With the announcement this week of a red snapper season in Mississippi’s territorial waters by the state’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR), the question arose about a definition of the area of the Gulf of Mexico included in the term “territorial waters.”

For the first time, state and federal officials agree that for fishery management purposes the territorial waters extend nine nautical miles (10.357 statute miles) from Mississippi’s shoreline, which in this case is the defined as the southern shores of its barrier islands.

DMR spokesperson Melissa Scallan confirmed the barrier islands as the beginning of the nine-mile area.

In 2013, the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill extending its territorial waters to nine nautical miles for fishery management, roughly seven more than federal officials recognized at the time. Fishermen who fished in that questionable gap did so at the risk of federal enforcement and citations.

However, within the federal omnibus budget bill passed by Congress this year is language that, at least for this year, the U.S. recognizes the territorial waters of Mississippi, as well as those of Louisiana and Alabama, out to nine nautical miles. 

That is extremely important for Mississippi, which has limited amount of deep red snapper habitat close to its shores.

“Knowing we can go to nine miles from Ship Island, Cat Island and Horn Island, that puts some structure in deep enough water to attract and hold red snapper,” said Tommy Ladner of Biloxi. “Before, it wasn’t that important that we had a state season. Now, there’s a reason to fill up the boat and go.

“I know a few old wrecks and reefs that hold both red and mangrove snapper, as well as vermillion snapper, some groupers and an occasional cobia. That we can keep two red snapper makes the expense a little more worthwhile.”

Federal officials set a nine-day red snapper season in federal waters beginning June 1 and ending June 9. It included only one weekend.

This week, state officials announced it would have a 102-day season in its territorial waters beginning on the Friday before Memorial Day (May 27) and ending on Labor Day (Sept. 5).