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Feds propose reducing red snapper catch to 6.5 million pounds

An attempt to reduce overfishing of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico next year by temporarily lowering the permitted catch drew fire Thursday from some in the fishing industry, while conservation groups applauded the effort.

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s proposed temporary rule for the 2007 snapper season was published Thursday in the Federal Register, calling for public comments on the proposal until Jan. 26.

“You can believe we’re going to respond to that,” said charter boat Capt. Maurice Fitzsimons of Zeke’s Landing in Orange Beach.

Fitzsimons and a Gulf Coast delegation met last month with U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in an attempt to head off the NMFS proposal, which Fitzsimons said Thursday would damage the charter business.

Commercial and sport fishermen are allowed to catch 9 million pounds of red snapper a year, but experts say illegal fishing boosts the actual catch to as much as 12 million pounds.

The temporary proposal would reduce the red snapper quota to 6.5 million pounds, with a commercial quota of 3.3 million pounds and a recreational quota of about 3.2 million. It would cut the commercial minimum size limit from 15 inches to 13 inches total length.

It also would cut the red snapper recreational bag limit from four fish to two per person per day and prohibit the captain and crew of for-hire vessels from retaining the recreational bag limit.

Roy Crabtree, the NMFS Southeast regional administrator in St. Petersburg, Fla., said he understands the negative reaction because of the potential economic impact of reduced quotas, but, he said, federal law requires an end to overfishing.

Once the public comment period ends Jan. 26, Crabtree said the agency will decide how to proceed, but the reduced quota is the “preferred alternative.” The temporary rule could be used for 180 days and extended one time for 186 days, he said.

Under a separate rule, federal officials are using individual fishing quotas in an attempt to end problems associated with derby-style snapper fishing — a race to hook as many fish as possible before the season ends.

If overfishing continues in 2007, NMFS warns, “substantially more severe harvest reductions would be required in 2008.”

NMFS described its action as an interim measure taken after the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council earlier voted to delay action until January when additional data becomes available.

Crabtree said NMFS could not delay any longer because of the time required to get the regulations in place. The council will meet in January to work on a permanent quota rule that could be ready by early summer.

“Folks need to understand the law requires us to end overfishing,” Crabtree said in a telephone interview.

The shrimping industry also would be affected under the interim measure that would set a target red snapper bycatch mortality reduction goal for shrimping that equates to 50 percent of the bycatch mortality that occurred in 2001 to 2003 and a level of shrimping equal to that observed in the fishery last year.

Chris Dorsett, a spokesman for the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based marine advocacy group, said NMFS action is needed, urging the agency to “get these measures in place” for next year’s fishing season.

Jason Schratwieser, a spokesman for the International Game Fish Association in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., called it a “step in the right direction,” saying the snapper stock has been overfished since the mid-1990s.

“Nothing’s been done about it,” he said Thursday.

“Rebuilding red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is not only ecologically important, but will provide even more enjoyment for anglers and their families in the future,” Schratwiser said.

On the Net:

http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/sf/RedSnapper/pdfs/Red—Snapper—IFQ—FAQ—112 906.pdf

http://www.noaa.gov

http://www.nnmfs.noaa.gov

http://www.gulfcouncil.org