Snapper check numbers show fear unfounded

Preliminary numbers from the Alabama Red Snapper Reporting System, aka Snapper Check, indicate the fear that Alabama anglers would exceed the 2017 quota were unfounded.

“Using the Alabama Snapper Check numbers, we’re going to be well within the historic allocation for Alabama, so the 39-day season did not put us over, which was a concern for the commercial fishing community and part of the charter fishing community,” said Scott Bannon, Acting Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD). “Now the concern we have is what the MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program) numbers will show, and those numbers are not out yet.”

Since the inception of the Alabama Snapper Check program, the federally produced MRIP numbers for red snapper caught by private recreational anglers have consistently overestimated the snapper harvest, according to MRD officials. The federal survey overestimated harvest numbers by 81 percent in 2014, 68 percent in 2015 and 79 percent in 2016 compared to Snapper Check numbers.

Kevin Anson, MRD’s Chief Biologist who sits on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council as a proxy member, said MRD has confidence in the Snapper Check data. Alabama has worked hand in hand with NOAA Fisheries staff and their consultants in the development of the Snapper Check system. They anticipate that the program will be approved for use in the management process by year end.

The 2017 total catch per Snapper Check indicated the charter industry (not including headboats) and private recreational anglers landed 1,649,242 pounds of red snapper. Anson said that total breaks down to 790,382 pounds for the charter-for-hire industry and 858,860 pounds for the private recreational anglers.

The Gulf-wide red snapper quota for 2017 for the recreational sector was 6,603,094 pounds. Historically, Alabama lands between 30 and 35 percent of the total snapper catch in the Gulf because of its unparalleled artificial reef program.

Anson said the Gulf Council, which is meeting this week in Biloxi, Miss., has previously discussed a regional management plan for reef fish through Amendment 39. If Amendment 39 were approved, Alabama would receive 31.6 percent of the total quota, which would have been a little more than 2 million pounds this year.

In mid-June this year, NOAA Fisheries extended the federal season from June 1-3 to an additional 39 weekend and holiday days when states agreed to limit or eliminate state season days.

Although the 2017 federal season was over three times longer than the 2016 federal season (11 days), the number of fishing trips with red snapper did not increase at the same amount.  Private recreational anglers took an estimated 79,176 snapper trips during the 2017 39-day federal season, according to Anson. During the 2016 federal season, the total number of private recreational trips was estimated to be 35,191.

“Yes, there were more angler trips in 2017, but these trips did not have the same level of angler harvest rates or the same size of fish,” Anson said. “We had smaller fish landed in 2017 versus 2016. This year’s numbers showed an average of 1.7 harvested fish (2-fish limit) per angler. We felt a lot of that was people were going the shortest distance from shore where they felt they could get fish they wanted to keep. If they didn’t want to get the maximum limit and were fine with a 5-pound fish, they went 8 to 10 miles. They just went fishing instead of catching. We think that’s the way the fishery has morphed in the last few years.”

In addition, Anson said with the closure of gray triggerfish and greater amberjack during the federal season for the past couple of years the majority of anglers have shifted to fishing closer to shore.

“Snapper Check indicated that 90 percent of the red snapper were harvested within 120 feet of water, which is about 17-18 miles from shore,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bannon said Louisiana has a reporting system similar to Snapper Check, and the Louisiana numbers indicate the Bayou State came in about 100,000 pounds under its quota. Louisiana is considering a fall season to catch the additional fish, but Alabama is not.

“We had an agreement that we would not have a fall season if we got the 39-day season during the summer,” Bannon said. “We’re going to stick to that agreement.

“We just wanted to show when you extend the season, it allows for greater access, and it reduces fishing pressure. The charter fishermen said they also noticed a reduction in the private boats out fishing.”

Bannon said the reduced fishing effort contributed to less chaos in the artificial reef areas and helped with the boat-ramp traffic jams, especially at Dauphin Island’s Billy Goat Hole.

“The extended opportunity allowed people to plan around vacations and family activities,” Bannon said. “The kids might have a soccer game or baseball game or the weather might be bad. With short seasons, people have a tendency to go snapper fishing in weather conditions that are not good.

“When you extend the season, it allows life to happen for folks. Now people can look at the weather and decide to go when the weather is better.”

Bannon said the Snapper Check numbers show that the states have the ability to monitor and manage the reef fish fishery, and that is what the general public wants.

“People want the season to be spread out over a longer period of time to give them some options,” he said. “During those short seasons, tensions get high. At our public access boat ramps, parking is very limited. People get frustrated with that. When you only have a couple of days to fish, you can’t even find a place to park.

“The extended season helps people make better decisions, especially based on the weather. And I think it also shows that if we get to a state management plan through Congress or the Gulf Council, we have the ability to monitor what our catch rates are throughout the season. Every week we were looking at Snapper Check numbers, and we felt the whole time we were fine; we were not going over the allocation if we use Snapper Check data.”

Former MRD Director Chris Blankenship, now the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, has said on several occasions that Alabama feels much more confident in the integrity of the Alabama Snapper Check data compared to MRIP.

“We were glad when we got our preliminary numbers from Snapper Check,” Blankenship said. “This is exactly what we thought would happen when they extended the season. We felt like the more days people could fish, the effort would spread out over the season. They could go when it was good for them and their family and not have to go every single day it was open.

“It kept the catch rates per day at a good level, and this is exactly what we thought would happen. We’ve been doing this a long time. We talked with fishermen to see what the seasons and effort were like when we had between 30 and 40 days to fish. We felt with more opportunity, the number of fishing trips per day would be less, and that’s exactly what we saw.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

First week of 2017 gator hunt in the books

Unofficial 2017 West Central Alabama River Alligator Hunt Results – Week 1
 
Night 1 – 08/10/17:
01 – Janet Holt (Tallassee) – 7’ 9”, 109 lbs., M
02 – Wilford Holt (Tallassee) – 9’ 2”, 216 lbs., M
03 – Sam Scott (Monroeville) – 8’ 1”, 122 lbs., M
04 – Patrick Stabler (Frisco City) – 12’ 7”, 607 lbs., M
 
Night 2 – 08/11/17
05 – Brent Hatcher (Wetumpka) – 8’ 2.5”, 131.5 lbs., F
06 – Jeremy Guthrie (Ohatchee) – 8’ 6”, 152 lbs., M
07 – Brad Reaves (Ohatchee) – 7’ 3”, 86.5 lbs.
 
Night 3 – 08/12/17
08 – Lewis Prince (Childersburg) – 7’ 9”, 126 lbs., F
09 – Rex Jones (Selma) – 7’ 7”, 93 lbs., M
10 – Ashley Sparks (Decatur) – 6’ 9”, 61.5 lbs., M
11 – Sterling Brothers (Alexander City) – 8’ 11”, 175.5 lbs., M
12 – Brad Kelly (Thorsby) – 8’ 4”, 129.5 lbs., M

From left, Patrick Stabler (Tag holder, Frisco City), J.T. Dailey (Camden), and Craig Gamble (Camden) with week one big gator they caught around Chilatchee Creek on the Alabama River. The gator was 12′ 7″, 607 pounds. (WAW | James Lawler)

Gulf Seafood Summit celebrates Alabama seafood

It seems like eons ago when Alabama and the rest of the states on the Gulf of Mexico were collectively staring at a potential apocalypse that might eternally alter the way of life along the Gulf Coast.

The wellhead at the Macondo Prospect was uncontrollably spewing barrel after barrel of crude oil into the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig was destroyed, and our economy and culture were hanging by the thinnest of threads in the summer of 2010.

Residents along the coast didn’t know if they would enjoy Gulf shrimp or sautéed red snapper filets ever again.

Fast forward to the summer of 2017: Wild Gulf shrimp are plentiful, and the waters off the Alabama coast are teeming with red snapper.

As Jim Smith, the executive chef of the State of Alabama who makes sure Gov. Kay Ivey gets plenty of Alabama seafood, put it:

“The BP oil spill is so far behind us in the rearview mirror that it doesn’t even come up anymore,” said Smith last week at the Alabama Gulf Seafood Summit in Orange Beach, where he also served as one of the judges in the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off.

After the oil spill, the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission (ASMC) was formed in March 2011 to help guide consumers and the seafood industry through the uncertain recovery process.

“A big portion of what we did after the oil spill was to ensure our seafood was safe,” said Chris Blankenship, who was Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director during most of the recovery period and now serves as Acting Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). “I will say that during the spill and after the spill we never had a seafood sample that was unsafe.”

Blankenship said the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and MRD combined forces to the test the seafood, which included finfish, oysters, shrimp and blue crabs.

“We started this (ASMC) from scratch,” Blankenship said. “I think with the website (www.eatalabamaseafood.com) and the impact that the program has had, it has been good for the industry. The thing that shows me that we have value as a seafood marketing commission is that people do want to put our logo on their doors, their businesses and their menus. To me, that is the biggest compliment for the work that has been done by the commission. We have built a value with people identifying with Alabama seafood.

“When I go to a restaurant and see our logo on there, I feel like we’ve had an impact on the industry. It has been a very productive five years, but we have more work to do.”

Blankenship did say that funding for the seafood commission is far from what it once was, and he has no idea what the future holds.

“I will say we’re operating on a shoestring budget compared to what it once was,” he said. “We had initial funding from BP that lasted for three years. We were able to obtain some additional funding from the Governor’s office that we stretched for two years. We also received a grant from the Deepwater Horizon Settlement Fund that really helped keep us going. Last year, out of the blue, I got a surprise letter from the Deepwater Settlement Fund. The letter said the work the commission had done was impressive and that we followed the grant agreement and all the reporting required was done on time. The letter said they had a little money left over and asked if we could use $100,000. I could not reply fast enough that, yes, we could use it. We currently have no funding to continue the valuable work of the ASMC after 2017.

“We hope that we will gain some long-term funding through the RESTORE Act. The language in the act specifically mentions seafood marketing. It’s just taking a little longer than we would like to get the funding.”

Now that the BP oil spill is behind us, the effects of Alabama’s weather on seafood production can control the availability of seafood, especially oysters.

Byron Webb of the ADPH’s shellfish office said recent rains from Tropical Storm Cindy have caused the harvestable oyster reefs to be shut down as a precaution. Several benchmarks are used to determine if an area will be closed.

“Right now, we’re under several closures,” Webb said. “If we get five inches of local rain, that closes an area until we get to test the water again. We got 5 inches of rain one night and another 5 inches the next day. We’re also closed because of river levels. When the Mobile River at Barry Steam Plant gets above 8 feet, we close it.

“When anything like that happens, it’s a 21-day closure. That gives it enough time for the components that would cause health issues to be flushed out. After that, we test again until we get a clean sample and can reopen the reefs.”

Blankenship said the closures are to ensure that the products the public gets are safe.

“It is an inconvenience for the oystermen and oyster growers, but it’s really a protection for those businesses and consumers to make sure that no products enter the marketplace that are not safe,” he said.

Blankenship said the demand for oysters produced through aquaculture operations on the Alabama coast is through the roof.

“We are able to sell a lot more oysters than we can produce,” he said. “One thing we’re trying to do is create an opportunity for people who want to get into the oyster aquaculture business. We’re putting together a one-stop-shop website so that investors big and small can use the tools. If a husband and wife want to start an oyster farm, they can go to the website to see what permitting is required and what capital is required to grow a million oysters. A company that might want to grow 10 million oysters can use the site, too.

“This year, we are on schedule to produce about five million oysters, but I think we have a demand for about 25 million oysters. There is real growth potential for the oyster aquaculture industry.”

On an oyster-related note, the Oyster Shell Recycling Program, which cranked up last year, has been an overwhelming success. The program collects oyster shells from Alabama Gulf Coast restaurants and takes the shells to the Alabama Marine Resources Division property in Gulf Shores. After six months of seasoning, the shells are used for oyster gardening programs and to refurbish public oyster reefs. The program set a goal of two million shells collected in its first two years but has already reached that goal in just six months.

Chef Gilstrap created Chef Olive’s “Fruitti di Alabama” recipe that featured an underutilized fish species in its dish of Pan Roasted Gulf Jolt Head Porgy that included Summer Squash Jumbo Lump Crab Caponata with a Crispy Rock Shrimp Piccatta topping (WAW | Contributed)

Blankenship said the blue crab industry is on the rebound but not where it should be. Proposed regulations on trap components allow small crabs to escape, and there is a nine-month closure on the harvest of egg-bearing female crabs.

As part of the seafood summit, the third annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off was held at The Wharf, and the third time was the charm for Chef Brody Olive’s team. Although Chef Olive was out of town because of a death in the family, Chef Brad Gilstrap led the team to the championship with three Alabama seafood components. Chef Jason Ramirez of Villaggio Grille, located at The Wharf, was named runner-up.

Chef Gilstrap created Chef Olive’s “Fruitti di Alabama” recipe that featured an underutilized fish species in its dish of Pan Roasted Gulf Jolt Head Porgy that included Summer Squash Jumbo Lump Crab Caponata with a Crispy Rock Shrimp Piccatta topping.

Chef Olive and Chef Gilstrap are now set to represent Alabama at the upcoming Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans on August 6 as well as the World Food Championships at The Wharf November 8-14.

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Recreational snapper anglers get additional days

Fishing buddy Todd Kercher posted a video last weekend that many feel justifies the significant extension of the red snapper season for private recreational anglers in federal waters.

Todd took his family out in the Gulf of Mexico to catch a limit of snapper, two per person with a 16-inch minimum. What he captured on video was what many snapper anglers have been screaming for the past few years.

As Todd tells one family member that they have a limit in the boat, they start throwing the leftover bait into the water.

A red snapper feeding frenzy ensued with 10- to 15-pound red snapper attacking the bait with such fervor that they were coming completely out of the water, skying as Todd called it.

The reason Todd and his family were able to enjoy the phenomenal red snapper fishing was the result of a unified effort by a diverse group that included the affected anglers, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Alabama Congressmen, city councils and mayors in Gulf Coast communities and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

When NOAA Fisheries announced earlier this year that the private recreational sector would only get a three-day season, the above groups were disgusted to the point of anger.

A little more than a month ago, the groups began to come together to encourage the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and subsequently NOAA Fisheries, to reconsider the season in federal waters.

Those efforts paid off last week when NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf states reached an agreement that if the states forego snapper seasons in state waters out to the 9-mile boundary Mondays through Thursdays, the federal private recreational season would be extended from three days for an additional 39 days. The season is set for each Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Labor Day and includes July 3-4 and Labor Day. The charter-for-hire’s 49-day season, which runs through July 19, and the commercial sector’s IFQ (Individual Fishing Quota) system are not affected.

Chris Blankenship, who has gone from Alabama Marine Resources Director to DCNR Deputy Commissioner to Acting DCNR Commissioner this year, said the negotiations have been in progress for much longer than a month.

“We started trying to work with the new administration not long after (Commerce) Secretary (Wilbur) Ross was appointed,” Blankenship said. “That has been very beneficial. Congressman (Bradley) Byrne also lined up the help from other Gulf Coast Representatives, like Steve Scalise and Garrett Graves from Louisiana, Matt Gaetz from Florida and Steve Palazzo from Mississippi. They met with the Secretary’s staff to urge them to extend the red snapper days.

“Then Governor Ivey sent a letter to the White House and actually talked to President Trump about red snapper while she was in Washington for a meeting about infrastructure. Then we had resolutions from Orange Beach, Dauphin Island and the Baldwin County Commission, along with a letter from Senator (Luther) Strange. It was a very concerted effort to get this extra time.”

Blankenship believes the main reason the Commerce Department responded to the requests of such a diverse group was the unified message.

“We were all asking for the same thing,” he said. “We wanted weekends, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. All the resolutions and letters were very similar. I think having that good community effort and single message helped this to be a success.”

Orange Beach City Councilman Jeff Boyd echoed Blankenship’s assessment of the teamwork.

“I think this is the greatest indication that the average voice was heard,” Boyd said of the extension. “It was heard all the way to the White House and Department of Commerce across many states. It showed that a team effort can absolutely be successful.

“Congressman Byrne was just by here, and we were talking about the work done by Chris Blankenship, Governor Ivey, Senator Strange’s letter and Senator (Richard) Shelby in the budget hearings. With that, we were able to gain enough momentum and energy to make it happen. I think it was wonderful.”

Boyd’s constituency includes a great number of private recreational fishermen and one of the largest charter fleets on the Gulf Coast. He said some are extremely happy and some apprehensive.

“From the private rec guys, there’s nothing but ecstatic excitement,” Boyd said. “From the charter guys, they’re worried about what it might do to them next year.”

Boyd said Blankenship was a crucial coordinator to make the snapper season extension a reality.

“Chris can’t get enough kudos,” Boyd said. “He’s the quiet hero who brought other state commissioners to the table. It’s hard enough to get a family to agree on anything, much less four different commissioners from four other states with different agendas.”

Blankenship said negotiations for the extension included several options including Saturday and Sunday, plus the holidays, but the addition of Fridays to the season prevailed.

“In order to get Fridays, the five states had to agree that they would not open a season in the fall,” Blankenship said. “Alabama and Florida felt it was more important to get the 39 days and not have a fall season. Mississippi and Louisiana agreed to do the same thing. Texas catches a very small percentage, ½ of 1 percent, of the quota during their fall season. So we were able to work out the details for 39 days, primarily through the cooperation of Alabama and Florida, which account for the majority of the red snapper catch.

“We realize not everybody is happy about giving up some of the state days. But we surrendered 23 days in state waters, where we have hundreds of (artificial) reefs, to get 39 days in federal waters, where we have thousands and thousands of reefs. We thought that was a fair trade.”

Blankenship hopes this process will reset the way the Gulf states work with the Commerce Department and NOAA Fisheries.

“All the states felt like this was a new opportunity, not just for 2017 but the future, to work with Congress and the Department of Commerce to find long-term solutions,” he said.

Blankenship said Rep. Scalise, who is recovering from a serious gunshot wound in an assassination attempt last week, was at the forefront of the negotiations.

“We pray for his speedy recovery,” Blankenship said. “This is an important issue to him. We hope he will get back to work soon. We look forward to working with him, as the Majority Whip, to pass a long-term fix in Congress.”

Blankenship said without the data gathered through the Alabama Red Snapper Reporting System, known as Snapper Check, the argument for an extension would likely have not been considered by Commerce.

“To the Commerce Department’s credit, they gave states the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “They compared the data from Snapper Check and MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program). They were open to looking at the data. They recognized the disparity in the data and decided the private recreational fishermen needed some relief. It was a bold move on their part and very appreciated by the recreational fishermen.”

One of those private recreational anglers is Marcus Kennedy of Mobile, who made it clear he felt the private rec guys were “getting the short end of the stick” in my column a little more than a month ago. When we talked last Friday, he had just returned from a quick trip into the Gulf to catch a limit of snapper.

“It looked like a normal weekend, which is good,” Kennedy said of the number of boats in the artificial reef zones. “When you’ve got the season spread out, you won’t have everybody trying to get out at the same time.

“I think this is the best we could have hoped for. We basically traded the remaining state days for 39 days in federal waters. I’ll take the federal season every time. That’s good for Alabama.”

Kennedy agrees that the Snapper Check data is far more accurate than the federal estimate.

“The state catch surveys have consistently been two to three times less than NOAA’s catch estimate,” he said. “Therefore, this season is more in line with what the actual catches are instead of the inflated numbers NOAA has been using. Everybody I fish with is glad we got the extension, but they know it’s not a long-term solution, and we’re probably going to have to go through the same fight next year.”

To be ready for further negotiations, Blankenship said it is crucial that Alabama anglers report all their catches through Snapper Check, which offers three ways to comply. The easiest way, by far, is to use the Outdoor Alabama app for smartphones. Online reporting is available at www.outdooralabama.com, and paper reporting slips are located at select boat ramps.

Major Scott Bannon, Acting Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, explains Snapper Check and its importance to red snapper management in the linked video here.

Kennedy said there is an abundance of large snapper, 25-plus-pounds, and plenty of 2- to 4-pound snapper on the reefs he’s fished lately. And he’s glad he doesn’t have to stay in state waters to fish for Alabama’s premier reef fish.

“It’s bad when you have to cram it all into one weekend, when the weather might be bad,” he said. “Now we can breathe a little easier and not be under the stress that you have to go. It’s supposed to be an enjoyable outing. You want to go when the weather is nice, not when the federal government says you have to go.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Registration for Alabama alligator season opens Friday

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) will open online registration for the state’s 12th annual regulated alligator hunts June 2, 2017, at 8 a.m. Registration must be completed by 8 a.m. July 11. A total of 260 Alligator Possession Tags will be distributed among four hunting zones. The administrative fee to apply for an Alligator Possession Tag is $22 and individuals may register one time per zone. While the tag is free, the selected hunters and their assistants are required to have valid hunting licenses in their possession while hunting.

Only Alabama residents and Alabama lifetime license holders ages 16 years or older may apply for tags. Alabama lifetime license holders may apply for an Alligator Possession Tag even if they have moved out of the state.

To register for the 2017 alligator hunts beginning June 2 at 8 a.m., visit www.outdooralabama.com/registration-instructions during the registration period.

Hunters will be randomly selected by computer to receive one Alligator Possession Tag each, and the tags are non-transferable. The random selection process will utilize a preference point system. The system increases the likelihood of repeat registrants being selected for a hunt as long as the applicant continues to apply. The more years an applicant participates in the registration, the higher the likelihood of being selected. If an applicant does not register for the hunt in a given year or is selected and accepts a tag for a hunt, the preference point status is forfeited.

Applicants should check their selection status on July 12 after 12 p.m. Those selected to receive a tag must confirm their acceptance online by 8 a.m. July 19. After that date, alternates will be notified to fill any vacancies. Applicants drawn for the hunt must attend a mandatory zone-specific Alligator Training Course provided by the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. If hunters have attended a previous training course, they may be exempted from this requirement.

If selected for an Alligator Possession Tag at two or more locations, hunters must choose which location they would like to hunt. The slot for locations not chosen will be filled from a list of randomly selected alternates.

Hunting zones, total tags issued per zone and hunt dates are as follows:

Southwest Alabama Zone – 150 Tags
Locations: Private and public waters in Baldwin and Mobile counties, and private and public waters in Washington, Clarke and Monroe counties that lie east of U.S. Highway 43 and south of U.S. Highway 84. 2017 Dates: 8 p.m. August 10 until 6 a.m. August 13, and 8 p.m. August 17 until 6 a.m. August 20 (nighttime only).

Southeast Alabama Zone – 40 Tags
Locations: Private and public waters in Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Russell counties (excluding public Alabama state waters in Walter F. George Reservoir/Lake Eufaula and its navigable tributaries). 2017 Dates: 8 p.m. August 12 until 6 a.m. September 4 (nighttime only).

West Central Alabama Zone – 50 Tags
Locations: Private and public waters in Monroe (north of U.S. Highway 84), Wilcox and Dallas counties. 2017 Dates: 8 p.m. August 10 until 6 a.m. August 13, and 8 p.m. August 17 until 6 a.m. August 20 (nighttime only).

Lake Eufaula Zone – 20 Tags
Location: Public state waters only in the Walter F. George Reservoir/Lake Eufaula and its navigable tributaries, south of Alabama Highway 208 at Omaha Bridge (excludes Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge). 2017 Dates: Sunset August 18 until sunrise October 2 (day and night).

An 8-foot minimum length requirement is in effect for alligators harvested in the Lake Eufaula Zone. There is no minimum length for hunts in the other zones.

Hunting hours are 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the Southwest, Southeast and West Central Zones. For the Lake Eufaula Zone, hunting is allowed both daytime and nighttime hours. All Alabama hunting and boating regulations must be followed.

The American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is the largest reptile in North America and can exceed 14 feet in length and 1,000 pounds. Known for its prized meat and leather, the species was threatened with extinction due to unregulated harvest during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. No regulations existed in those days to limit the number of alligators harvested. In 1938, it is believed that Alabama was the first state to protect alligators by outlawing these unlimited harvests. Other states soon followed and in 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the American alligator on the Endangered Species list. By 1987, the species was removed from the Endangered Species list and the alligator population has continued to expand. Its history illustrates an excellent conservation success story.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR, visit www.outdooralabama.com.

Alabama Red Snapper season set for 2017

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division (MRD) announces that Alabama’s waters will open for the recreational harvest of red snapper from 12:01 a.m. Friday, May 26, through 11:59 p.m. Monday, July 31, 2017. Alabama state waters extend 9 nautical miles from shore. The daily bag limit will be two red snapper per person, and the minimum size will be 16 inches in total length.

The federal red snapper season has not been set by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. For information concerning the federal red snapper season, call (727) 824-5305. NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office also indicated that they will send out a fishery bulletin once the federal season is established.

Fishermen are reminded that they are still required to report their red snapper harvest through Snapper Check to the MRD during this period as well as any other time red snapper are landed in Alabama. Only one report is required per vessel trip, and anglers can provide details via a smartphone app available under “Outdoor Alabama” in the iTunes or Google Play app stores; online at www.outdooralabama.com; or by paper forms available at select coastal public boat launches. The telephone reporting method is no longer available.

“We received positive feedback last year from the fishing public for the extension of state waters to 9 miles and the state red snapper season in 2016. The public felt that having the fishery open for Memorial Day weekend as well as the prime months of June and July allowed them to spread out their effort and have great family fishing days when the weather was most favorable,” said Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy, Jr. “We feel that setting a similar season for 2017 will give people ample opportunities to access the red snapper fishery in Alabama waters.

“We will continue to work with the federal government and the other Gulf States to responsibly manage this great fishery in federal waters while also allowing proper management in Alabama waters. However, the incredibly short federal red snapper seasons are uncalled for. We have support from our Congressional delegation to make changes in federal fisheries management legislation and we hope to make progress on that front this year,” Guy said.

“The federal red snapper season this year has not been announced but it is anticipated to be very short,” said Deputy Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship “Alabama will use the landings from the Snapper Check program as well as other fisheries information before making any decision on a possible additional red snapper season later in the year.”

A list of public artificial and natural reefs located in Alabama state waters as well as recent reef-building activity by MRD can be found at www.outdooralabama.com/artificial-reefs.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR, visit www.outdooralabama.com.

Public Invited to Tour New Roland Cooper Cabins on March 11

Each cabin features a fire pit, grill and attached deck. (WAW | Contributed)

Roland Cooper State Park near Camden, Ala., will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday, March 11, 2017, to celebrate four new cabins recently installed in the park’s main campground. The ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place during the Second Saturday in the Park Music Series, which features local musicians, family fun and a cabin open house. The event is free and runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The new cabins were built by Alabama’s Rustic River Park Homes and feature two bedrooms, one full bath, kitchen, living room and dining area. Each cabin also offers a gas range, central heat and air conditioning, a fire pit, grill and attached deck. One of the four cabins is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible.

“The new cabins are beautifully built and offer the comfort of home in the peaceful, natural setting of Roland Cooper State Park,” said Kelly Ezell, Oak Mountain State Park Superintendent and Central Alabama State Parks District Superintendent. “Alabama State Parks is proud to partner with Recreation Resource Management to offer this overnight option at Roland Cooper.”

In addition to the newly installed cabins, Roland Cooper State Park features RV and primitive camping, cabins, pavilions, fishing and boating. The park is also a stop on the Alabama Bass Trail and a weigh-in station for the state regulated alligator hunts.

Each kitchen has a gas range, microwave and coffee maker. (WAW | Contributed)

For more information about the park or to make cabin or camping reservations, call 334-682-4838 or visit www.alapark.com/roland-cooper-state-park.

The Alabama State Parks Division relies on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. To learn more about Alabama State Parks, visitwww.alapark.com.

Rabbit hunting not as it once was for long-time hunter

Beagles pour out of the dog box as John Shanklin, left, opens the doors, while Antoine Cheatham and Prentiss Thomas, right, get their hunting equipment ready for the first hunt of the day. (WAW | David Rainer)

The drizzle of rain didn’t bother Antoine Cheatham at all after the beagles that were released from the dog box hit the ground running.

Cheatham and his buddies, Prentiss Thomas and John Shanklin, are the diehard rabbit hunters that Stuart Goldsby of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division recruited for the 5th annual Hunter Education Volunteers and Youth Rabbit Hunt, held on property near Lake Guntersville.

While the hunters may have preferred a sunny day for the outdoors outing, Cheatham was a happy hunter.

“This is a perfect day for rabbit hunting,” Cheatham said. “This little bit of rain and cool weather keeps the scent close to ground. The dogs can pick up the trail a lot better. You couldn’t ask for a better day.”

The property that Goldsby has hunted for the past 30 years is a diverse area with open agriculture fields, piney woods and swampy bottoms that drain into Yellow Creek.

About 5 minutes after the dogs were released, a shrill yip was followed by a baritone bark and the race was on.

“That’s a beautiful sound,” Cheatham said. “That’s really what we’re out here for. If we kill rabbits, fine, as long we get to hear our dogs chase one.”

Traditional rabbit hunting wisdom tells you that the jumped rabbit will make a circle and end up back where he started, usually in short period of time.

Tradition appears to be out of the equation these days. That jumped rabbit took the dogs on a long journey around the north end of the property.

“I tell you, rabbit hunting has changed,” said Cheatham, who has been chasing rabbits for the past 35 years. “Used to, that rabbit would just make a short circle. Now they run a lot longer before they circle back. I don’t know for sure but I think the number of coyotes and bobcats has something to do with it. They have to work a lot harder to get away. They don’t run that far when it’s just dogs behind them. Nowadays, these rabbits take off like deer.”

“It’s probably a swamp rabbit,” Shanklin surmised as the dog barks grew a little dimmer. “Those rabbits will swim to try to get the dogs off their trail. It may take a while for the dogs to get back on him.”

Finally, about 15 minutes later, the dog pack turned back to where Shanklin was stationed on a bush-hogged lane next to a thicket.

Shanklin spotted movement in the thicket as the rabbit bolted past him. He fired once and quickly followed up with a second shot. “Got him,” he said.

Much to our surprise the rabbit was a cottontail, or hillbilly to seasoned rabbit hunters, instead of the swamp rabbit we had expected.

“Another thing is they’ve messed up a lot of the habitat for rabbits,” Cheatham said. “A lot of the places are set up for deer hunters with the food plots and thinning the thickets. The rabbits have got to have the cover they need. I just don’t see the cover like I used to.”

When Cheatham and his buddies hunt, they leave most of the hunt’s direction up to the dogs.

“About the only time I call the dogs is when I jump a rabbit and try to get them on his trail,” he said. “About the only other time I call them is when it’s time to go. We try to hunt them in a certain direction. When they strike, I just try to find a shooting lane.”

After retiring from the Army in 2007, Cheatham went to work at Redstone Arsenal outside Huntsville. Thomas retired from the Army and worked at Redstone until his retirement several years ago. Because of their service, they get to hunt Redstone.

Unfortunately, the rabbit hunting at Redstone has declined as well.

“We used to go to the arsenal, and killing 15-20 rabbits was just an average day,” Cheatham said. “Now we go and we may not kill but two or three rabbits, and that’s for the whole party not the individuals.

“I don’t know if this year’s drought had anything to do with it,” he said. “It was really dry. We’re just not seeing the rabbits.”

“We’re not even seeing any rabbit sign,” added Thomas, who played high school football with the Payton brothers, Eddie and NFL Hall of Famer Walter, and is mentioned in Never Die Easy: The Autobiography of Walter Payton. “You don’t see any rabbit pills on stumps and logs.”

Thomas, who still loves to hunt rabbits with his two replacement hips, said it’s really not about killing rabbits anymore.

“I love to see these kids out here,” Thomas said. “I don’t care if I shoot a rabbit. I want these kids to have a good time.”

Cheatham knows that diehard rabbit hunters are hard to find these days. He knows of only one other dedicated group of rabbit hunters that hunts the arsenal.

“The thing is that you get to hunt for five months, but you’ve got to maintain the dogs for 12 months,” he said. “You’ve got the upkeep of the dogs with the vet bills, shock collars, dog food and on and on. When you’re only killing one or two rabbits, that can get pretty expensive.”

For Goldsby, the WFF’s Northern Regional Hunter Education Coordinator, the hunt is a chance to get more youth into the outdoors and to offer gratitude for the many volunteers who help WFF teach and practice hunter safety in Alabama. The hunt is a partnership between the Alabama Hunter Education Association and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

“We’ve been doing the hunt for five years,” Goldsby said. “We’ve been using the same group of hunters out of Huntsville with rabbit dogs. They’re a good group of guys who are dedicated rabbits hunters. They hunt Redstone and the Wildlife Management Areas like Swan Creek and Mallard Fox. When they have an opportunity to hunt new ground, they’re ready.

“The intermittent rain really didn’t deter the hunters and we had a couple of good races in the morning. I told the youth and instructors that we were on a hunting trip. If they wanted to shoot a squirrel, I told them to go ahead. I told them if they saw a bobcat or coyote to please shoot them. We used to have wild turkeys on our place, but the predators have run them off.

“We went to the river side of the property in the afternoon, and we jumped a bobcat and coyote and managed to get both of them.”

The hunt also proved the hunting community has many interlaced connections. Several years ago, I wrote a story for Outdoor Alabama Magazine about a group of dedicated rabbit hunters from Tuskegee that was headed up by Robert Collins.

Cheatham happened to see that story.

“You’re not going to believe this, but Robert Collins was my First Sergeant,” he said. “It really is a small world.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Modern trapping more about predator control than furs

At one time trapping was almost as common in the Alabama outdoors as hunting deer, turkeys and quail. Through the years, as fur prices declined and the animal rights movement grew, trapping became stigmatized. The result was the number of trappers dwindled to almost nothing.

Lately, there has been an uptick in trapping participation but not for the same reasons our fathers and grandfathers did it. The trapping market is now driven more by wildlife management rather than fur production.

“When the animal rights movement had a major campaign against wearing fur, people quit trapping,” said Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. “Let’s face it. It’s hard work, too. People were trapping for subsistence. That’s how they made their living. Like hunters, they’re dwindling away. The numbers of trappers are not out there like in the ’50s, ’60s through the early ’80s.

“It’s that way with most outdoor recreational activities.”

Changes in the fur market certainly contributed to the demise of trapping, some of it driven by the lack of demand caused by the fur-shaming campaign.

“The market has changed a bunch,” Sykes said. “Even 10 to 15 years ago, you could make enough money off the furs to make it worth your while. The market fluctuates so much now that most of the quality trappers I know have to actually charge a fee on a per-day basis to justify them coming in and trapping. It has shifted from subsistence and making a little money to doing it strictly for wildlife management purposes, like reducing nest predators so that turkeys and quail can raise a clutch of eggs to limiting the number of bobcats and coyotes in anticipation of improving the fawn recruitment each year.”

Sykes said the use of trapping in wildlife management strategy has been increasing the last few years. The number of fur catchers’ licenses sold the past three years has been consistent at a little more than 1,000 annually.

“I think it’s pretty widespread,” he said. “It’s happening all over the country. Emphasis on deer management and turkey and quail management is a big thing. For people who own or manage property who are putting in the time through habitat work to produce food plots, supplemental feeding programs and herd management through selective harvest, trapping is just another tool in their arsenal of managing their property with predator control.”

Sykes said the raccoon, in particular, provides a double threat for those who are trying to supplemental feed and provide protection for ground-nesting birds.

“You can look at raccoons on a couple of different levels,” he said. “If you’re on a supplemental feeding program, you’re putting a bunch of feed into non-target animals instead of your deer. Raccoons are also out there raiding quail and turkey nests. It’s a double whammy when you’re looking at deer management and turkey management. This small predator can have a drain on your wildlife population as well as your budget when it comes to habitat management work.

“If I had to pick one animal that I would like to lower the numbers on property I manage, it would be the raccoon.”

In the hierarchy of animals that wildlife managers target, next up would be the coyote, an animal that is fairly new on the scene in the South. When I was growing up, we never encountered a coyote and never saw evidence of tracks or scat. Now, coyotes can be found from the densest thickets to big-city urban settings.

However, Sykes cautions against tunnel vision when it comes to coyotes.

“I think coyotes have become the scapegoat of the world right now,” he said. “Everything is caused by coyotes. In some places that I have managed, every fawn that a coyote took was one less that we had to kill during hunting season to deal with overpopulation.

“On the flip side, there are some places where I do think they are having a very adverse effect on deer numbers. If people have reduced the number of deer on their property through hunting, and then you have a high predation rate, you can get into a trap that’s hard to get out of.

“If your deer numbers are already low because of your management practices or it’s just the part of the world you’re in, coyotes can have a significant impact. And the impact of coyotes has really just happened in the last decade or so where the coyote numbers have become significant in this part of the world.”

Sykes also cautions that trapping to remove predators is not a “one and done” proposition. It takes vigilance, and timing also makes a difference.

“The biggest thing people need to know is that predator control is just like yard maintenance,” he said. “You cut your grass every two weeks even though you know it’s going to grow back. When you remove predators, you’re not eliminating them. You’re creating a void at strategic times of the year. For your ground-nesting birds, you want to remove the predators in February and March. For your fawn recruitment, you want to remove the predators in August and September in most of Alabama. You’re creating a void to give those little critters an opportunity to get on their feet. Predators are going to come back. If you’ve got quality habitat and you’ve got food, they‘re going to come back.

“It’s the predator-prey cycle that we studied in college. If you go in and eliminate raccoons and coyotes on a 1,000-acre piece of land, the food source is going to go up. There are going to be more rabbits. There are going to be more rats. There is going to be more forage for the raccoons. So the next pair of predators that wanders in, their reproductive rate is going to go up because they are in such good shape and there’s so much food. It’s a constant cycle.”

Sykes said landowners and leaseholders who are considering adding trapping to their wildlife management repertoire should consider starting right away. But he cautions that plunging haphazardly into the practice, especially for the wily coyotes, could be more detrimental than helpful.

“Now is the prime time to be knocking the raccoon numbers down,” he said. “Raccoon trapping is easy with the dog-proof designed traps (requires raccoon to reach into cylinder to trigger trap). Several manufacturers now produce this style trap that’s really made it quite easy to control raccoon numbers

“Coyote trapping is more labor intensive. It’s takes a better skill set. It’s an art as much as it is a science. And you can do as much damage as you do good. I know everybody’s got to learn. But if you create trap-shy animals, they’re going to be a lot harder to catch, and they’re going to train their little ones, too.”

Sykes suggests watching YouTube videos on trapping techniques, reading books on trapping and going to trapping workshops conducted by Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries to learn how to reduce predator numbers.

“Learn as much as you can so you can be effective when you go out,” he said.

Speaking of trapping education, trapping expert and former WFF biologist Mike Sievering will hold a youth trapping workshop Feb. 17-19 in Spanish Fort and an adult trapping workshop Feb. 25-26 in Lowndesboro. A fee will apply for participation.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/trapping for more information on trapping with the workshop schedule and information on a fur catcher’s license if you participate in commercial trade.

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Oyster shell recycling program off to hot start

By using the discarded shells from restaurants through the Oyster Shell Recycling Program to replenish the reefs, Alabama oystermen will be able to take advantage of the increased production of the popular mollusk. (Photo | David Rainer)

Oyster consumption has been occurring along the Alabama Gulf Coast for millennia with the Indian Shell Mound on Dauphin Island as historical evidence.

Fast forward to the 21st century and dining on oysters has increased exponentially. Instead of creating shell mounds, the Alabama Oyster Shell Recycling Program is designed to use the discarded shells in more creative and productive ways.

With the Alabama Coastal Foundation leading the way, a group of individuals and organizations started devising a plan to recycle the shells. Those involved included Chris Sherrill with the Flora-Bama Yacht Club, Chandra Wright with the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship and Judy Haner with The Nature Conservancy.

“We’ve needed an oyster shell recycling program in Alabama for a while,” Blankenship said. “We have been meeting to put together a shell recycling program that would work long term.

“There was an opportunity to get a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to implement a pilot program to get this started. The Alabama Coastal Foundation stepped up as the lead agency and received the grant to begin a two-year pilot program to demonstrate the effectiveness of a shell recycling program in Alabama.”

Mark Berte, Executive Director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation, said the grant from NFWF is for a two-part process – education and sustainability.

“Our whole mission is to improve and protect Alabama’s coastal environment through cooperation, education and participation,” Berte said last week at Gulf Shores. “And this program is all of the above. We work with restaurants to educate them that what they thought was trash is actually a valuable natural resource. The more shells we collect, the more shells we can get back into the water that will allow more oysters to grow and complete a nice, positive cycle.”

The first phase of the shell recycling program went into effect in the fall of 2016 with six restaurants along Battleship Parkway (Causeway) at the head of Mobile Bay.

“Those restaurants are all close together, so it was easy for Republic Waste Services to run the route, pick up the shells and do the hauling,” Blankenship said. “The shells are trucked to our Marine Resources property in Gulf Shores, where the shells are stored and seasoned so they can be used in several different projects, from replenishing reefs to grow more oysters to shoreline stabilization projects.

“There will be myriad uses for the shells, including oyster gardening. The important part is they are not going to a landfill. Now they’ll be going back in the water to grow more oysters.”

Larval oysters, known as spat, must attach to a hard surface to grow, and recycled oyster shells can provide an abundance of this vital structure.

Last week, the recycling program expanded with an additional collection route in the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area, which puts the total number of restaurants involved in the recycling program at 13.

“The program has gained a lot of good public support,” Blankenship said. “We’re really glad this has taken off. The program is growing.”

A celebration of the expanded program was held at two locations on the Alabama coast last week, including the Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores.

Joe Roszkowski, co-founder of the Original Oyster House restaurants, said the number of oysters that go through their restaurants will quickly add up.

“We serve quite a few oysters,” Roszkowski said last week at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “In fact, we serve about 5,000 pounds a week in the summertime; that’s are quite a few shells. We know what oysters mean to the community and sponsor the oyster trail and Mobile’s oyster gardening program. We learn how oysters impact our environment, our community and, of course, our health. For years these dedicated scientists, environmentalists and educators have worked to get oyster shells back in the water. We’re so fortunate to be given the opportunity to help pilot Alabama’s first oyster shell recycling program at our location on the Causeway.

“This program aligns with our core values of stewardship and will enhance the oyster population and help prevent coastal erosion. Best of all, this program will bring attention to how important it is to get the shells back to the reefs instead of the landfill.”

As of the end of last week, more than 650,000 oyster shells had been collected.

Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said the 2010 oil spill is a reminder that we should never take our environment for granted.

“This is an important first step forward,” Mayor Craft said. “This is what I think we learned, or should have learned, from the oil spill. When the oil spill happened and we couldn’t fish in the waters, eat the seafood or enjoy the environment, what happened was that nobody came. They don’t come here because they like the mayor or Gulf Shores. They came here for the environment. Because when it couldn’t be used and enjoyed, people didn’t come.

“If you connect those dots, what is the most important thing we need to do to maintain the quality of life in our community that is so special? That is to protect the environment. Part of that environment is having oysters that we enjoy eating. Our challenge here by recycling oyster shells is to recreate the reefs and grow more oysters.”

Blankenship said the goal of the program is to eventually get all of the oyster shells that are discarded at restaurants along the Alabama Gulf Coast.

“Right now, we want to get at least the top half of the oyster that doesn’t go to the table,” he said. “We’re working with the restaurants to collect the bottom half of the shells from the table so we can get all the oyster shells.

“Nothing grows oysters as well as oyster shells.”

Blankenship said the program set a conservative goal of collecting 2.7 million shells, but it should easily exceed that number.

In two years we’ll be well over the goal with the way the program has started,” he said. “The ultimate goal would be to make the recycling program self-sustaining after those two years, after the consumers and restaurants see the value of recycling those oyster shells. Instead of having the grant help pay for the transportation of the shells, the money the restaurants pay for the shells to go to the landfill can be used in the recycling program. Restaurants pay by the ton to haul off waste. Oyster shells that go in the trash count toward that tonnage. The goal is to get the restaurants to separate out the shells, and instead of hauling them to the landfill, they would go to the Marine Resources Division to be recycled.

“The value of the shells that can be used for restoration projects would make this self-sustaining after two years.”

Blankenship predicts the consumption of oysters along the Alabama coast will continue to grow, which will mean more shells for recycling.

“Oysters are becoming more popular,” he said. “There used to be a limited number of people who ate oysters. Now it’s becoming a much more popular seafood item.

“With the growth of the oyster aquaculture industry in Alabama, we only see that market getting stronger.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman.