Final red snapper of the season ready to be snapped up

Only one weekend remains open in this summer’s eight-day red snapper recreational mini-season in federal South Atlantic waters. Anglers have from one minute after midnight Friday until midnight Saturday to bring home one fish per person of any size. After that, the season will be closed indefinitely.

The commercial harvest season opened July 14 with a daily trip limit of 75 pounds (gutted weight), and it could close any day now when the annual catch limit is projected to be met.

This summer marks the third (and longest) snapper mini-season in Atlantic waters from Florida through North Carolina since NOAA Fisheries closed all harvest in January 2010. The first two open weekends were July 11-14 and July 18-21.

Most of Florida’s red snapper harvest occurs from Fort Pierce north to Jacksonville. The fish are caught only incidentally in Southeast Florida. Gulf red snapper is managed separately.

Although not every boat has been limiting out, anglers have been pretty successful so far this summer, according to Jessica McCawley, marine fisheries administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“People are seeing more fish out there. I would say that’s an indication the stock is recovering,” McCawley said.

Many charter-boat operators and recreational anglers believe NOAA Fisheries never should have closed the harvest in the first place.

“The science they used to dictate what to do with red snapper was from the 1980s,” said captain Jeff Brown, operator of Cop Out Charters in Port Canaveral.

Added his son and first mate Matt Brown: “There’s too many red snapper. They’ve taken over the reef.”

On Saturday, the Browns guided the Hutto family of Orlando and a family friend to the catch of two red snapper in the 20-pound class in a half-day of fishing in 60 to 130 feet of water off Port Canaveral. Shane Hutto, 14, caught one and Christian Bellomo, 19, caught the other using dead sardines on the bottom. After that, the bite shut off.

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Back at Port Canaveral, biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute waited to check out the snapper catch.

“Our job is to find out how people are actually doing,” biologist Chris Bradshaw said. “We want to get high-quality data to give the best quality of information to the managers. We’re unbiased. We encourage people to work with us. We’re getting really good cooperation overall.”

Bradshaw and colleague Nate Goddard staked out a spot in the shade at Sunrise Marina. With the permission of anglers, Bradshaw would remove an otolith, or ear bone, from a snapper to determine its age. Otoliths have rings like trees that represent years of life. The biologists also measured length and girth and interviewed anglers to find out how long and how many people fished; how far from shore fish were caught; and how many were kept and how many released.

Since the scientists can’t be there around the clock, they put coolers beside the marina cleaning tables where anglers could leave carcasses after filleting their catch.

Bradshaw said he and colleagues are turning over their data as quickly as possible to NOAA Fisheries, which crunches the numbers and assesses the health of the stock to determine whether the fishery can be reopened.

That can’t happen too soon for Jeff Brown, who hosts a TV show on the World Fishing Network featuring law enforcement officers wounded in the line of duty.

Brown, a retired Orange County Sheriff’s deputy, said the closure has cost jobs in Florida.

“I had people that used to come down from Indiana every year just to fish for red snapper,” he said. “Now they don’t come anymore. They never should have shut us down in the first place.”

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