NOAA Fisheries, a wing of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announced yesterday that it was adding days in all states along the northern Gulf of Mexico, as well as raising its annual catch quota from 8 million pounds to 8.5 million.
Randy Pausina, the assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, considers the change a win.
"We've been fighting this battle for years, and with the federal season shortened to 27 days this year, we decided it was time to draw a line in the sand," Pausina said today. "So we established an 88-day, weekend-only, season in Louisiana waters, and they cut our federal season to nine days.
"But we (established the state season) with the intention of setting up a real-time fish monitoring system so we could provide a more-accurate count of the catch, and do it quickly. We knew the weekend-only season was insignificant because we don't have that many snapper in state waters. But, it gave us a chance to prove we could provide a better monitoring system, and we did it.
"I am so proud of our agency's staff for putting this program together so quickly, on the fly. We rocked and rolled."
What the LDWF found was a significant difference from the federal system's projected catch, and what was really being brought to the dock.
"We found it was less than half of what they projected," Pausina said. "The key thing is that we established a true on-time monitoring process instead of their crystal ball process. We knew they were using projections and estimates that had to include a cushion, and their system was nowhere near real time.
"We counted our own fish and did it right, and after two months we looked at the data and we had 42 percent of the federal projection."
Louisiana sent its numbers to Roy Crabtree, the Southeast regional administrator for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, who this year successfully obtained emergency powers to adjust regulations.
"He accepted the numbers, verified our system as valid and that is what led to our getting the 15 (additional) days," Pausina said. "Yes, I claim this as a victory for our staff, our state and our fishermen.
"We proved that states can provide a better monitoring of the local catch."
Pausina said he is happy but somewhat confused by the half-million pound increase to 8.5 million pounds in the total allowable catch quota for the Gulf of Mexico. Recreational fishermen get 49 percent of that quota, with commercial fishermen getting 51 percent.
The recreational creel limit remains two fish per angler per day, with a 16-inch minimum size limit.
"I don't know where they found (snapper to allow the quota to be increased), but apparently they found some fish stocks and increased the quota," Pausina said. "It's confusing to me."
Though Louisiana got the most-significant change in the number of days, its federal water season off the Louisiana coast is still 10 days below that of two other states.
Mississippi and Alabama had their seasons extended from 28 to 34 days, the maximum allowed under the extension. Both states have remained compliant with federal regulations in state waters, while Louisiana and two others did not.
Like Louisiana, Florida and Texas have seasons in state waters in addition to the seasons set by NOAA in federal waters. Texas has a year-round season, and the limit is double the federal limit of two per day.
Florida received five additional days to a 26-day season, and Texas received five to give it a 17-day season.
Because catches during the state seasons count against the season quota for the entire Gulf, those states are penalized with the shorter seasons in federal waters.
That's another bone of contention for Pausina.
"It's ludicrous," he said, referring to the Gulf-wide federal management plan. "Each state should be given its share, or allocation, of the catch, and be allowed to monitor it. We've proven it can be done more accurately. If it is handed over to the individual states, we can react more quickly to harvest data.
"This could actually help prevent an over-harvest, or exceeding the quota, which has happened for the last several years."
Pausina expects individual states will soon be given that power, either from NOAA or from Congress. Two bills have been introduced to do just that, and Pausina expects a third to be introduced. Louisiana's success this spring in providing better monitoring will help, he said.
A spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources said Friday that the 34-day season that will end July 4 was good news, but also said it is not yet set in stone.
"It could change, depending on two lawsuits that have been filed, and one involving Texas and Louisiana challenging (Crabtree's emergency powers), will be heard May 30 in Brownsville, Texas. The other is a suit filed on behalf of captains with a federal reef fishing permit, challenging the decision that they are only allowed to fish during the (federal season).
"If either one of the suits is successful and more time is allowed in other states, then Mississippi's season will likely be shortened because of the quota system. Anytime somebody gets more, then somebody gets less."
Pausina said it shouldn't be like that, and doubts it would if the lawsuit is successful.
"It shouldn't hurt other states," he said. "But that's the kind of thought process (NOAA) is pushing, pitting states against each other. It's like they're saying, 'If you guys don't drop this lawsuit then ' It's ludicrous and wouldn't be a problem if each state was given its own quota."
Pausina vows to keep pushing.
"You can't just keep sitting around a table and talking about it," he said. "I wanted their skins on the wall. I wanted to do it, and we did it.
"We have proved that we can do it and do it better."