The Gulf of Mexico’s red snapper fishery, staggered to near collapse by the late 1980s after decades of unregulated plundering, has over the past 20 years or so made a comeback that has the popular, populous and palatable reef fish more abundant than many of today’s offshore anglers have seen.

But that recovery has come at a cost, with recreational anglers, especially those who fish from privately owned boats, paying a high price in dramatically reduced opportunities to participate in a fishery that, not too long ago, drew more Texas anglers offshore than any other.

And while there are a couple of glimmers of hope that the noose-long tightening on recreational snapper anglers might loosen a bit, odds of any significant liberalization of federal recreational snapper regulations appear slim. A decision on the length of the 2016 recreational red snapper season, set to open June 1 in Gulf waters under federal jurisdiction, won’t come for another couple of months. But it’s not likely anglers fishing from private boats will see a season much, if any, longer than 2015’s pitifully brief 10-day season.

Actions guided by congressional mandates, decided by federal fisheries managers and interpreted by federal courts have driven the snapper recovery. But they also have left Texas’ recreational anglers almost wholly cut out of the snapper fishery.

In an irony created by the byzantine mechanics of the federally overseen management plan, as the Gulf’s red snapper population has boomed, recreational anglers fishing from privately owned boats have seen the length of their fishing season in federally controlled Gulf water shrink to as few as nine days in recent years.

This contraction of the recreational snapper season has come even as the annual quota of red snapper recreational anglers are allowed to take has grown with the expanding snapper population.

Shorter and shorter

In 2010, the annual recreational quota of red snapper, set by federal managers to keep harvest low enough that the snapper population could continue rebuilding, was 3.4 million pounds, and anglers had a 77-day season during which they could take their two-snapper daily bag limit from Gulf water under federal control.

This past year, the annual recreational quota of red snapper set by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service was 7.01 million pounds, an increase of 1.6 million pounds from 2014, more than double the 2010 allowable catch and the highest since annual quotas were implemented in 1996. But recreational anglers fishing from private boats were allowed to catch and keep snapper from federal waters for only 10 days, June 1-10.

The short season was a result of an amendment to the federal red snapper management plan that divided the annual recreational quota between anglers fishing from private boats and those fishing from charter boats and other for-hire vessels that operate under federal permits allowing owners to take recreational anglers fishing. The amendment passed by a close vote of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, a group of representatives from the five Gulf states that develop and recommend management actions to the federal fisheries service that has final say on rule changes.

This adopted change, termed “sector separation,” allocated 57.7 percent of the annual red snapper quota set for the recreational fishery to anglers fishing from private boats and 42.3 percent of the quota to anglers fishing on charter boats and other for-hire vessels. The portion of the recreational quota allocated to the for-hire sector was apportioned to the 1,300 boats holding federal reef fish permits required of vessels in the business of taking anglers fishing in federal waters.

Federal fisheries managers – using catch data from previous years that include estimates of daily fishing pressure, angler catch rates and average weight of snapper landed – determined it would take anglers on private boats just 10 days to land their portion of the annual quota and 44 days for anglers fishing from the for-hire vessels to land their portion.

Legal challenges

The move to divide the recreational quota between the for-hire and private boat sectors was hailed by the for-hire businesses struggling under the increasingly short fishing seasons but seen by private-boat anglers as giving private businesses exclusive rights to a public resource.

Almost immediately, the Coastal Conservation Association, a Houston-based national group focused on conservation and enhancement of marine resources and tied closely to the recreational fishing community, filed a lawsuit in federal court in New Orleans seeking to void the sector separation amendment and continue to lump the for-hire and private boat components of the recreational fishery as one group.

Earlier this month, the federal judge hearing the suit ruled against CCA, allowing sector separation to stand.

That lawsuit is just one of several that have been filed over the past several years challenging portions of the federal red snapper management plan.

One of the most recent is a suit filed by commercial red snapper fishers over a change in how the annual red snapper quota is divided between commercial and recreational sectors. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council recommended and federal managers have proposed adopting a change in the allocation of the annual red snapper harvest quota that currently gives 51 percent of the allowable catch to licensed commercial fishers and 49 percent to recreational anglers. The proposal, based on reassessment of data used to originally set the allocation, would designate 51.5 percent of the quota to the recreational sector and 48.5 percent to the commercial sector.

When the Gulf Council meets later this month in Orange Beach, Ala., the group will consider a proposal to allow for a version of “regional management” of the snapper fishery, a move many have urged to allow each state to set snapper regulations that meet congressionally mandated goals of rebuilding the still-rebuilding snapper population but are designed to take into consideration the particular conditions and snapper fisheries of each state.

Allocating the quota

The proposals scheduled for consideration include multiple options that would allocate a percentage of the annual recreation quota to each state, basing the allocation on how much of annual snapper harvest anglers in that state have landed in past years. States would have some latitude in setting season dates and other rules but would be required to keep their overall harvest within the quota.

Under the regional management options to be considered at the Jan. 25-28 Gulf Council meeting, Texas’ allocation would be only 10-16 percent of the annual quota. Florida and Alabama, the two Gulf states that in recent years have accounted for as much as 75 percent of the annual snapper landings, would each get 35-40 percent.

That difference is a stark indication of how Texas anglers have seen their opportunities to target red snapper decline over the past two decades while the snapper population off Texas has boomed. During the five-year period 1986-90, Texas anglers accounted for about 22.5 percent of the red snapper landed by recreational anglers. Over the past five years, Texas anglers have accounted for less than 10 percent of the recreational catch.