Fla. considers tough snapper catch limits for charter boats

Published 4:41 pm Friday, February 8, 2008

A plan to rebuild the Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper fishery by cutting daily catch limits and shortening the fishing season off Florida’s coast could force hundreds of Panhandle charter fishermen out of business, they told regulators Thursday.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission was expected to vote on the proposal Thursday afternoon. Commissioners heard from dozens of charter captains, Panhandle politicians and business owners Thursday morning, all opposing the plan.

“Our backs are against the wall. You are seeing people here today who are going to be gone, out of business, if this happens,” Bob Zales II, a Panama City charter boat captain, told commissioners.

A crowd of more than 500 filled the room and lined the walls of the Panama City Beach meeting room.

“Our economy is sluggish, it is in downturn. We need to do everything we can to stimulate our economy and this isn’t doing that,” said state Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna.

“Consider these faces, these individuals, while you are considering this,” she said to the applause of the hundreds of fishermen.

The plan would adopt recently approved federal regulations for state waters, which extend nine miles off Florida’s coast. Under the rules, commercial fishermen would be allowed to catch up to 2.55 million pounds of snapper, while recreational anglers would be limited to 2.45 million pounds per year.

In previous years, officials have allowed up to a total of 9.1 million pounds to be caught. Regulators say the snapper, which have been overfished since the mid 1980s, need time to rebuild in the Gulf of Mexico.

The plan would cut the snapper season by almost three months to June 1 through Sept. 30 and cut the per-person daily charter boat snapper catch limit from four two fish. The new regulations also require charter boats to carry steel circle hooks, venting tools and de-hooking devices to help released snapper survive.

The fisherman said keeping the longer snapper season in state waters was key to their continued economic survival.

Attempts to regulate the fishery have long fallen short, causing economic hardship for the industry and failing to rebuild the fishery, said Dewey Destin, a Destin city council member whose family founded the Panhandle city and has been involved in red snapper fishing since the 1830s.

But William Teehan, a marine fishery management specialist for the commission who outlined the recommended changes, said short-term sacrifices must be made to ensure the long-term survival of the species and industry. Once the fishery is rebuilt, the restrictions will be eased, he said.

David Krebs, a commercial fisherman from Destin, told commissioners he supported the tougher regulations. If Florida regulators refuse to follow the federal guidelines, federal regulators will be forced to further restrict the red snapper catch in federal waters where commercial fisherman catch the bulk of their snapper, he said.