Snapper SNAFU

W ere not quite there but are closing the gap daily on what promises to be a major battle over red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

Best possible outcome is that a legitimate solution, entirely unforeseen at the time of this writing, will present itself before the user groups turn irreversibly against each other. Fingers are crossed, of course, but I currently am not optimistic.

For a decade and change now, recreational and commercial red snapper fishermen have shared almost equally our federal regulators’ “total allowable catch” each year of the species.

Recreational anglers knew and kind of, sort of understood that the handful of commercial snapper boats in the Gulf of Mexico was catching lots of red snappers, but most of us couldn’t have defined “lots” on a bet.

We can now. 

When “red snappers” first popped onto the call-screener during my radio show this year, back in February, I had an idea what prompted the call and where the conversation was headed. And I was right.

The call coincided closely with launch of a reality show called Big Fish, Texas, which follows the daily doings of a large commercial operation, Katie’s Seafood Market, in Galveston.

I’ve never visited the place, but I accept it as presented – in favorable light – on the show. One of Texas’ largest seafood suppliers, Katie’s moves tons of red snappers and other fresh Gulf seafood. There’s a good chance I’ve eaten a red snapper (or 20) that first made landfall there. For fillets all those that ultimately were buried beneath lump crabmeat and thick, creamy sauce, I thank everyone who works at Katie’s.

And make no mistake that commercial fishing, every position in the industry, is hard work. Make no mistake either that the overwhelming majority of fish-house operators conduct business entirely within a long and growing list of complex regulations. There’s more than enough at stake for those men and women to keep them on the right side of the rules. 

It’s not my intention to knock any commercial fisherman or fish-house operator who plays by the rules. My “knock,” if you will, is with the convoluted, ruptured system by which red snappers are managed. 

After watching Big Fish, Texas, I‘m left scratching my head over the differences in how and when commercial and recreational anglers can target the species.

Commercial crews – lawfully, remember, so don’t aim your gripes at them – leave port with orders to return tons of fresh red snappers to the dock. Until the handful of licensed red snapper fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico hit their total allowable catch, it’s my understanding that they can fish when and where they want.

And then there’s the recreational red snapper fishery, made of men and women who target the species for fun. They get a couple weeks of open season and a couple fish each per trip. And it costs a ton of money, per pound or per mile or however you count it up, to land those two fish. And if weather’s bad for half that short season, then the season’s just shorter.

If I were to flip on a television while cleaning the one ice chest of red snappers my four friends and I were allowed for a 12-hour, 50-gallon, 100-mile-round-trip day on the water and see a commercial boat off-loading four tons of the same fish that it caught in a couple of great sets, I’d probably be a lot more than a little irritated. And I’d have a right to be.

Charter captains used to feel more or less the same about commercial fishermen. Then a few of them found a new way to play the game. And now, instead of just two players, there are three. 

For a price – a significant price – a handful of charter skippers have bought fractions of the commercial allocation. 

The way I understand it, they book a trip with a few people who want to go offshore and catch fish. Only instead of paying the captain for the trip, they agree to buy back from the fish house that will receive this “commercial catch” a portion of the haul. 

The captain, in this scenario, must note by required radio transmission when he or she leaves and when he or she returns, and all the day’s catch must be tallied and offloaded at a commercial fish dock – where the anglers who caught the fish then buy back what they want. That boat’s total catch is counted against the commercial side’s annual allowance.

It’s an end-around, to be certain, either brilliant or sneaky depending on who you ask. But again, same as the commercial boat that lands 15,000 pounds or the recreational boat that brings home half a dozen fish, it’s legal.  

Nobody knows how many red snappers are in the Gulf, but everybody who lays claim to a piece of that resource knows its management is imperfect. 

Apologies for reaching the end of this page without presenting a solution. I know what’s wrong but don’t know quite how to fix it. Sort of like staring at a bad computer. Only in this case, the IT department had a hand in breaking the machine.


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Email Doug Pike at ContactUs@fishgame.com


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