A new day may have dawned on management of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.
An Alabama-based, two-year pilot program that would give the state's entire charterboat fleet the freedom to catch a predetermined number of red snapper whenever they wanted got a second life and the blessing of the full Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council Wednesday afternoon.
The program garnered so much support during a public hearing Wednesday afternoon at the council's meeting in Baton Rouge that National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Regional Office Administrator Roy Crabtree suggested it may be time to consider options for implementing a similar program in the for-hire sector Gulfwide.
"I think we are at a point where I haven't seen as big a mess as we are in," Crabtree said. "There are fundamental problems that are going to require that we change how we are managing the fishery and measuring the catches."
Crabtree went on to say that he believed the Alabama pilot program could be a good test for a Gulfwide system and that the council should begin the process now of looking at options to create a for-hire individual fishing quota program instead of waiting for results generated by the pilot after it ends two years down the road.
"While this test program in ongoing, this council should be focusing on working on a for-hire IFQ options paper . That would be a good starting point, then we can begin getting the public involved, get their comments and in two years we could be ready to roll on something Gulfwide," Crabtree said. "It could be time to really start thinking this thing through."
Tuesday, Tom Steber, president of the Alabama Charter Fishing Association Cooperative, had asked the council's Reef Fish Committee to endorse the cooperative's request for the NMFS to approve an exempted fishing permit that would allow six-pack and multi-passenger charter boats to fish outside of federal red snapper season closures.
The cooperative's EFP request closely mirrors a headboat pilot program that began Jan. 1. In its short lifetime, the headboat program has already been deemed a success by the 17 such participating boats across the Gulf.
It's goals are to:
â¢ Assess whether a cooperative program can achieve conservation and management goals more effectively than the existing management system.
â¢ Test new electronic data collection methods and assess their effectiveness.
â¢ Assess economic impacts between Alabama's cooperative program and the existing charter for-hire industry.
â¢ Develop, administer and test whether regional management is a feasible plan for management.
Steber said the for-hire charter sector has been asking for guidance and assistance to implement better accountability measures, but has gone basically ignored. The cooperative's plan and EFP request are their solutions to build accountability into their part of the fishery, he said.
Participation in the cooperative is expected to be 100 percent of the 90-boat Alabama-based fleet, that includes vessels from Orange Beach to Dauphin Island. Of the total, one vessel is owned by a Mississippi resident who runs out of Orange Beach and 15 are from Florida.
Those out-of-state boats all have valid Alabama charter licenses, Steber said.
The reef committee motion to endorse the cooperative's request failed by one vote.
In a rare move, the full council agreed to reconsider the cooperative's request immediately following the public hearing during which many people who spoke - recreational and commercial -- were in favor of granting the EFP.
The overwhelming consensus among those who spoke in favor said the pilot program would be a first step toward testing whether a large group of for-hire boats could cooperatively manage their designated share of quota and if such a system could bring the level of consistency charter captains have said is necessary to effectively operate their businesses.
Proponents also said it would interject accountability into a segment of the recreational sector since the pilot-program includes vessel-specific reporting requirements every time the captain leaves and returns to port.
Lack of such accountability measures was one aspect of current federal management of the recreational sector cited by a federal judge in a ruling that in essence said failing to prevent the sector from exceeding its quota in six of the last seven years violated national standards in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and was therefore illegal.
MSA sets regulations requiring the fair and equitable allocation of all of the country's fisheries and management of those species to their maximum sustainable yield.
Over the pilot program's two-year test period, the cooperative is asking to be allocated 6.8 percent of the recreational sector's current 5.39 million pound quota or 366,520 pounds per year. The percentage is the average of annual red snapper landings by the Alabama charter fleet between 2011 and 2013.
Steber said the poundage allocation would then be converted into number of fish. Individual vessel fish shares would be allocated depending on whether the boat was a "six-pack" boat with a maximum capacity of six passengers or a multi-passenger charterboat able to carry seven passengers and up.
All participating vessels must have a federal reef fish permit. Captains would be able to book trips at any time of the year and continue doing so until their fish share was used up.
After the vote and in anticipation of what he believed would likely be a motion to begin looking at options for creating a for-hire individual fishing quota program, Crabtree directed NMFS staff to round up documents related to past discussions of beginning such a program ready for Thursday's meeting.
"If you think this is a good thing, then we need to come in here tomorrow (Thursday) and begin looking at putting together a charrterboat IFQ program," Crabtree told council members.
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