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Posted in Mobile (AL) Press Register August 15 2009.
MOBILE, Ala. -- When the shortest-ever Gulf snapper season drew to its close at midnight Friday, one thing was sure: There are so many red snapper on the artificial reefs off of Alabama it has become difficult to catch anything else.
Everyone, from federal scientists to charter boat captains, agrees that the Gulf of Mexico's snapper population is on the rise and has rebounded strongly since a wave of regulations in the 1990s.
And that trend has only quickened since the advent of the two-fish-per-angler-per-day rule put in place for this year.
Those regulations were the strictest ever enforced for red snapper and drew heated protests from charter boat captains and recreational fishermen when they were announced last year.
"We caught almost nothing but red snapper all day long, everywhere we went" said Bob Shipp, head of the marine sciences division at the University of South Alabama, after a recent research cruise.
"We're hearing the same thing about abundance of red snapper from commercial and recreational fishermen," Kim Amendola with the National Marine Fisheries Service wrote in an e-mail, sent during the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council's meeting Thursday in Orange Beach.
"We're also hearing about more and more red snapper showing up in areas where they haven't been for years, such as off of Tampa Bay."
Diving on two natural-bottom limestone outcroppings off of Pensacola, three artificial reefs off Orange Beach and two oil platforms south of Dauphin Island in the last three weeks, a Press-Register reporter found schools of red snapper at every location. Grouper were almost entirely absent from those spots, and the three triggerfish observed were about the size of a man's hand.
Shipp chartered the Lady Ann out of Dauphin Island on Aug. 6 for one of his regular snapper research cruises. On each trip, he tags and releases hundreds of snapper from both public and secret artificial reefs off Alabama. On this cruise, he said, the goal was to sample several popular public reefs to see if they had been "fished out" during the 70-day snapper season.
The answer, Shipp said, was a resounding no.
While several hundred legal-sized snapper, including some up to 15 pounds, came aboard the boat, only one legal triggerfish and no legal grouper were caught. Eleven tagged fish were recaptured, including several that had been tagged just nine days before, proving the fish recover quickly from being caught, Shipp said.
A handful of beeliners and one or two lane snapper came aboard as well. But, in the end, snapper outnumbered everything else caught by a margin of at least 20 to one.
"We have no shortage of snapper in the Gulf of Mexico," said Mike Thierry, captain of the Lady Ann. "There was a time a few years back when it wasn't like that, and I'm the first to admit it. But these fish have rebounded. It's pretty incredible to see."
Thierry keeps a little red book in his pocket with coordinates for more than 1,000 reefs in the Gulf, some natural and some manmade. Every one of them is covered in snapper, he said.
"It's time to go back to a four-fish limit. The fishery is strong enough," he said, "and four snapper is a nice enough mess of fish to keep people happy."
"I've said it before, and it is still true," Shipp said aboard the boat. "The data suggest we have more red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico than ever before. They are not overfished."
Shipp is the new chairman of the Fishery Management council, which will recommend new snapper limits and season lengths after federal scientists complete the next snapper stock assessment.
"The assessment update is scheduled for later this month, August 24-28. Unfortunately, we won't know the answer to your question about how the 2 fish bag limit worked until we see the results of the assessment update," Amendola wrote on Thursday in response to a Press-Register inquiry.