BY JANET McCONNAUGHEY, The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — One of the most popular fish in the Gulf of Mexico has rebounded enough to allow a second season this year for red snapper, scientists say.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meets in New Orleans on Wednesday to consider increased fishing quotas and a second 2013 season for red snapper, one of the region's most popular game and eating fish.
"This is a real pivotal moment in fisheries management. We've got a population that's rebuilding in impressive fashion," said Libby Featherston, deputy director of fish conservation for the environmental nonprofit Ocean Conservancy.
Options on the agenda include leaving the quota and the federal season that ended June 28 untouched. But nobody expects that. After all, the council has a regularly scheduled meeting next month in San Antonio; Wednesday's was scheduled to leave time for steps necessary before a season could begin in September or October.
"I think everyone's in favor of increasing the quota and allowing the stock to rebuild," Featherston said.
She said the only other time she could remember the council setting a supplemental season was in 2010, when the BP PLC oil spill kept much of the Gulf of Mexico closed to fishing through the June federal season. Anglers didn't catch their quota — always 49 percent of the total — so the council held an emergency meeting and reopened the recreational fishery for a series of weekends.
Scientists assess the stock every few years. The latest assessment became final in May, too late to use it to set this year's quota of 8.46 million pounds. But it indicates that the total could be set higher.
The council will consider whether to let this year's current quota stand or increase it to 10 million, 11 million, 11.5 million or 12.1 million pounds.
A 12.1-million-pound quota would require scaling back quotas for subsequent years, said Emily Muehlstein, the council's outreach specialist.
Scientists believe the lower quotas would stand for several years, she said, and the council wants to keep the quota stable through 2015.
"I would absolutely go for that. You don't want to set expectations up and then crank it down," said Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina, head of fisheries for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. He said he wants the highest sustainable quota.
Each commercial fishing boat is assigned its own quota. Those boats don't have a set season but must stop taking red snapper when their quotas are met. Recreational anglers, including chartered fishing boats, have daily catch limits and set seasons in federal and state waters.
If the council increases this year's quota, it must decide whether a supplemental recreational season should begin in September or October, for how many days, and whether those should be consecutive or weekends-only.
Anglers, guides and commercial boat captains have posted a variety of suggestions at the council's website; additional comments there will be accepted until noon Wednesday.
"I think the Council should start a tagging system for snapper," wrote Richard Meyers of Midlothian, Texas. "It ends all seasons and allows people to fish good weather, their vacation time, and allows some kind of accounting system for snapper."
Many recreational anglers want a weekend-only season, saying weather and the work week left them able to fish only a few days out of the 28-day federal season in June. Mathew Dillahunty of St. Petersburg, Fla., who works weekends, disagreed.
Michael Short, a charter captain from Galveston, Texas, wants charter boats separated from anglers and given "a certain number of days to catch red snapper. Allow us to use those whenever we see fit," he wrote.
Richard Arguelles of Biloxi, Miss., argued for September rather than October. "I have caught many Red Snapper with eggs in October so the season should not be open any later than September," he wrote.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.