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Snapper season likely to keep its late date

August 9, 2018

If the 2018 fishing season for anglers aboard private boats targeting red snapper in federally controlled waters of the Texas coast ended today, 70 days after its June 1 start, it would still be the longest such season in almost a decade.

Happily for the state’s offshore anglers who enjoy catching and keeping the Gulf of Mexico’s most popular and increasingly populous reef fish, this season stands an excellent chance of remaining open through Aug. 21, the closing date Texas fisheries officials earlier this year intimated when they tentatively set an 82-day season for recreational anglers fishing federal waters in private vessels.

Even after the expected Aug. 21 close of the recreational snapper fishing season in Gulf water under federal jurisdiction, anglers will be allowed to continue fishing for snapper in Texas’ state waters; Texas’ “state water” red snapper season, which covers Gulf water out to 9 nautical miles from shore, remains open year round, as it always has.

“Based on our harvest monitoring, we are still confident the snapper season (in federal waters) will be able to run the 82 days we projected,” said Lance Robinson, deputy director of coastal fisheries for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

That harvest monitoring, which includes TPWD staff conducting dockside surveys of returning anglers as well as anglers voluntarily reporting their catches on the web-based iSnapper program, is a crucial part of a program that has given Texas offshore anglers their longest “federal waters” snapper season since 2010’s 77-day season.

This year is the first of a two-year experimental program that allows fisheries managers of the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico to set the length and dates of recreational fishing season for red snapper in waters off their coast.

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Prior to this year’s approval by federal fisheries managers of the Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) program, federal fisheries managers set a one-size-fits-all fishing season for recreational red snapper anglers across the Gulf. That season was based on estimates of how many days of fishing it would take for anglers to land the gulf-wide annual allowable catch of red snapper. That catch quota — 6.7 million pounds for 2018 — is designed to allow harvest of red snapper while also ensuring the fish, popular with both recreational and commercial fishers, continues to rebuild its population after collapsing in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That collapse and subsequent congressionally mandated takeover of snapper management by federal authorities triggered increasingly truncated snapper seasons even as the population began rebuilding and annual allowable catch quotas have increased.

Over the last decade, the recreational snapper season for anglers fishing from private boats has ranged from a high of 77 days to a low of nine days. In 2017, the private-boat snapper season ran 42 days, but only after the secretary of commerce stepped in and, in a move that generated lawsuits challenging its legality, added 39 days to what had been proposed as a three-day season.

Those increasingly brief snapper seasons generated considerable frustration among recreational anglers and state fisheries managers, especially in Texas, where waters off the state hold an estimated 40 percent of the Gulf’s red snapper resource.

The EFP program is designed to address some of that frustration. Under the program, federal fisheries managers divide the annual recreational red snapper harvest quota among the five Gulf-bordering states and allows each state to manage that harvest, including setting season length and dates based on how long state managers project it will take the state’s anglers to land its quota. State quotas are set based on a formula that looks at what percentage of the annual catch has been landed by anglers in each state.

While state fisheries managers have the authority to set season length and dates, they are responsible for monitoring landings and closing the season when those landing indicate anglers reach the state’s quota. Any “overages” will be subtracted from that state’s 2019 allowable catch.

This year, the portion of the recreational quota assigned to Texas angler fishing from private boats was 241,000 pounds. And that quota includes snapper taken from state waters during Texas’ year-round “state waters” season.

Through this past week, Texas recreational anglers have landed about 53 percent of the state’s annual allotment under the EFP program, Robinson said. That’s the lower percentage of allocation any Gulf state has reported landing. Alabama, which closed its snapper season July 22, has reported slightly overshooting its allocation. Louisiana and Mississippi, both of which briefly suspended their recreational snapper fishing seasons this past month but have reopened them, have reported landing a little more than 70 percent of their allocation. Florida closed its red snapper season in late July and has not yet reported its red snapper landings.

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Those Texas figures, Robinson said, are a good indication the state will be able to keep the federal waters season open through Aug. 21 and maintain the season in state waters through the end of the year.

“But that’s always subject to change,” he warned. “If we were to see a big pulse in fishing effort and landings — if seas got calm and a fishing pressure shot up — it would affect the projections.”

And Texas offshore anglers certainly have reasons to head offshore this month. Not only is the red snapper season open for the first August in many years, the federal waters season for a couple of other marine fish with heavily-regulated fishing seasons — amberjack and gray triggerfish — opened Aug. 1, giving anglers other target options after they have landed their two-fish daily limit of red snapper from federal waters.

Such a rush of Texas anglers heading offshore, steeply increasing snapper landing and causing an early close to the season in federal waters is not a likely scenario, though. While August can provide some of the calmest sea conditions of the year, giving Texas anglers opportunity to comfortably make the long runs offshore required to reach the best snapper fishing areas, it also is the hottest month. That wilting heat blunts fishing pressure. So does a shift in Texans’ focus as August arrives and preparations for the start of the school year and last-minute summer vacations turn anglers’ interests away from offshore fishing.

So odds are good the Aug. 21 closing date for federal waters snapper fishing off Texas will hold.

Even if monitoring indicates Texas anglers will not land as many snapper as TPWD managers projected, don’t look for Texas to extend the 2018 season in federal waters.

Insights gained from this first year of state management under the EFP program as well as input from Texas anglers will go into decisions about how to structure the 2019 seasons, Robinson said.

“We’ll be reaching out to anglers this fall to get their feedback,” he said. “The EPF allows us a lot more flexibility than we’ve had before. We can adjust season dates; we don’t have to start on June 1, when fishing conditions often aren’t good because of rough seasons. But there are tradeoffs with every option. We want to see what works best for our anglers.”

So far, this season seems to be working just fine.

shannon.tompkins@chron.com

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