By JANET McCONNAUGHEY
NEW ORLEANS —
Gulf of Mexico anglers will have a longer red snapper season than they thought. A week before opening, regulators announced that the recreational season in federal waters for the popular game fish will be 17 to 34 days instead of nine to 28.
Updated recreational landings data and new information from Louisiana and Texas prompted the change, according to a release from NOAA Fisheries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Charter boat Capt. Steve Tomeny and Randy Pausina, Louisiana's top fisheries official, were happy Thursday to hear that the federal season off Louisiana will be increased from nine days to 24.
Tomeny said some of his customers had talked about canceling trips scheduled after June 9 because they couldn't catch red snapper. "I'll have a few more trips I'll be able to run this year," he said.
NOAA Fisheries also raised the total allowed red snapper catch from 8 million pounds to nearly 8.5 million pounds, with 51 percent for commercial boats and the rest for anglers.
The recreational season opens June 1 in federal waters, which begin nine nautical miles off of Florida and Texas and three nautical miles off of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
"We don't really have a lot of red snapper within three miles," Tomeny said.
Anglers in Mississippi and Alabama, which set their state seasons and limits to match federal regulations, will have 34 days rather than 28 to catch red snapper in federal waters.
The other states all scheduled longer seasons, and Texas and Louisiana both let anglers go beyond the federal limit of two red snapper a day. The varying federal seasons are designed to give anglers across the Gulf an equal chance at red snapper, federal regulators have said.
Anglers off Texas, where they can catch up to four red snapper a day year-round in state waters, will have 17 days in federal waters rather than 12.
Off of Florida, where state waters are open for 44 days starting June 1 with a two-fish bag limit, the season in federal waters will be 26 days instead of 21.
Louisiana has an 88-day weekends-only season, with a three-fish limit. The season started March 23 and runs through September.
The state may cut some of those weekends to allow more time in federal waters, said Pausina, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
When the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission meets on June 6, he said, he will give them several options that will also include keeping the current state season.
"Obviously the maximum is what Alabama and Mississippi got — 34 days. We could never get 34 days because we've already been harvesting," he said.
Tomeny, who is also a commercial fisherman, said ever-shorter red snapper recreational seasons have forced him to sell three of the four 65-foot charter boats he owned when the recreational red snapper season was six months long.
"But I will say that if they had left it like it was years ago, with the six-month fishing season and four-fish limit, the overfishing would have continued," he said. "A lot of people don't remember what it was like 10 or 15 years ago when we didn't always know if we would catch our limit. It was very tough fishing."
A number of other changes, including individual quotas for commercial fishing boats and reduced shrimping because of high fuel prices, have also helped the species recover, he said.
"All these combine to have this really good comeback in the fishery," Tomeny said. "If they hadn't done it I don't think we'd be worried about how many days, because nobody's interested in going red snapper fishing if it's really poor."