The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has voted to request an emergency rule to allow recreational and commercial fishermen the opportunity to harvest a limited number of red snapper. If approved quickly by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, the season could open later this year, possibly as soon as early fall.

The red snapper fishery has been closed in the South Atlantic since Jan. 4, 2010 to end overfishing and rebuild the stock as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, but after reviewing the estimates of dead discards from the 2010-2011 closed season, the SAFMC determined that some red snapper could be harvested this year without slowing the rebuilding of the stock.  

The estimates, from NOAA Fisheries Service, showed that fewer red snapper were being removed from the population as dead discards than were allowed under the current rebuilding plan, and there are enough fish to allow a limited harvest. 

If the emergency rule is approved, recreational fishermen will be allowed to harvest almost 10,000 fish during limited, 3-day weekend seasons. The limit during these seasons would be a single fish per person per day, with no size minimum. Commercial fishermen will be allowed 3,668 fish or 20,818 pounds (gutted weight). The commercial fishery will be limited to 50 pounds per trip and the season will open in seven day blocks until the quota is filled  

"The Secretary will try to make a decision on the request within 60 days," said Roy Crabtree, Southeast Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Service. "Depending on publication of the final rule, fishing for red snapper could likely occur sometime in September."  

The Council is pleased to have updated data that allows for a limited harvest of red snapper as the stock continues to rebuild," said SAFMC Chairman David Cupka of Charleston. "While the opening for both the recreational and commercial fisheries may be brief, this will provide an opportunity to collect fishery-dependent data from the fish that are harvested. Fishermen … have stated their willingness to participate in data collection efforts." 

Many fishermen are thrilled with the possibility of being able to keep red snapper again. They have been catching (and releasing) them in good numbers during the moratorium.   

"I'm in favor of allowing us to keep some red snapper," said Bobby Freeman, who runs the charterboat Sunrise out of Atlantic Beach, N.C. "Even though I try to go places where we won't see them, my charters have caught 10 to 12 red snapper in the past four days." 

Freeman doesn't think the announcement of a limited season will bring a big boost for charter bookings, but he thinks his clients will be happy to keep the fish. The biggest change, he said, is that during the open weekend seasons, he'll be able to fish where red snapper are more plentiful so his fishermen can keep one they can keep. 

The emergency rule for red snapper is a temporary measure while the SAFMC develops an amendment to the Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan that will control the red snapper catch using tags. The distribution of the tags will be administered by NOAA Fisheries Service and be done by a lottery. SAFMC will discuss options for the tag program during its September meeting in Charleston.