Red Snapper Limits Choking Fish Industry

For 22 years, Pete McCarty has relied on red snapper for his livelihood. Once upon a time, he made up to $150,000 per year, mainly by catching and selling the saltwater fish. Today, the Port Isabel, Texas fisherman is lucky to make $40,000.

For 22 years, Pete McCarty has relied on red snapper for his livelihood. Once upon a time, he made up to $150,000 per year, mainly by catching and selling the saltwater fish.

Today, the Port Isabel fisherman is lucky to make $40,000.

McCarty says federal regulations limiting the days fishermen can catch red snapper are to blame for his dwindling income and fading hopes.

"Now we just get by -- there's no future in fishing," McCarty said. "There's not going to be a market left."

Because studies have suggested that red snapper are overfished throughout the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf's Fishery Management Council has imposed a closed season on recreational and commercial fishermen in recent years.

For recreational fishermen, the season is open only from April to October, and commercial fishermen can only fish for red snapper during the first 10 days of each month until certain limits are reached.

The closures have driven some red-snapper fishermen out of business and have squeezed others' resources until they have little left.

"A lot of fishermen are so poor and broke, they have to fish really hard now," McCarty said.

The regulations might soon change, and federal officials say the changes will be for the better.

In light of a recent council study showing that even with these provisions red snapper are overfished, the council is considering imposing individual fishing quotas on commercial fishermen, which they say will give them more freedom to fish but still protect red snapper.

"We're trying to get (commercial fishermen) out of only fishing 10 days and into quotas, so they can fish whenever they want to," said Rick Leard, deputy executive director of the fishery management council.

Leard said that, if passed, the quotas likely would be based on fishermen's historical catches, and that fishermen also would be able to transfer quota shares to each other. The proposed quota system will undergo public hearings at a later date.

The council also is exploring ways to reduce shrimp bycatch, or the amount of young red snapper caught in shrimping trawls, Leard said. Bycatch is a major cause of red-snapper overfishing.

Although studies seem to show that the red snapper is in peril all along the Gulf Coast, local fishermen question whether red snapper is really overfished in South Texas.

"The red snapper population is as thick as flies," said Phil Calo, manager of Osprey Fishing Tours. "We have a difficult time fishing for other species because the red-snapper population, is so thick it's hard to get through them."

Calo, who takes tourists on fishing expeditions out in the Gulf, said he thinks the regulations are in place because Florida's red-snapper population is thinning, not Texas'.

"I think they should separate us into an east and west zone," he said.

The council's stock assessment, however, found that Texas' stock of red snapper is not in good shape.

Robin Reichers, science and policy director of the coastal fisheries program for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said that the red snapper still needs protection in Texas.

"We have seen increases and we're moving in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go," he said.

Reichers said the state would have liked to avoid closures for red snapper fishing because of the closure's effect on fishermen and the tourism industry. The individual fishing quotas are a better option, he said.

Tom Wheatley, Gulf regional organizer for the Marine Fish Conservation Network, said he likes the idea of quotas but thinks protections need to be in place for fishermen, including limits on how many quota shares larger fisheries can own. That way, larger fisheries won't drive the everyday fisherman out of business.

Wheatley definitely prefers the quotas proposal over the current closure strategy. The closures haven't done enough to protect red snapper and have needlessly hurt fishermen, he said.

"There's a target date of 2032 to rebuild red snapper, and that's a long way for those fishermen to live with the current regulations," Wheatley said. "We're going to see a lot of fishermen lose their livelihood unless something changes."

Recreational fishermen likely will still have to endure closures because quotas aren't on the table for them, officials said.

Local "party boats" and recreational fishing boats have felt the sting of those closures. Calo, of Osprey Fishing Tours, said he has reduced wintertime business by 70 percent as a result of winter closures.

"It has an economic impact on this area that I don't think people can appreciate," he said. "The fishing industry in South Texas affects everyone."

As for commercial fishermen, they're skeptical that quotas will present a better solution to overfishing, and question if the quotas will reduce the squeeze on their earnings.

"I don't think they'll be high enough," McCarty said of the quotas. "If they're going to do it, I'd like to see us get enough (fish) to make a living at it."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News