on coastal areas before closing fisheries or implementing catch-share programs.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon thinks regulators are not enforcing an aspect of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to the detriment of coastal communities that depend of fishing-related revenue.

“The act speaks to the economic impact and how that should affect any decisions they make and that the communities should not be affected,” Kennon said. “That seems to be being ignored because we know the charter industry itself is in dire straits just as for the survivability of the industry. The overall recreational fishing industry is being affected, which affects the City of Orange Beach as economic impact. I can’t understand why that’s not being taken into consideration.

“The Orange Beach Red Snapper Championship has put out over 1,000 reefs. The best estimate is there are at least 10,000 reefs off the State of Alabama. We have cultivated our own crop of red snapper. Now the government does not allow us to harvest our own crops. That just does not make sense.”

Vernon Minton, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, said the Magnuson-Stevens Act has fisheries managers in a box with no way out short of amending the act.

“Most of the problem has been caused by the new accountability measures that the management plans had to stop overfishing by 2010,” Minton said. “So even though the stocks are making progress, they had to go to these drastic measures that have affected everybody so much. The red snapper fishery, for example, is recovering, although I don’t think their models are reflecting adequately the state of the fishery.”

Minton also said there was talk at the last Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting that the accountability measures and Annual Catch Limits may force regulators to go to a 30-day red snapper season and a one-fish bag limit.

“They can’t live with that,” Minton said of the charter industry. “These guys are down to losing everything they’ve worked for.”

A red snapper stock assessment is due in 2010, but Minton isn’t sure that the assessment will accurately reflect the fish stocks in the Gulf. He insists that NMFS interpretation of overfishing because of a lack of big fish in the surveys is misguided.

“Here is what I see is going on,” he said. “The assessments are based on what comes to the dock, not what’s in the water. With red snapper, your normal operator – charter or recreational, will go out and catch their fish. But they’re not really targeting big fish. Big fish become solitary and go off by themselves. If you target them, you can catch, which is evident from the red snapper championship. But unless you target big fish, what shows up at the dock is not representative of the total resource.”

Minton suggests a fishery-independent survey needs to be made to better determine the status of the snapper fishery.

“I feel like they need to use some of the NOAA vessels or contract vessels to do random longline sets to see what’s out there,” he said. “The other thing they’re doing is they’re not including the habitat created by artificial reefs in the computer model. They don’t show any artificial habitat at all.

“Based on landings in Alabama, about 99 percent are caught off artificial habitat. We catch 35 to 40 percent of recreationally caught red snapper off Alabama. But they don’t include that in any of the models.”

Minton also said the recreational fishing survey, which is supposed to be overhauled, is flawed.

“The recreational data is real suspect,” he said. “The way the survey is done is they call people randomly and ask if they fish freshwater or saltwater or both. People are dropping land lines and going to cell phones. A lot of the people they’re calling are older folks who don’t fish anymore.

“The last survey said that there were no fishermen in Escambia County, Alabama who fished in saltwater. That tells you something is not right. We’re trying to get them to use our state license system to use in the survey. The number of saltwater anglers is a very important number for us. Those numbers determine our allocation in Sportfish Restoration funds.”

Fairey said the struggling economy and short red snapper season, which closed Aug. 15, has caused a reduction in the charter business of between 25 and 40 percent.

“This is not an emotional statement, but we have guys having trouble paying their bills right now,” he said before switching to a more upbeat tone. “But the Orange Beach fishing fleet is alive. The way I’m looking at it is we have a harvest season for red snapper and a release season for red snapper. Families can come down and have a great time. We’re going to catch plenty of fish. We can catch other species – king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, cobia, all kinds of things. It’s not all doom and gloom.”