Fishermen want looser limits as red snapper makes comeback – Sun

WASHINGTON Over 18 years of running Old Dixie Seafood in Boca Raton, Larry Siemsen has seen supplies of locally caught red snapper dwindle and prices double, thanks to decades of over-fishing and recent federal restrictions to help the popular fish recover.

“During tourist seasons down here, there’s not enough supply for the demand,” Siemsen said. Like local restaurants, Siemsen has relied increasingly on imports from waters off Latin America.

Today, though, the red snapper is making a comeback near Florida’s shores, saved by those strict federal limits. And Florida anglers, state officials and boat captains — who say they’re finding far more big, healthy snappers — are clamoring for looser limits on both the Atlantic catch and the Gulf of Mexico, where far more of the tasty fish are taken.

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Not so fast, conservationists say: Give the red snapper more time to rebound — much like sea bass, a recent success story — so it can remain a staple catch for fishermen and a favorite dish in restaurants.

Even Darden Restaurants — which has seafood on the menu of all of its 1,900 restaurants — supports the quotas. In a letter last June to the Gulf Management Council, the company called for a continuation of the quota, though it said commercial fishers should be alloted more and recreational anglers less.

“[S]ome stocks in the Gulf of Mexico, including red snapper, are not on target to be rebuilt in 10 years [as required by federal law,]” the company wrote.

Red snapper, along with black grouper and stone crabs, are “the three big hitters” with Florida visitors, said Chef Dean James Max, who oversees seven restaurants including 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale. Compared with other snappers, “it’s much more delicate,” he said. “It’s got a little bit more fat, and its texture is nice and firm. Red is the best of the Florida snapper.”

Max’s restaurants take snapper off the menu when local supplies dry up. Some other restaurants import it from such places as the Bahamas or Honduras. Some are reluctant to serve anything that is banned or over-fished.

“If you can’t fish it, we can’t sell it,” said Rick Fett, managing partner of Bonefish Grill in Fort Lauderdale.

A victim of its popularity, red snapper was nearly fished out in much of the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico by the end of the last decade.

“Consumers figured out that it’s a healthy way to eat. At the same time, boats could safely go farther offshore, and technology helped them find the best fishing spots,” said Holly Binns, Southeast director of oceans policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Over time, it just took its toll.

“Folks want to get out there and catch fish. It’s fun. I totally get that. But ultimately letting these populations rebuild to healthy levels is good for fish but also for fishermen because it ensures there will be red snapper to catch for generations to come.”

The snapper limits are among controversies being debated in Washington this week at a “fish summit” — co-hosted by Pew and federal fish management agencies — designed to guide Congress while it prepares to renew the federal law that sets fishing policy. Hearings have begun, and passage is expected late this year or next.

Red snapper hauls along the South Atlantic peaked in 1968 at 1.07 million pounds and dwindled to a low of 84,377 pounds in 2006, leading to commercial limits and a federal ban on recreational fishing in 2010 that required that any red snapper caught be thrown back.

For Gulf red snapper, landings peaked in 1983 at 12 million pounds and the low came in 1990 at 4 million pounds.

This year, commercial limits have eased slightly. The proposed 2013 quota in the Gulf would be 4.3 million pounds, a 4.7 percent increase from 2012. The recreational ban was lifted for a few days last September, and anglers are pushing for a wider window this summer and beyond.

The Atlantic quota has not been set.

The limits are especially significant in Florida, a commercial fishing hub and, as the self-proclaimed “sport-fishing capital of the world,” a mecca for recreational anglers.

“I’ve never caught red snapper in the numbers that I’ve caught here in the past three years, and I’ve been fishing here since the ’60s,” said Paul Roydhouse, who runs party and charter boats at “Fishing Headquarters” in Fort Lauderdale. “Every boat can catch half a dozen of them now. Back five or six years ago, you’d be lucky if one boat caught one [snapper] in this area.

“Now we’re catching them more and more every year, but we have to throw them back in the season they’re closed.”

Balking at the federal limits, Florida is one of several states “going rogue” by setting its own, more-generous limits in state waters.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last month widened the Gulf season to 44 days, from June 1 to July 14, for recreational fishing of red snapper in state waters, which extend nine miles from shore. No limit was set in state waters on the Atlantic side, which extend only three nautical miles, because few fish are caught that close to shore.

In response, federal officials shortened their proposed season in the Gulf from 27 days to 21 days, but that is subject to change. For the South Atlantic, they plan to allow recreational red snapper fishing for a series of three-day weekends starting July 12 until a quota is reached.

From Siemsen’s standpoint, the regulations are preserving a supply of red snapper for future customers.

For now, he buys them from commercial fishermen in the Florida Keys — which has more fish and fewer people to consume them — and from places like Mexico, Chile and Honduras.

“I can live with the regulations,” he said. “You give everything a break. If you keep on taking and taking, you’re not going to have seafood markets.”

Staff writers Ludmilla Lelis and John Tanasychuk contributed to this report. Wgibson@Tribune.com or 202-824-8256

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