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Shortened red snapper season to hit Alabama's struggling recreational fishing industry hard

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. - A leader in Alabama's charter fishing business said Thursday that new federal limits on red snapper will hurt the state's struggling recreational industry.

The president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association, Tom Steber, said there's a chance some anglers won't even bother to fish after regulators cut the season for the prized fish from 11 to nine days.

A few days of bad weather at the start of hurricane season could wipe out the season, he said, and tourists from the Midwest and other regions who travel to Alabama's coast to fish may not be willing to take the risk.

"It's pretty insane," said Steber.

The season that starts June 1 will last only nine days this year based on a decision announced Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The shortened season doesn't affect commercial operations.

Charter captains contend the government is making decisions based on flawed statistics that indicate a reduced number of red snapper in Gulf waters. Steber said some studies have found plentiful snapper off Alabama's coast.

"The data is the problem," he said. "There are so many snapper down there you can't catch anything else, and the government says they're not there."

Andy Strelcheck, a fishery biologist with NOAA, said there are more snapper in Gulf waters than in the past because of a rebuilding program that began about eight years ago, but the population still hasn't rebounded sufficiently to lift restrictions under a management plan set to expire in 2032.

"It's fisherman's observations vs. the restrictions that are being placed upon them," said Strelcheck.

NOAA said the shorter season was needed because the state of Louisiana opened state waters year-round after the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, an arm of NOAA, in April reduced the amount of snapper that can be caught.

The management council acted after a federal judge ruled that regulators had mismanaged the recreational catch for years. Commercial boats have stayed within their quota, while recreational anglers have gone over quota for years.

The head of Louisiana's fisheries agency, Randy Pausina, said the shortened season will hurt Alabama particularly because its marine fishing industry is built around large boats that go after the red snapper, a favourite for tourists.

"It's a big deal for Alabama," said Pausina.

The state has a charter fleet of about 80 boats, Steber says, and angling has a ripple effect because tourists who come to the coast also spend money for restaurants, lodging and retail purchases. Additionally, thousands of recreational boat owners who fish are affected by the rules.

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