When Mississippi received a six-day extension to its red snapper season on May 23, fisheries biologists at the Department of Marine Resources scoffed at the idea.
“Yeah, it may be a 34-day season right now but let’s see what happens when that lawsuit hits the courtroom in Texas,” said a DMR spokesman requiring anonymity. “I’m afraid this isn’t over.”
That view was correct. On Wednesday (June 5), Mississippi’s snapper season, and that of every state along the northern Gulf of Mexico, was revised to 28 days.
It opened on June 1 and will close at 12:01 a.m. June 29.
A U.S. District court judge in Texas ruled on May 21 that federal fisheries officials had no right to shorten federal seasons for states that established (non-compliant) seasons in state waters. His ruling forced those officials to equalize the federal season for all states.
“I hate it, but I can’t say I’m surprised by this one bit,” said Tommy O’Bryan of Biloxi, a former deckhand on a charter fishing boat that targeted snapper. He now fishes recreationally and occasionally hires out in a deck hand role to private boat owners.
“This NOAA and snapper thing is getting ridiculous. How can you get to a point where you open the season and start fishing and then have the season changed? This entire mess is a just that, a mess.”
O’Bryan then took a sarcastic tone.
“I guess we should be lucky the feds didn’t shorten it on the front end, and try to start writing all of us a bunch of citations for fishing last weekend,” he said. “That’d be about par for their course.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries division sets seasons in federal waters based on a quota system. Commercial fishermen get 51 percent of the allowed catch, while sports fishermen get 49 percent.
NOAA counts all snapper caught, both in federal and state waters, against that quota. Because Florida, Louisiana and Texas have established their own sport fishing seasons in their waters, NOAA initiated an “emergency powers” rule at a meeting earlier this year giving its regional administrator Roy Crabtree the authority to make changes in seasons, limits and harvests.
Crabtree used that power to shorten — or penalize, the judge would rule —those three states by cutting days off their federal season to offset the catch in state-specific seasons.
Louisiana and Texas officials filed a lawsuit, and on May 31 in Brownsville, Texas, judge Andrew Hanen declared NOAA’s emergency powers rule null and void. In a 25-page decision, Hanen scolded NOAA for even considering penalizing non-compliant states.
The emergency rule, he wrote, “does not enhance the conservation of red snapper in any way. All it does is to redistribute the right to fish from Texas, Louisiana and Florida fishermen to the anglers of Mississippi and Alabama.
“(NOAA) should not be in the business of penalizing states and their citizens merely because they exercised the very rights bestowed upon them by Congress.”
This episode is just another act in a long drama, pitting state and federal officials against each other over management of troubled species.
Louisiana officials battled successfully this spring to prove their agency was more sufficient at monitoring the snapper catch. It was that action that prompted NOAA in May to extend the federal seasons for all five states in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Mississippi and Alabama, which remained compliant, were extended from 28 to 34 days.
Louisiana, Florida and Texas all received additional days, but all three had seasons shorter than that given to Mississippi and Alabama.