- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Some Florida fishing guides say they’re being crowded out of their preferred waters by a fish they can’t keep.

Many commercial and recreational fishermen in northeast Florida and throughout the south Atlantic say they’re seeing a banner year for red snapper - adding to their skepticism of data supporting federal regulations for the fish.

“There are places I don’t even fish anymore,” said Capt. Robert Johnson, a long-time fishing guide in St. Augustine who has been involved in the fishery management process for 10 years. “Why go there? You won’t catch anything but red snapper.”

The government says the regulations stem from decades of overfishing that devastated the red snapper population. A study set for release next year is expected to show that red snapper are recovering, which may lead to more opportunities to keep them.

“I think the evidence is quite clear: We’re seeing more fish,” said Erik Williams, a biologist and chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sustainable Fisheries branch. “What I’ve seen, a lot of the data is showing upward trends.”

Critics say the regulations are misguided and hurt Florida’s recreational saltwater fishing industry.

The strict regulations took effect in 2010 and closed all red snapper harvests in federal waters off the South Atlantic coast. Limited harvests were allowed for the last three years, but this year the government determined that too many fish were killed in 2014 to support a harvest this summer.

Anglers can still catch and release red snapper, but many fishermen argue they should be allowed to keep a few.

Advocates for the management plan say it’s backed by the best available science, and they say that anecdotal evidence can lead to false conclusions about the overall health of the fish.

They say Jacksonville-area anglers see strong numbers of red snapper because northeast Florida’s coast is the center of its habitat range and will hold more fish compared to its southern and northern reaches.

Trip Aukman, director of advocacy for the Coastal Conservation Association Florida, tells The Florida Times-Union (http://bit.ly/1Pg7qXZ) that the organization supports the current management plan and believes the species still struggles, especially in southern Florida.

“Their stock is doing horrible,” Aukman said. “I see the federal government trying to help. They’re looking into a way to fix this problem and to not overfish this fishery.”

Johnson said the biggest problem with the management plan is the method used to estimate how many snapper recreational anglers catch.

Commercial fishermen follow strict reporting requirements that give biologists an accurate count of how many fish they catch and kill. Those rules don’t exist for recreational anglers, leaving government scientists to rely on surveys and estimates to determine how many fish they catch.

“The bottom line is, it’s not very good. It falls under that category of best-available science. It’s better than nothing. It’s still a very false system,” Johnson said. “How do you address recreational landings? I’ve been deeply involved with this for 10 years. I’ve racked my brain about it.”

NOAA Fisheries will hold a workshop in November to decide how it will calculate its assessment of the red snapper population. In March, it will hold a workshop to examine the results and conduct an independent review of the study, which will be submitted to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council in April and used to determine whether to open a red snapper season in 2016.

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Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com

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