As anglers along the Alabama Gulf Coast gear up for the June 1 opening of the shortest red snapper season ever this summer, there is hope among fisheries officials that this 40-day snapper season will be an exception rather than a trend.
The reason for optimism is because of a unanimous vote by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to develop a management plan that would include artificial structures as “Essential Fish Habitat.”
Alabama boasts the most extensive and celebrated artificial reef program in the nation with more than 1,200 square miles in five offshore zones. Reef fish, especially red snapper, thrive on the artificial reefs.
Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, said stock assessments in the past have failed to recognize the contribution artificial structures make to the health and abundance of the reef fish.
“There is no doubt the artificial reefs off Alabama, which are the best in the country, and the oil and gas rigs produce and harbor a lot of fish,” Blankenship said. “We’re trying to get the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to use more information on artificial reefs and other structures in their stock assessments.
“They say they’re using them in their stock assessments to some extent, but if they truly used the information from the artificial structures like they use the information for the natural bottom offshore, I think you would see an exponential increase in the estimate of biomass and red snapper in particular. I almost look at it like a census. If you did a census but you excluded the big cities and only did the rural areas, our population would look like it’s much lower. If you don’t look for red snapper around structure, you’re not going to know what’s there.”
Dr. Bob Shipp, head of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama and a member of the Gulf council, agrees wholeheartedly.
“If you assume that species like snapper are habitat limited, the more habitat you have the more snapper you’re going to have,” Shipp said. “The stock assessments that are going on right now are starting to include artificial structures. I was on a conference call with Chris Blankenship and NMFS people in Washington, urging them to give more consideration to artificial structures. They’ve been hesitant to do that because they don’t know how. All they say is that, when they evaluate the landings, some of those fish come off artificial structures. As Chris Blankenship put it, they haven’t given adequate credit for the biomass created by the artificial structures. The pressure is on them to do it, and I think they’re going to move in that direction.”
Shipp said that artificial structures can’t just be deemed essential fish habitat. The designation will have to be included in a management plan. Shipp said the staff at the Gulf council will develop an options paper for “Essential Fish Habitat” and a higher designation of “Habitat Areas of Particular Concern” that will include several options for action. One option would be to include all artificial structures, while another option might be to consider just petroleum platforms. Another option might be consideration for artificial structures that are in certain areas where there is no natural habitat.
“We have to define what structures qualify – petroleum platforms, artificial reefs, a boat that sinks, all of that,” he said. “Those are the things that will have to be incorporated in a management plan, but it is a very, very positive step. Since the council voted on that, it has received a tremendous amount of positive press.”
Shipp said he had a letter from Texas Gov. Rick Perry to Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, asking that the ‘Idle Iron’ policy, the practice of removing derelict gas and oil structures, be suspended and the structures deemed fish habitat. Sen. David Vitter, R. La., has introduced a bill that would stop the removal of the derelict structures.
“If the oil and gas platforms are deemed essential fish habitat, at least the National Marine Fisheries Service will have to be consulted before they pull these things out,” Shipp said. “Probably, what’s more important is it gives lots of ammunition to others trying to stop the removal of the structures. And the irony is that the environmentalists are in favor of this. Their motives are a little different. They see these structures as huge coral communities that have built up over the decades and are ecosystems unto themselves.”
Once the options paper for adding artificial structures as essential fish habitat is presented, it will go to public hearings. The feedback from the hearings will be considered by the council, which will vote on the preferred options. If passed, the management plan would go to the Secretary of Commerce for approval and then implementation. Shipp said the timetable for such action will likely be nine months to a year.
For Alabama’s saltwater anglers, the upcoming summer may force a change in fishing habits. The amberjack season will be closed during June and July, and the size limit will remain at a minimum of 30 inches fork length. Blankenship said the council considered an option to raise the size limit to 36 inches and keep the fishery open all year, but there was a great concern that an increased size limit would result in an increase in discard mortality. Also, the quota for gray triggerfish will likely be reached by the middle of the summer.
“I think part of that may be because red snapper are so abundant,” Blankenship said. “I think the red snapper are hurting some of the other fish. So it’s imperative for Alabama that we get that red snapper information correct. We need for the National Marine Fisheries Service to catch up on what’s really out there, so we can have a longer snapper season. A benchmark assessment on red snapper is due out next year. The hope is that the new assessment will show a dramatic increase in the biomass for red snapper, and the season would be longer, much longer.”
Blankenship knows it’s going to be hard for Alabama anglers to focus on any species other than red snapper this summer, but he thinks there is another fish that needs to be considered. And he has proof that the king mackerel fishing is outstanding.
“The kingfishing is going to be great this year,” he said. “We’ve had the state record broken twice. They’re doing the paperwork on the second one now. That first record didn’t last long. I can’t believe two fish that size have been caught within a month. And, they’re already catching kings off the Gulf State Park Pier.”
Within weeks of the certification of a record king at 68 pounds, 3 ounces, Matt Borden of Trussville landed a king last week that weighed 69 pounds, 10 ounces. Borden was aboard Fish On out of Zeke’s Marina in Orange Beach, a sister ship to Fish Trap, which landed the earlier fish. Borden’s fish must go through the paperwork and review process before it can be certified as a state record. Borden’s fish measured 60 inches fork length with a 26.5-inch girth.