With Gulf fish threatened by oil spill, NOAA may extend catch season

The Gulf of Mexico accounts for 73 percent of the nation’s shrimp catch and produces 67 percent of the nation’s oysters.

In 2008, the latest figures available, Gulf commercial fishermen brought in $659 million worth of finfish and shellfish.

Recreational fishermen took 24 million fishing trips in the Gulf region in 2008.

Fishing trip and equipment expenditures were $12.5 billion in the Gulf in 2008.

__ Source: NOAA

— When the oil spill closed his home fishing grounds off Pensacola, Donny Waters decided he couldn’t just sit around.

So he readied his 40-foot commercial fishing boat, Hustler, and headed into the Gulf of Mexico in search of oil-free waters to catch as much red snapper as he could _ while he still can.

“I guess it’s like harvesting a crop right ahead of the locusts,” Waters said.

In this case, the plague isn’t a swarm from above but a gusher from below.

At least 210,000 gallons of oil a day has been spewing from the bottom of the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank April 22, killing 11 people.

While the spill would be bad news anytime, its timing couldn’t be worse, just as prized red snapper stocks are showing signs of rebounding after decades of overfishing and just weeks before the June 1 start of the recreational red snapper season.

Federal fishing regulators have closed parts of the Gulf to fishing but NOAA will consider extending the fishing season for some catches, agency spokeswoman Kim Amendola said.

Charter boat captains wait all year for red snapper season to bring tourists to the docks, but this year, Capt. Paul Redman is worried the tourists won’t show up.

“June 1 is not that far away and the phone has stopped ringing,” said Redman, who runs the charter boat Snapper Trapper from Pensacola Beach.

The oil is still gushing, contributing to a perfect ecological storm in the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of which could be felt for years, fisheries scientists told a Senate panel this week.

Valuable reef fish species, like snapper and grouper, spawn in spring and early summer in the waters that have been turned into an oil slick.

The Gulf is one of only two spawning spots in the world for Atlantic bluefin tuna, a sushi menu favorite that has been severely overfished.

Depending on the species, fish release eggs that then are fertilized and float at or near the surface for 20 to 40 hours before they hatch. The newly hatched fish live as larvae at or near the surface for another 20 to 50 days.

Oil can rupture gills and degrade the skin of fish larvae and rupture the membranes of microscopic plankton that fish rely on for food, according to testimony to the panel.

What’s worse, scientists can’t say for sure how the chemical dispersants being sprayed on the slick will affect marine life.

The dispersants break the slick into tinier droplets that degrade more easily but those droplets can be more easily taken up by fish, Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council executive director Steve Bortone told the panel.

So far, more than 475,000 gallons of dispersant have been used to try to reduce the amount of oil that would reach fragile marshes and beaches.

After their larval stage, fish become bottom dwellers in sea grass beds, coral reefs and other hard bottoms.

The fewer fish that survive the larval stage, the fewer adult fish swimming around to catch for years later.

Federal fishing regulators have closed parts of the Gulf to fishing but NOAA will consider extending the fishing season for some catches, agency spokeswoman Kim Amendola said.

Scientists only now are seeing the effects of a deadly red tide that afflicted the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 and reduced that year’s crop of baby fish, Bortone told the Senate panel.

“This indicates to me that a major event like this in the Gulf of Mexico is going to have long-term effects on our fisheries,” Bortone said.

He said it is reasonable to assume that more restrictive fishing rules may have to be put in place to help fish stocks recover from the oil spill.

The spill is likely to set back progress of plans to rebuild fish stocks so they no longer are overfished, he said.

“We were on our way to achieving this goal,” Bortone told the Senate panel _ inserting the past tense instead of using the present tense provided in a copy of his prepared remarks.

Decades of overfishing had left red snapper populations at 2 percent of their historic levels.

Red snapper with tag

FWC photo by Chris Bradshaw

Red snapper with tag

A rebuilding plan cut fishermen’s total annual allowable catch almost in half from 9 million pounds to 5 million pounds to give red snapper a chance to catch up.

This year, in a signal that the plan was working, NOAA proposed to increase that quota to almost 7 million pounds.

“We made a lot of sacrifices to get the fishery back to where it is _ and now this,” said Waters, the Pensacola commercial fisherman.

At least, he said, a new catch-share program has replaced old rules that allowed commercial fisherman to only fish for the first 10 days of each month for their prized catch.

The new program assigned an individual quota to each commercial fisherman who qualified and allowed them to fish whenever they wanted.

That flexibility is giving Waters a chance to put money in the bank now in case, as he fears, a federal fishing closure shuts him down completely later.

Fishermen must stay out of an area that now covers more than 17,000 square miles from Pensacola to west of the Mississippi River and is growing every day. The closed area has grown by 6,000 square miles since last week.

Waters worries that the closure will crowd too many boats into waters off Texas, a prospect he sees as potentially damaging to fish stocks there.

“It’s like going to pick your neighbors’ blackberries,” Waters said.

For recreational fishermen, including charter boat captains, the red snapper season starts June 1 and closes July 23.

Amendola, with NOAA, said the agency would consider extending fishing seasons for species like red snapper, amberjack and grouper to make up for the emergency closure.

That decision would take into account the health of the stocks and the economic toll the closure is taking on Gulf fishers, she said.

“I think we have to wait and see where this oil goes,” Amendola said.

“The Gulf of Mexico is our Disney World," charter boat Capt. Paul Redman said.

Redman, the charter boat captain in Pensacola, doesn’t like what he’s seeing.

The end of May brings steady winds out of the west to his part of the Gulf, pushing the oil slick and the fishing closure further into his fishing territory, Redman said.

At some point, he will have to take his clients too far for their catch to make it economically feasible to keep running his business, he said.

Shutting down fishing in the Gulf of Mexico off north Florida is like turning off the tourism on which the region’s economy relies, he said.

“The Gulf of Mexico is our Disney World,” he said.

Redman said his chances of getting hired to skim oil off the Gulf or place booms is “not very clear.” He’s also not sure that any damage claim paid by BP will cover his bills.

“At this point, I don’t have a clue,” Redman said.

Waters, the commercial fisherman, said he doesn’t want a dime from BP.

“I want BP to take care of the fish,” he said. “If they take care of the fish, they’ll take care of the fishermen.”

__ Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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