Quotas and bag limits divide commercial and recreational anglers
Jack and Katie Brown bought their boat, Ms. Katie B, in 2015, just before the start of the offshore fishing season. That year, the season was just three days, June 1-3, and the weather was uncooperative.
The couple and friends braved the tall swells to get in a few days of deep-sea fishing on the new boat. But it seemed unfair, Jack Brown said.
This year is different. For the first time in at least five years, anglers like the Browns can go offshore fishing late into the summer. In the first month of the season, Brown had gone out three times on nice, flat days, he said. He’s hoping to get at least 10 days in by the season’s close, which depends on quotas but could be mid-August, he said.
“I’ll fish for pretty much anything that will bite my hook and drag my line,” Brown said. “I get a thrill out of hearing that reel singing.”
But red snapper is the Gulf’s delicacy and one of the best to reel in, he said.
After years of short recreational seasons and infighting between people who fish for fun and those who fish for a living, the National Marine Fisheries Service approved a plan to give the state a turn at managing the offshore red snapper fishery.
Under its management, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department extended the federal season to 82 days, although it could be cut shorter if the state finds the recreational anglers have caught their quota. The state season is year-round in waters up to 9 miles offshore.
Red snapper fishery management has driven a wedge between many commercial and charter boat operations and recreational anglers, Brown said.
“As I talk to other captains, there’s a commercial versus recreational fishermen attitude,” Brown said. “I’ve known commercial guys since 1985. I know them and love them, but they can’t corner the market and make it theirs only.
“There’s plenty of fish in the sea, no one person should have this resource cornered.”
Commercial anglers argue having longer recreational seasons without proper data collection could lead to overfishing and deplete stocks that took years to rebuild. Commercial anglers are concerned the state isn’t tracking recreational catch as closely as it should and hasn’t implemented mandatory reporting like other Gulf states, they said.
“Making sure we don’t go backwards is important,” said Buddy Guindon, who owns commercial shares in the Gulf and Katie’s Seafood Market. “We’ve done a lot of work in this country to rebuild these fisheries and they’re the best in the world right now.”
Recreational anglers, largely, disagreed.
“Why would the state not be able to manage it?” Galveston angler Archie Hart said. “They manage it for the rest of the fish. They manage wildlife for the whole state.”
After decades of overfishing, the red snapper stock was nearly depleted in the 1980s and 1990s. The dire situation prompted a wave of new regulations and a new management system.
Those changes, implemented in 2007, divided up the Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper fishery between the commercial and recreational sectors. The percentages change each year, but typically the recreational sector has access to about 51 percent of the fishery, with the rest designated for commercial companies.
The regulatory change set up individual fishing quotas for commercial anglers, who were given permits based on their historic landings. The program allocated a percentage of the commercial catch to each of the about 400 commercial permitted anglers. The anglers can lease their share to other fishermen.
Now, the commercial anglers can fish any time during the year, until they reach their annual quotas. Each time they go on a trip, anglers call in and record how many pounds of red snapper they caught, which is tracked by the federal government. When they reach their allocated amount, they’re either done for the year or must rent shares from others.
But the changes also restricted recreational anglers’ access to the bounty. Federal scientists predicted how long it might take the recreational sector to reach its quota for the year and set the seasons based on that figure.
The reduced seasons led recreational anglers and the groups that represent them, namely the Coastal Conservation Association, to lobby for state management of the resource for recreational anglers, which they argued would be more accurate than the federal models.
Throughout the summer, the state has been tracking landings weekly by gathering information at marinas and boat launches along the Texas Coast, said Lance Robinson, a coastal fisheries manager for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
But others had doubts about the state’s handling of data collection. The state should have a mandatory reporting and data system, said Bill Cochrane Sr., a commercial angler in Galveston.
Cochrane had gone out several times throughout the summer and not encountered a wildlife employee collecting data, he said.
“Without mandatory reporting or a good data system, I don’t know how they can track it close enough,” Cochrane said. “Time will tell if the state admits that there’s a snapper shortage because they’ve opened the season.”
The state had considered mandatory reporting, but in looking at other states with those regulations, it didn’t see any better compliance than what Texas gets from voluntary reporting, Robinson said.
Guindon also saw shortcomings in the state’s management by not requiring reporting, he said.
But in the long run, he thought the state managers could sort out a proper system and set limits around this, he said.
“We need to get away from an assumed disagreement between commercial and recreational,” Guindon said. “Take the side of fish and everybody else will fall into their place. But if we don’t take care of the fish, what’s the difference?”