A portion of the Gulf of Mexico has been reopened to all fishing, and although it’s further southeast than most central Gulf fishermen usually cast their nets or lines, at least one official sees it as a positive first step toward reopening all federal waters.
The reopening of more than 26,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico to all fishing Thursday won’t immediately affect central Gulf Coast fishermen because the area is far southeast of their traditional offshore fishing grounds.
But Dr. Roy Crabtree, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Southeast office, said the partial reopening of federal waters is a positive first step in reopening all waters to fishing.
“I think we’re all working toward the complete reopening of all federal waters as quickly as our protocols can be met and with the concurrence of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration),” he said.
Crabtree said it is still too early to speculate when all federal waters would be opened because the Deepwater Horizon well has not been permanently killed, but he added the plan is to test samples farthest from the wellhead first and work back toward it.
Tests are being done on samples collected from Panama City to Destin, Fla., and sampling is now under way off Pensacola, he said. Fisheries service vessels are on standby in Alabama and Mississippi and they’ll head out as soon as Tropical Storm Bonnie — forecast to enter the Gulf over the weekend — has passed.
Crabtree wants to avoid the fragmentation of federal Gulf waters into small closed and open areas, preferring to see a large section of connected water opened.
“I don’t want to do this where someone would have to run across closed federal water to get to open water,” he said.
Federal guidelines agreed upon by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the FDA and Gulf Coast states mandate an area has to be free of visible signs of oil for at least a week and there must be no imminent threat of it being re-oiled before sampling begins.
Samples must pass sensory smell and taste tests and then chemical analysis before the area can be considered for reopening.
Red snapper closing; second season possible
Despite nearly no participation among central Gulf Coast states, Crabtree said the red snapper season will close as scheduled at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
But he said a second season is possible.
“We’ll look at the June catch estimates and figure out how many pounds of the quota are left to be caught and what that translates into the number of days we can fish to reach the available quota and go from there,” Crabtree said. “We know that the effort all along the northern Gulf was virtually zero.”
Catch data should be presented to the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council at its August meeting in Pensacola. The council could then decide when to schedule a second season to allow commercial and recreational anglers to catch the remainder of the 6.9-million-pound Gulfwide quota, Crabtree said.
Commercial fishermen get 51 percent of the quota.
“In large part, that decision is dependent on the size of the closed area and ensures everyone gets a chance,” Crabtree said. “That’s why our focus is to see if we can get enough water open to have a second season.
“We know it would be a big boost to the charter captains if they were able to get a couple of weeks of bookings.”