Higher red snapper 'target' for charter boats now permanent

After Gulf of Mexico charter boat captains stayed within federal limits for red snapper, regulators are making permanent a rule that lets them catch more of the fish

NEW ORLEANS -- After Gulf of Mexico charter boat captains stayed within federal limits for red snapper, regulators are making permanent a rule that lets them catch more of the fish.

The rule initially was to be just for one year. The change will likely mean that the 2020 charter boat season for red snapper is seven or eight days longer than it otherwise would have been, according to an announcement Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division. The popular sport and table fish is recovering from disastrous overfishing.

“There's no shortage of red snapper out there. So the more days they give us the better,” said Brett Ryan of New Orleans, who runs charters out of Venice.

Regulators have been setting the “catch target” at 20% below the maximum considered allowable, as a buffer against taking too many.

Charter captains have only once gone over their target, so the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management council cut last year's buffer to 9%.

That smaller buffer will become permanent March 23, NOAA Fisheries said Thursday. Without the change, it would have reverted to 20%, limiting charter boats to 2.5 million pounds (1.1 kilograms).

The rule change means charter boats will be able to take more than 2.8 million pounds (nearly 1.3 million kilograms) of red snapper from the Gulf this year.

Recreational red snapper catches were a contentious issue for years, with seasons getting shorter even as fish got bigger and more numerous. NOAA Fisheries said anglers regularly went far over their limits, and each year's estimated excess would be cut from the following year's Gulf-wide catch limit. State regulators said federal estimates of anglers' catches were far too high.

Since 2018, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Texas have set seasons and tracked catches for anglers on private boats. Each state is assigned a total weight limit and must close its season when it reaches that amount. That system, originally a two-year experiment, was made permanent this year.

NOAA Fisheries has continued to regulate commercial and charter boat catches. The charter boats were originally regulated as part of the overall recreational sector. In 2015 NOAA fisheries split the recreational share between private anglers and federally licensed charter captains. When state regulation began in 2018, NOAA Fisheries kept authority over “head boats.”