The charter boat community has been a significant component of recreational fishery in the Gulf of Mexico for many decades.
In Alabama it started with a few vessels fishing within in sight of shore and evolved to a fleet working miles offshore from Texas to Tampa. Red snapper are and have been a species of primary interest to this sector of the fishery. That’s not to say Grays, Vermilions, Yellowtails, Lanes, triggerfish, grouper and amberjacks aren’t important.
Recreational saltwater fishing started to come into its own in the 1950s around the nation and has continued to grow with the passage of time.
In the 1970’s a radio navigation system called Loran “A” was made available to fishermen. Anglers were no longer limited to line-of-sight triangulation to fixed shore positions. This enabled them to return to the exact same successful fishing spot time after time. Loran “A” evolved into Loran “C” which offered increased precision and accuracy. Finally the global positioning system, which utilizes satellites, came along and is accurate to within five feet, time after time.
These electronic developments and others greatly accelerated the expansion of charter fishing right on into the 1990’s.
Another factor that aided the development of charter boat fishing was the recognition that bottom structure attracted and held fish. Early in the history of the fishery anglers knew that they’d find red snapper around exposed rock outcroppings and sunken vessels. Rather that run many miles out into the Gulf to try and find one of these sites they began making their own bottom structure near shore. Charter boat captains would take old car bodies or most anything else that would stay in one place on the bottom out into the Gulf during the off season and covertly sink it. They were sunk covertly because at that time it was against the law. This later evolved into a legally approved system for individuals to create artificial reefs in approved areas of the Gulf off Alabama.
The ‘Rigs to Reefs’ program was another way to make more structure in the Gulf. Old oil rig platforms were floated over to approved areas from Louisiana or Mississippi and sunk.
The old way of thinking about the ocean was to view it as an endless sea of fish and this was soon put to rest as landings of red snapper and other species began to decline from over fishing.
In an effort to manage the fisheries of the United States on a sustainable basis, the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, (renamed the. Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act when amended on October 11, 1996) established a U.S. exclusive economic zone that ranges between three and 200 miles offshore and created eight regional fishery councils to manage the living marine resources within that area. This Act was passed principally to address heavy foreign fishing, promote the development of a domestic fishing fleet and link the fishing community more directly to the management process.
Members of the Gulf of’ Mexico Fisheries Management Council include the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), United States’ Fish and Wildlife Service, all the Gulf States, commercial and recreational interests. The council convenes scientific panels composed of qualified state, federal and academic personnel to look at the economic, social and biological status of all species under its management.
Because Alabama has the largest artificial reef zone in the U.S. off its shores (1200 square miles) which supports a large charter boat fleet (154 resident licenses in 2009), a bone of contention from the recreational sector has been that it should be managed separately. Reasons to support this effort include the contention that artificial reefs not only attract red snapper but they also help to produce more fish by creating hard bottom where none existed before.
Another point that all sectors of the fishery seem to have a problem with in the red snapper management plan is that the recovery goal is set too high and that it should be lowered allowing for increased quotas, length limits and numbers sooner than planned.
In 2007 the Gulf Council reduced the number of red snapper a recreational angler is allowed to catch on each fishing trip from four to two.
Given the seasonal availability associated with other species caught by the charter boats and their regulations, it’s not surprising that some captains around the Gulf have started to turning to other ways of making a living on the water.
Dolphin cruises have become popular with tourists and keep the boats earning. There’re even some shrimping / ecological cruises where paying passengers are taken out shrimping in the bays and bayous.
The ecology of the area is explained with identification of birds, mammals and other fauna provided. Animals caught in the trawls are identified and the passengers get to keep the shrimp, crabs and whatever comes up that the law allows.
With the ongoing increase in fuel costs, slowdown in the economy, boat maintenance and further regulations the next few years will be challenging for the charter boat fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.
Think Global – Act Local!