Fishermen tangle lines in U.S. battle over popular red snapper

July 19 Sat Jul 19, 2014 9:00am EDT

July 19 (Reuters) - Weekend sportfisherman Charlie Caplinger says he can hardly drop a line in the Gulf of Mexico without reeling in a red snapper.

"It breaks my heart," Caplinger said.

That's because Caplinger, an investment bank salesman who launches from his condo's boat dock in Slidell, Louisiana, is required by U.S. law to toss the tasty, scarlet-colored snapper back into the water.

There is a federal catch quota for red snapper, which was designated as an over-fished species in 1988, back when some Gulf fishermen say they rarely saw one.

Today, the stock is rebounding, according to scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service. But they say the fish population remains disproportionately young and in need of continued protection to achieve the proper age mix to sustain itself.

Because recreational fishermen have overshot their collective catch quota by millions of pounds since 2008, the federal fishing season has been drastically shortened, down to only nine days in June this year.

The resultant backlash has pit recreational anglers against commercial fishermen, and U.S. states against the federal government.

Of the disputes that occasionally arise in fisheries around the country, Matt Smelser of the Environmental Defense Fund said, "this is the big one."

The resurgence of red snapper is credited in large part to the compliance with the law by other groups that fish the Gulf. Shrimpers have taken steps to reduce the number of young red snappers that get caught in their nets.

And commercial red snapper fishermen, who supply restaurants and retail seafood markets, created an effective monitoring system that keeps them from exceeding their collective commercial catch quota. Quotas change yearly, but in 2014 reached more than 5 million pounds each for the commercial and recreational sectors, which split the total quota nearly in half.

"It has sparked a recovery in the snapper stock that I think people, even those following it closely, didn't expect to happen as fast," Smelser said.

Commercial fishermen, worried that overfishing by private anglers threatens their livelihood, took the fight to the U.S. District Court in Washington to force the government to clamp down on recreational fishermen.

"It's like having a bank account and someone is taking a lot of money out that's not theirs," said Keith Guindon of Galveston, Texas, whose family has fished commercially for 50 years.

The federal court ruled in favor of the commercial fishermen in March, finding that the fisheries service violated the law by not doing enough to stop the overfishing.

The window for recreational anglers could be even smaller next year. "You're about to have a situation where private anglers will not be allowed in federal waters in the next years," predicted Ted Venker of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), which looks after the interests of sportfishermen.

Venker said the CCA opposes new controls, such as requiring private fishermen to have a tag for each caught fish, as "unworkable."

In August, a fisheries service advisory council will hold hearings to find a solution.

John Schmidt, a fisherman from Florida who has worked both sides of the divide, said enforcement of quotas ensures consumers have access to the popular fish, whether sportfishermen or seafood lovers who don't own deep water boats.

"The public now gets to eat fresh fish," Schmidt said, "and they get the confidence that they were caught in a sustainable manner that doesn't overfish the resource." (Reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando; Editing by David Adams and Paul Simao)

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