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. 

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. 

AWF holds Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship received the inaugural Fisheries Conservationist of the Year at the recent Alabama Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet in Prattville. Presenting the award, from left, are Horace Horn with PowerSouth Energy, AWF President Angus Cooper III, Susan Comensky with Alabama Power Company and Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. Blankenship was cited for his work to improve red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico. (Contributed Photo)

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship received the inaugural Fisheries Conservationist of the Year at the recent Alabama Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet in Prattville. Presenting the award, from left, are Horace Horn with PowerSouth Energy, AWF President Angus Cooper III, Susan Comensky with Alabama Power Company and Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. Blankenship was cited for his work to improve red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico. (Contributed Photo)

While reviewing the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards late last year, the AWF Board and Tim Gothard, AWF’s Executive Director, realized there was a gap in the awards coverage.

Despite having a dozen awards, from Conservationist of the Year to Air Conservationist, not one of those awards was specific to an area near and dear to the hearts of almost all Alabamians who love the outdoors – fisheries.

Hence, the inaugural AWF Fisheries Conservationist of the Year award was presented last week to Chris Blankenship, Director of the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, during the annual awards banquet in Prattville.

“We created the fisheries category during what we call the off-season,” Gothard said. “We realized that with all of our categories, there was really no category to focus on the fisheries conservation work that goes on in the state. We could have folded it into the wildlife, but fisheries is really not wildlife in the official terminology.

“We felt like the whole fisheries arena, both fresh and saltwater, and all that good work done in that field deserved a category unto itself.”

Gothard said the fisheries award can go to any individual, group, institution, government agency or non-governmental conservation group.

“We look at any contribution to fisheries in the state, whether it’s an agency person, like Chris, or a professor working at a university, or it could be a private organization like the CCA (Coastal Conservation Association) or homeowners or boat owners group who are promoting fisheries conservation in Alabama,” he said. “Because of his efforts to ensure access to Alabama’s red snapper fishery, we felt like Chris was deserving of the initial fisheries award.”

Blankenship has been Marine Resources Director since 2011. Not only has theMarine Resources Division significantly increased marine habitat during his tenure, Blankenship has made numerous trips to Washington, D.C., to address Congress on the red snapper fishery and what it means to Alabama’s economy and recreational and commercial fishing opportunities.

“I’m excited to receive the AWF Fisheries Conservationist of the Year award,” Blankenship said. “But mostly, I think it’s validation of the good work our staff does that is really making a difference for marine resources in coastal Alabama. I have long enjoyed attending the AWF banquet each year, and I’m so proud of the work many people do to enhance the outdoors in Alabama. I’m honored to receive one of those coveted statues.

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship received the inaugural Fisheries Conservationist of the Year at the recent Alabama Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet in Prattville.

Alabama Marine Resources Division Director Chris Blankenship received the inaugural Fisheries Conservationist of the Year at the recent Alabama Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards banquet in Prattville. (Contributed Photo)

“One of the things I’m proud of is the artificial reef work. We already had a great program, but I think we’re taking it to the next level with our offshore and inshore programs. The establishment of the new reef area between 6 and 9 miles will be a great addition to the program and will be a great legacy for people who work for Marine Resources.”

Blankenship said one thing he’s most proud of is the State of Alabama’s lead role in working with the federal government and Congress to try to remedy the mismanagement of red snapper.

“It’s a heavy lift to try to do anything in Congress or make changes in the federal government policies, but I think we’re making good strides,” he said. “We’ve gone about it in a very logical and thoughtful way, and I hope we’re going to have some success in the very near future. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished on red snapper.”

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby was presented the Legislative Conservationist of the Year for his work on red snapper, and he inserted language in the Congressional Omnibus Appropriations bill that extended Alabama’s coastal waters boundary from 3 miles to 9 miles for fisheries management.

Dr. David Thrasher of Montgomery was named AWF Conservationist of the Year. Thrasher, a pulmonary and critical care physician, also holds a bachelor and a master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries biology from Auburn University. Thrasher, past AWF president, and current vice president of the Alabama Conservation and Natural Resources Foundation, makes his property in Macon County available to Auburn students for research projects.

The Judicial Conservationist of the Year award went to Justice Jim Main of Montgomery for his work to resolve issues regarding oil and gas royalties and the prevention of proposed closings of the Blakeley and Saint Stephens parks. Main, a supporter of the Forever Wild program, has property in Bullock County that is designated as a Treasure Forest.

Conservation Communicator of the Year James “Big Daddy” Lawler of Camden has shared his love for the outdoors through his radio program, “The Gettin’ Outdoors Radio Network.” Lawler has a special love for his family’s Grampian Hills property outside Camden and the abundant outdoors experiences, including fishing, hunting, birding, hiking and biking, in Alabama’s wildlife-rich Black Belt.

Conservation Educator of the Year Doyle Keasel of Auburn has been an educator for 35 years, the last 13 of which have been in a partnership position with the AWF and Alabama Cooperative Extension System. That partnership has supported the Alabama Outdoor Classroom Program, Discovering Our Heritage Program and Conservation Education Teacher Workshops. More than 4,500 educators have received natural resources-based training through Doyle’s workshops.

Water Conservationist of the Year Dr. Pat O’Neil of Tuscaloosa, Deputy Director of the Geological Survey of Alabama, has made significant discoveries and advances in identifying and protecting Alabama’s water resources. O’Neil has also pioneered work in the aquatic organisms in the Coosa and Tallapoosa river systems, Mobile-Tensaw Delta and coastal rivers and streams. O’Neil co-authored the comprehensive book “Fishes of Alabama and the Mobile Basin.”

Forest Conservationist of the Year Jimmy Bullock is Senior Vice President of Forest Sustainability at Resource Management Services in Birmingham. Bullock is responsible for sustainable forest policies and is at the forefront of the restoration of longleaf pine in Alabama. He is one of the leaders of The Coastal Headwaters Longleaf Conservation and Restoration Initiative.

Luis “Wicho” Hechavarria Jr. of Orrville received the Wildlife Conservationist of the Year award for his wildlife conservation efforts on nine tracts of land in Dallas County, where he intensively manages for white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, bobwhite quail and waterfowl.

Greg Gilliland of Munford, recipient of the Conservation Enforcement Officer of the Year award, has served as an officer with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division in Talladega County since 2003. In addition to enforcing the wildlife and fisheries laws, Gilliland contributes to community outreach programs that involve youth, as well as churches, schools and concerned landowners.

Hunter Safety Instructor of the Year Mike O’Neal has been teaching young and inexperienced hunters for more than 20 years. O’Neal has conducted more than 50 hunter education classes that have led to the certification of thousands of students since 1993.

Air Conservationist of the Year award went to the Georgia-Pacific Naheola Plant in Choctaw County. The integrated pulp and paper mill has implemented eco-friendly initiatives in the plant that have saved more than three million kilowatts of energy, reduced sulphur dioxide emissions by 20,000 pounds and nitrogen oxide emissions by 14,000 pounds annually.

Land Conservationist of the Year Blythe Cotton Company is a family farming operation in Town Creek that grows cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans on 3,500 acres. The Blythe family incorporated a no-till conservation method to reduce soil erosion from 15 tons to one ton annually.

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. 

Congressional staffers experience state’s red snapper fishery firsthand

Alabama Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship has a point to make, but the audience he needs to reach is not on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

Alabama’s saltwater anglers are well aware of the red snapper story, so Blankenship reached out to what is known as the Washington (D.C.) bubble, where outside information has a hard time gaining attention.

Blankenship came up with a plan for a “show and tell” event that would expose staffers from the offices of U.S. Congressmen and Senators from Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Texas to exactly what a red snapper fishing trip off the Alabama Gulf Coast is like.

Last week, he pulled that off with great success, utilizing the Gulf Headboat Collaborative Program to accomplish the mission.

“We wanted to show the congressional staffers exactly the condition of our fishery here,” Blankenship said. “I’ve been to Washington four times over the last year-and-a-half to talk about red snapper and the need for changes in federal legislation to give the states more flexibility and to transfer some of that management to the states.

“We can talk about it, but they hear from a lot of people. We wanted them to have the opportunity to come down here personally and see how great our fishery is and what that fishery means to our community. This puts people’s faces and names with a very important issue.”

The reason Blankenship was able to arrange the trip out of Orange Beach on Capt. Randy Boggs’ Reel Surprise outside of the regular red snapper season is because of a pilot program that has been in effect for the last two years, the aforementioned Gulf Headboat Collaborative (GHC).

The GHC is an exempted fishing permit program for 17 headboats from across the five Gulf states. It essentially takes the amount of fish these headboats have historically caught and holds them out of the recreational quota. These federally permitted boats are allowed to catch those allotted red snapper any time during the year. When the allotment is depleted, no more red snapper can be retained. Each vessel in the program is equipped with a VMS (vessel monitoring system) that tracks its movement via satellite.

“It doesn’t allow them to catch any more fish than in the past,” Blankenship said. “It just allows them have a business plan and make their quota last throughout the year. The program has worked very well. They have to send Marine Resources an email before they leave dock and send us an email one hour before they reach the dock in the afternoon so we can have an officer inspect their catch.

“We wanted to go out with Capt. Randy Boggs and catch a few red snapper to bring back and cook to really show the people how important this fishery is not only to the charter boats but to the restaurants and other businesses that depend on having access to this great fishery.”

The GHC pilot program was in effect for 2014 and 2015. Despite its success, the program may not be renewed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council in time for 2016.

“There is a proposed amendment that would essentially extend that program, but the Gulf Council process is very slow,” Blankenship said. “It looks like in 2016 the headboats will be back in the fishery with all the other charter boats. That program will have a hiatus of at least one year while they work out the extension through the Gulf Council.

“This pilot program is showing that it works on headboats, so the charter boats in Alabama are interested in a similar type program to use a portion of the quota assigned to the charter boats in Alabama.”

Last week, Capt. Boggs set a course to one of his artificial reefs about 30 miles from the mouth of Perdido Pass to provide an example of how good the red snapper fishing is off the Alabama coast.

After a leisurely ride in 2-foot seas, Boggs pulled back the throttles and gave the order to “drop ‘em down.”

“Don’t let it go to the bottom,” he said. ‘That’s where the little fish live. There are fish showing up starting at 35 feet. Give it a count of about five or six and see what happens.”

What happened was a fantastic, frenetic example of snapper fishing in Alabama’s artificial reef zone.

In less than 10 minutes, big red snapper after big red snapper hit the deck. When Boggs gave the order to “keep ‘em up,” there were 24 impressive red snapper caught by the congressional staffers in the fish box.

The crew changed tackle to try to target the smaller vermilion snapper at the next two stops, but all the anglers caught and released were different-sized red snapper.

Trolling on the way back in, a small king mackerel was added to the catch.

“We went to one reef and red snapper just came to the top; there were so many red snapper there,” Blankenship said. “The action was fast and furious with big snapper. The next two places we went had plenty of small red snapper that were 12, 13, 14 inches mixed in with larger fish. It just shows that we really do have a good, mature fishery with good recruitment with a lot of small snapper coming up behind these big ones.

“We really want to be able to manage the fishery for the benefit of the anglers and the resources, and we feel like we can do that better locally than Gulf-wide.”

Blankenship said the congressional staffers were “extremely impressed” by the red snapper fishery off Alabama.

“Even though we talk about how we have plenty of red snapper, it made a real impression for them to go out after the charter season and after the recreational season and see how many red snapper are still on our reefs off the Alabama coast. It gave them an appreciation that the states can do more accurate assessments and better manage that fishery to give our people more access to the fish.

“And they wanted to see the restaurants, marinas and dock stores. They really wanted to see how many businesses rely on tourism and rely on a healthy fishery here in the state of Alabama and rely on continued access to red snapper, the fish that the Alabama Gulf Coast is most known for. The staffers asked some great, probing questions, not only about the recreational fishery but the charter and commercial fishery and how we could manage the different sectors fairly.”

The fishing trip turned out exactly as Blankenship had envisioned.

“It probably could not have turned out any better,” he said. “We were able to catch some very large snapper very quickly on one of our reefs, and then go to some other reefs and catch small snapper mixed in with big ones. Several big snapper came up to the top right off the stern of the boat on one of the well-known public reefs, which just shows you how many snapper are available on those reefs.

“We feel like our fishery is so good because of our reef-building program and partnerships with other agencies. There couldn’t have been a better opportunity to showcase our fishery and to discuss the real issues that need to be solved in Washington to fix the current federal management.”

To top off a great day of fishing, the cleaned red snapper were taken to the Flora-Bama Yacht Club for a sumptuous dinner meal prepared by Chef Chris Sherrill, Sous Chef Haikel Harris and the restaurant staff.

“Chris is a talented chef and was really able to showcase the fish and hospitality of the state of Alabama,” Blankenship said.

“This type of trip shows that we’re not sitting idly by and waiting for something to happen on red snapper,” he said. “We’re working every avenue we can to give our fishermen more access and to give us the ability to sustainably manage the red snapper fishery the way that it needs to be managed.”

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. 

State releases Red Snapper Reporting Program results

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division (AMRD) today announced preliminary results of the Alabama Red Snapper Reporting Program. The program was implemented in May 2014 to better ascertain the number of recreationally caught red snapper landed in Alabama. Findings were presented to the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council earlier this month during its meeting in Biloxi, Miss.

The Alabama Red Snapper Reporting program estimates that 418,000 pounds of red snapper were landed in Alabama through June 30, which included the shortest federal season to date of nine days (June 1- 9). These findings are significantly less than estimates from the federal Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) estimate, which indicated 1,041,000 pounds of landings during the same period.

“There is a significant difference between the results of the Alabama red snapper reporting system and the federal MRIP system,” said Chris Blankenship, AMRD Director and program administrator for the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission. “Federal landings are nearly two-and-a-half times what Alabama’s program shows. If landings are closer to those estimated from Alabama’s program, the federal season could have been significantly longer than nine days.”

Many Alabama fishermen, along with AMRD staff, felt that MRIP had been overestimating the landings of red snapper, which is one of the factors that resulted in the now shortened red snapper season. Both the 2014 Alabama Red Snapper Reporting Program and the 2014 federal MRIP program were conducted simultaneously in order to compare the two programs.

According to Blankenship, AMRD has been in discussions with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration MRIP staff since results of the federal estimates were made public. Alabama landings estimates for the state season held during weekends in July will be compared to MRIP estimates when data from that program is available in October. This continued dialogue is anticipated to improve the MRIP system going forward.

Recreational landings included fish harvested by charter boat anglers and private recreational anglers. AMRD also used video collected during the federal season from six coastal boat ramps popular among red snapper anglers to validate its red snapper reporting program results.

“The video data shows how many vessels and fishermen launched from our high-use public boat ramps during the snapper season. The number of vessels and anglers estimated from the video are very comparable to the Alabama Red Snapper Reporting Program results – which lends credibility to Alabama results and the data reported through this program,” said Blankenship.

“We believed that the MRIP system was overinflating landings, but prior to implementing the reporting program, we had no data to show any inaccuracies. The Alabama Marine Resources Division would like to thank all the fishermen that reported their catches of red snapper during this program’s initial year. With this new Alabama landing information, we have been able to initiate discussions with National Marine Fisheries Service that should pay dividends as we move forward and could assist with alternative management strategies in the future.”

Additional information can be found at outdooralabama.com/saltwater-fishing-alabama.

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

 

Alabama man charged for Lacey Act violations

David Braley, an Alabama man, will see significant jail time after he was convicted of multiple violations of the Lacey Act.

According to a release from the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, Braley was sentenced to 30 months imprisonment for violations of the Lacey Act, Title 16, United States Code, Section 3372 and 3373.

This charge was based on illegal sales of Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish including Red Snapper with a market value of $10,660.50. Braley was ordered to pay $3,731.18 in restitution to the owner of the vessel he used to illegally catch and sell the fish and $319.82 to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Braley was also sentenced to serve 63 months imprisonment concurrently to the first sentence for retaliation against a witness who had provided information in the Lacey Act Case. This charge was based on postings Braley made on Facebook threatening physical violence to a witness.

The case was jointly investigated by the NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Alabama Marine Resource Division. The case was prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Alabama and the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice.

Gulf Coast red snapper season hits multiple snags, set at 9 days long

Despite evidence that the red snapper fishery off Alabama is in great shape, NOAA Fisheries has  set  the red snapper recreational season at a record low of nine days, starting at 12:01 a.m. on June 1 and ending at 12:01 a.m. on June 10.

Despite evidence that the red snapper fishery off Alabama is in great shape, NOAA Fisheries has set the red snapper recreational season at a record low of nine days, starting at 12:01 a.m. on June 1 and ending at 12:01 a.m. on June 10.

Setting the red snapper season off the Alabama Gulf Coast has had more twists and turns than the Barber Motorsports race course.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council (GMFMC) first set the season at 40 days, but that was just the drop of the green flag.

Then came the ruling from a federal judge in Washington, D.C., on a lawsuit brought by several commercial fishermen with the aid of the Environmental Defense Fund. The judge ruled that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries (aka National Marine Fisheries Service or NMFS) had not properly handled the years the recreational sector had exceeded its quota, a 49-percent share of the total quota.

Because the judge ruled the recreational sector must stay within its portion of the quota in 2014, the Gulf Council had to redo its recommendation to comply with the judge’s ruling. A larger buffer was instituted, which takes pounds off the top of the quota. Plus, NMFS decided to use the 2013 landing rates from the new, unproven MRIP (Marine Recreational Information Program) instead of using the rates from the previous system.

An 11-day season was recommended by the Gulf Council at its meeting this spring in Baton Rouge. However, after the 11-day season was announced, Louisiana rebelled and decided to expand their state-only season to year-round with a two-fish bag limit.

That makes Louisiana, Texas and Florida all non-compliant with federal regulations. Texas has maintained a year-round snapper fishery for years in state waters, and Florida has already opened its state waters to red snapper fishing. Both Texas and Florida have 9-mile boundaries for state waters. Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have 3-mile boundaries for state waters.

Because of those states that have bucked the system, NOAA Fisheries set the federal season at nine days, starting June 1.

“Those states having snapper seasons outside the federal season decreases the number of days the federal waters are open, because they account for the catch from state waters in the overall quota,” said Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division.

“With a season that short, we are considering a number of options to deal with this situation,” Blankenship said. “The Alabama Legislature passed our bill to extend state waters to 9 miles. We’re working with Congressman (Bradley) Byrne and others in our congressional delegation to have these additional waters federally recognized, and they are very receptive to that. I’ve met with Congressman Byrne the last two weeks, and he is working to build a coalition of other Gulf Coast legislators in Washington to help get that passed.”

One of the options Marine Resources is proceeding with is its own data-collection system for red snapper. The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board voted recently to approve the red snapper reporting system proposed by Marine Resources.

Big red snapper, like this one Gregg Miles of Winfield caught on the Fairwater II out of Orange Beach, have been commonplace in recent years.

Big red snapper, like this one Gregg Miles of Winfield caught on the Fairwater II out of Orange Beach, have been commonplace in recent years.

NOAA Fisheries’ data collection has been a point of contention for many years, and it changed the way the data was collected in 2013, which skewed the numbers severely. Blankenship said the federal survey has produced wild swings in estimates of harvest from 400,000 pounds to last year’s 4 million pounds.

“The way (the survey) is managed by the federal government makes the data inaccurate,” Blankenship said. “That is the largest topic of conversation of fishermen in Alabama. Even NOAA Fisheries is not confident in the results. Since they changed the system in 2013, the catch rates per day were up drastically. They did not run the new system along with the old system to have some comparable data. It’s not just in Alabama. NOAA Fisheries is not overly confident with the landings numbers in 2013. But they feel they are required to use those numbers because of the ruling in the lawsuit.

“Using those 2013 numbers has had a drastic impact on the length of the season. By implementing our own reporting system, we will be able to have a true picture of what’s being caught off Alabama. We won’t have to extrapolate the data from a telephone survey, and all the things that go into the way the feds do it. We’ll have a much more accurate picture of what’s really being caught off Alabama.”

Alabama’s red snapper reporting system will include a Smartphone app similar to Game Check that will require easy-to-input information. For those who don’t have a Smartphone, a toll-free number (1-844-REDSNAP) will be available for touch-tone phones. Drop-boxes will also be available for use at Boggy Point, Cotton Bayou, Fort Morgan, Billy Goat Hole on Dauphin Island and the ramp at Bayou La Batre, Blankenship said

Marine Resources will be able to use boat ramps as data collection sites because of Alabama’s limited shoreline and small number of boat ramps. Anglers using the drop-box reporting method will fill out paper forms with a carbon copy with their catch information. Anglers will tear off the carbon copy and keep it for their records. Those reporting catches of red snapper will need their boat registration number, how many people were onboard and how many red snapper were caught and kept.

Blankenship said there hasn’t been any negative feedback on the state reporting system for red snapper.

“We’ve had real good consensus,” he said. “Everybody is so unhappy with the way the federal government is managing this fishery, not only with the stock assessment but also the data collection. We know having this information from the fishermen in Alabama will help us as we try to take over state management of this fishery. And we’ll have landings data with a much higher confidence level even if we have to stay under management by NOAA Fisheries, which should help reduce the buffer that NOAA takes off the top of the quota.”

Blankenship said the stock assessment done by the feds needs improvement as well, which is why Alabama is working on its own stock assessment.

“Dr. Sean Power, Dr. Will Patterson (both from the University of South Alabama) and John Mareska of Marine Resources are on the Gulf Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, and they’re working to get more information included in the federal stock assessment from Alabama’s work on artificial reefs,” Blankenship said. “We’ve got about 17,000 artificial reefs off Alabama. The artificial reefs off Alabama produce so many red snapper that they’re moving to places that traditionally haven’t had red snapper, like the shelf off of Florida and northwest Florida. Florida has started a good artificial reef program as well.

“I can tell you there are more red snapper out there in the Gulf than we’ve ever had since I’ve been involved in the fishery. And I started as a 14-year-old teenager working on charter boats. It’s time for the federal science to catch up with reality. In Alabama, we know what we have. Our staff and the scientists we work with at the local universities are working to produce that information in a peer-reviewed way to show what’s really out there.”

Although Marine Resources is working on the problem on a number of different fronts, including state management of red snapper, Blankenship realizes the frustration anglers have with such a short 2014 season.

“This year is indeed a crisis,” he said. “This has brought a lot of people together so that we can work toward a long-term solution. Things we are trying to do in Alabama are gaining traction in other states. There’s not a lot of good news for 2014. I think this is going to be a very difficult year, but we are truly working to fix this long-term so we won’t keep having these conversations every spring. We want this fixed, and we want to be managing this fishery so we can do it right.”

Bob Shipp, a member of the Gulf Council and the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board, is in favor of turning the management of red snapper over to each Gulf state.

“State control makes sense because the snapper stocks, and other fish, are different off each state,” said Shipp, who is retiring as head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama this year. “In Alabama, we probably have the healthiest snapper stock of any state in the Gulf. We could have a longer season and larger bag limit than states like Texas and Mississippi. The states have a great history of fisheries management, and they would do a far better job than what we have now. The current system is just insane, absolutely insane.”

ADCNR outlines new Red Snapper data collection efforts

DAUPHIN ISLAND — The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has established a new data program designed to more accurately count red snapper harvested among Alabama’s anglers. The new system requires only one report per vessel trip, which can be filled out via smartphone app, online, by telephone, or by paper form.

“This new red snapper data collection program is a critical element in our fight to show that the State of Alabama has the ability to properly manage this vitally important fishery,” said Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division.

Red snapper are an important species to many of Alabama’s saltwater anglers and make up a sizable part of Alabama’s estimated $690 million recreational fishery. The 2014 federal recreational red snapper season will be the shortest season on record, due in part to poor data collection methods used by federal fishery managers. Ever decreasing seasons have negatively impacted Alabama’s citizens and visitors as well as the state’s coastal communities.

In order to make available better data to manage this important fishery, ADCNR’s Commissioner, via emergency regulation, established the new program on May 13, 2014. The new regulation requires the captain or owner of a charter or private vessel with red snapper on board to report all red snapper kept and discarded dead prior to landing in Alabama regardless of where fish are caught.

Additional information required to be reported includes:

• Vessel registration

• Type of vessel (private or charter)

• County of landing (when seafood is transferred from a vessel to land or to a pier, dock, bulkhead attached to land or when a vessel is hauled onto land via a trailer)

• Number of anglers

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 outdooralabama.com; by telephone at 1-844-REDSNAP (1-844-733-7627), or by paper forms available at select coastal public boat launches.

“We have had broad support from both charter and recreational fishing organizations to improve the data collection for red snapper,” Blankenship said. “I appreciate Commissioner Gunter Guy and the Conservation Advisory Board for promulgating this regulation. The correct landing information from this program can be a tool we can use to either vastly improve the federal management for this species or work to have the management transferred to the states.”

ADCNR continues to support Alabama’s anglers and anticipates this program will assist its efforts to maximize access to this valuable resource. For more information, contact Chris Blankenship at 251-861-2882.

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