Pensacola, Florida
Monday September 1st 2014

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The 40-Day Fish

By Jeremy Morrison

Heading back after a day of Red Snapper fishing, Captain Richard Baker’s phone starts jumping off the hook. Before he makes it to the marina, the charter captain is setting up more trips out into the Gulf.

“Ever since my phone got in phone range it’s been ringing,” he said.

Baker—operator of Luck E Strike Deep Sea Fishing in Pensacola Beach—has been pretty busy since snapper season began this month. He’s not alone.

“June 1st rolls around, Red Snapper opens, you go out there now … it looks like a parking lot,” the charter captain said.

There’s a reason for the crowd. Recreational fishermen only get 40 precious days to bag one of the more popular fish—Red Snapper, or Lutjanus campechanus—in the Gulf of Mexico.

“When July 11 rolls around,” Baker said, “it’s going to be a sad situation.”

Florida’s 2012 Red Snapper season runs from June 1 to July 11. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shortened the season—again—during its May 2 meeting in Crystal River, Fla.

“You know, this has been an ongoing debate for the last umpteen years,” Baker said.

Contending that Red Snapper populations have been overfished since the early 1980s, the FFWCC has made efforts to rebuild the population through regulation. The state agency determines the length of the season, as well as size and catch limits.

The effort is apparently paying off.

“We’re seeing more Red Snapper,” said Amanda Nalley, public information specialist with the FFWCC. “We’re also seeing larger fish.”

That’s pretty much what Baker has found to be the case, as well.

“They’re so thick out you can go to the Bob Sikes Bridge and the Three Mile Bridge and catch Red Snapper,” he laughed. “And this is a saltwater fish we’re talking about.”

The apparent abundance of snapper have caused some in the state’s fishing community to question the agency’s continued tightening of regulations.

“They keep cutting it back and cutting it back,” Baker said.

Nalley’s familiar with the sentiment. She admits it makes sense on the surface.

“People say, ‘oh yeah, there are tons of Red Snapper out there,’” she said. “And there are, but there are tons of juvenile Red Snapper out there.”

Red Snapper can live up to 50 years. More mature snappers tend to reproduce at a much higher rate.

“It’s something amazing, it’s one of those slides that people say, ‘whoa,’” Nalley explained as she searched a slide presentation for the exact numbers—“one 24-inch female produces as many eggs as 212 17-inch females.”

With its continued management of the snapper stock, the state agency is attempting to build up a more mature population. In shortening this year’s season, the FFWCC is also keeping state regulations consistent with new federal rules.

States are not required to match federal rules. Critics point out that Texas has not adopted the federal regulations.

“But the thing about Texas—you hear this all the time about Texas, ‘they don’t go consistent’—recreational Red Snapper in Texas is not that much,” Nalley said.

Florida, however, accounts for about 40 percent of Red Snapper fishing, according to the agency. And while the FFWCC regulations may help increase the number of mature snappers, the number of recreational fishermen in Florida has also increased over the years.

This year, those fishermen will be squeezing all their Red Snapper fishing into a 40-day period. That’s making for early summer crowds in the Gulf and a limited window for local charter operations.

“I just had a guy call wanting to go out July 15,” Baker said. “The first thing out of my mouth is, ‘you know you can’t keep Red Snapper?’”