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Regulators trim limits on red snapper catch in Gulf of Mexico

The recreational bag limit for red snapper will be cut in half in the Gulf of Mexico for the coming season, according to interim rules approved by federal regulators.

The National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to reduce the recreational snapper catch from four fish to two. Regulators also said commercial fisherman can keep snapper that are 13 inches instead of 15 inches, but reduced the allowable catch from 9.1 million pounds to 6.5 million pounds.

“We’re pleased that this measure will be going into effect this year,” said Chris Dorsett, the Gulf of Mexico Conservation Director for The Ocean Conservancy. “It helps get us on the road to recovering red snapper populations in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Charter captains said the new rules are bad for business.

“We’re pricing ourself out of business with the price of fuel and stuff,” said Gulf Breeze resident and commercial angler Ronnie Hogue. “Fueling up is pushing to $3 a gallon … we’re pushing away customers with the prices. You can only push them so far.”

Recreational snapper season starts on April 21, but the new rules won’t take effect until May 2 because of a 30-day mandatory moratorium on changes.

The interim rules also cut captain and crew from a boat’s daily tally, which means a charter group of four with a captain and a deckhand can keep 24 fish until the new limit takes effect. After May 2, the same charter will be able to keep only eight fish.

The rules expire on Sept. 30, a month before snapper season closes.

Rules also differ in state waters, which extend 9 nautical miles from shore. Florida regulators, for example, won’t decide whether to match the federal rules until mid-April.

The Gulf Council’s long-term plan to rebuild the red snapper population was shot down by a federal judge who said it did not go far enough to stop overfishing.

The species was declared overfished in 1997, and sport and commercial fishermen have limits on the number and size of red snapper they can take. But conservationists have said those limits are far too low to let the fish rebound by 2032 — the last possible target date under current regulations.