PORT CANAVERAL -- Anglers up and down Florida’s east coast got to catch and keep red snapper for the first time in more than two years last weekend and they get another shot this weekend.
Co-captains Larry and Danny Ochab of the charterboat Fish Trap escorted their party to a catch of five red snapper Sunday off Port Canaveral. The largest was a 15-pounder caught by Bill Rouse of Merritt Island who used a dead sardine for bait in waters about 70 feet deep.
That batch of red snapper was among the first to be harvested legally anywhere in the South Atlantic since the recreational and commercial harvests were closed by NOAA Fisheries to protect the species from overfishing in January 2010. Recently, fisheries scientists released new findings projecting that red snapper populations would continue to improve — even with some allowable catch. So NOAA, acting on the recommendation of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, opened a commercial and recreational mini-season this month. Most fishing for red snapper in Florida’s Atlantic waters takes place between Stuart and Jacksonville; the species is caught incidentally off South Florida. Gulf red snapper are managed separately.
The South Atlantic recreational fishery opened for three days last weekend, and will re-open Friday through Sunday for anglers to take one snapper per person per day with no size limit. The commercial fishery opened Sept. 17-23 with a daily trip limit of 50 pounds, gutted weight, and no size limit. Following this weekend’s mini-season, both fisheries will be closed indefinitely.
Recreational, charter and headboat fishers were happy for the unexpected harvest, but some said the fishery never should have closed in the first place.
“I feel bad they closed snapper down because it’s so prevalent out here,” captain Larry Ochab said as he cleaned fish at his dock at Port Canaveral on Sunday. “But it is nice of them to open it up and give us the opportunity to catch the fish so they can do the research that may enable us to catch these beautiful fish again. We really want to take care of what we love.” (If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Ochab played in 24 games as a quarterback for the Florida Gators from 1978-80.)
Grumbled Jeff Sevor, owner of the Port Canaveral charterboat Rendezvous: “I think it’s a joke, an embarrassment, a slap in the face, poorly executed with no input from the anglers. Throwing-us-a-bone thing.”
Catch reports up and down Florida’s east coast from last weekend were mixed. Some boats limited out early and had to release red snapper; others blanked.
“Something out there is not jiving,” said Orlando angler Raj Karamsadkar, who fished on the Sebastian charterboat Rogue Wave with four friends Sunday, yielding exactly one small red amidst several amberjack and other fish. “I can’t remember one trip we did where we didn’t catch at least five. We were catching them and having to throw them back. We have had a hard time getting any [baits] down to the bottom trying to catch grouper, and then when you want to catch them [snapper], you can’t.”
Karamsadkar said several of his friends planned to try again this weekend.
In contrast, the 65-foot party boat Sea Spirit out of Ponce Inlet reported limiting out two out of three days last weekend.
“Friday was a very slow day for us. Sea conditions were not very favorable,” Sea Spirit co-owner captain Mike Mulholland said. “On Saturday, we had 45 people on the boat and everyone caught a red snapper. We probably threw back 150 fish on Saturday. On Sunday, we had 27 anglers on the boat and we did limit out and probably threw back 50-60 fish. The biggest one caught [Sunday] was 14 pounds; on Saturday, it was 21½ pounds.”
NOAA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are encouraging anglers to save their red snapper carcasses after filleting them to help researchers age the fish. That information will be used in the next stock assessment slated for 2014. Numerous marinas and boat ramps serve as drop-off locations.
Becky Smith, marketing director for Inlet Harbor Marina, worked with the King of the Inlet Snapper Palooza to provide 125 red snapper carcasses to FWC researchers last Saturday. A fleet of 25 boats with up to eight anglers per boat competed in the one-day tournament. Smith said the largest red snapper caught was about 27 pounds. The tournament will run again this weekend.
“This is a way to collect data and to reel fishermen in,” Smith said.
She urged all recreational red snapper anglers to turn over the carcasses for research.
“If we don’t get the data, they can close it down for as long as they want,” she said.