Under the Gulf of Mexico Headboat Cooperative exempted fishing permit, 18 headboats started fishing for American red snapper on Jan. 1 and can fish through the end of snapper season on July 11.

Roy Crabtree, regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Southeast Region, explained why these boats have been allowed to fish outside the regular season.

“We’re trying to determine the best, the fairest and the most equitable way to manage the red snapper population in the Gulf of Mexico, for the fish, the fishermen and the economy of fishing communities,” Crabtree said. “A proposal was brought to NOAA and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Council by the Headboat Cooperative, made up of 18 headboats from Texas, Alabama and Florida to test a different method of harvesting red snapper.” 

Headboats are required to keep logs of the number of red snapper they catch on each trip; however, six-passenger, multi-passenger and recreational fishing boats don’t keep this information.

Under this new proposal, these 18 headboats will be allotted to catch the same number of red snapper in 2014 that they caught in 2013, but can choose the days they want to fish for red snapper from Jan. 1 until July 11.

When asked why there were no headboats listed in the proposal from Mississippi and Louisiana, Crabtree said no boats from those states asked.

“This Headboat Cooperative evidently didn’t have any information from Louisiana or Mississippi,” he said.

These features of the experimental fishing permit granted to these 18 headboats include:

Each boat has been given a certain number of red snapper they legally can harvest beginning Jan. 1 until the end of snapper season July 11 to allow boats to schedule trips on dates with the most-favorable weather.

A two-fish limit of red snapper has been imposed, until the quota is reached. Fishermen who don’t want to fish for and catch and keep red snapper can go on other trips where all the snapper will be thrown back. 

The owner/operator of each headboat can determine on what days he’ll take out anglers to catch and keep snapper, and on what days all snapper will be released. 

The first question many people will ask probably is: “If 30 people are on a boat, and a good portion of them want to catch and keep snapper but the other anglers on the boat don’t want to, what happens?” Some captains are offering a tag system where an angler can buy two snapper tags to catch and keep two snapper as well as the other fish available to catch within size and bag limits. Or, they’re offering anglers the opportunity to purchase tags after they’ve caught snapper they want to keep. 

This new Headboat Cooperative exempted permit gives each headboat captain much more flexibility in determining when he will fish for snapper, and allow customers to catch and keep them than he has had in the past.

Headboat captains can save their snapper allotment for a time when fishermen are more likely to want to go and catch snapper. 

Crabtree said the test program will last for two years.

“Each headboat participating will report when they leave the dock to go fishing, and when they return with red snapper in their possession,” he said. “This monitoring of the harvest of red snapper during this experiment will include each snapper landed and the number of snapper caught each day.” 

This flexible snapper season will account for 5.3146 percent of the total quota of snapper caught and brought to the docks in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. 

“We know there are other groups and organizations preparing proposals to test other methods of managing the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico,” Crabtree said.

For instance, a proposal is being developed for the commercial six-passenger charter boats that will work similar to the headboat provisions. I’m fairly confident we’ll see a proposal from the recreational fishermen who might want to segment a portion of the overall red snapper catch for recreational fishermen who own boats.

Currently, commercial red snapper fishermen have a total poundage of red snapper they can harvest each year, as do recreational snapper fishermen — including headboats, six-passenger boats, multi-passenger boats and privately-owned boats. 

If this new Headboat Cooperative exempted fishing permit proves to be effective, over the next two years, we may see an extended red snapper season with more-liberal dates when anglers can catch and keep red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

“After 2015, we’ll have to spend at least two years determining what the results of this red snapper permit exempted test produce in the form of data to learn the feasibility and the possibility of extending this type of red snapper harvest Gulf wide,” Crabtree said. 

For more information on the latest fishing regulations, go to:

http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/fishery_bulletins/index.html or http://www.gulfcouncil.org/.