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.