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Gulf states fight back as feds seek to reel in recreational fishing season

RedsnappersReuters.jpg

Red snappers lay on ice for sale at JMS Seafood, a fish wholesaler in the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx section of New York City June 21, 2010. Many dealers at the market, the largest wholesale fish market in the U.S., have seen a drop in sales, especially in oysters which alone has caused them a loss of $10,000 per week in income, since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, JMS said. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES - Tags: ANIMALS ENVIRONMENT BUSINESS SOCIETY) - RTR2FHZH

Gulf Coast charter captains say the feds are ruining their businesses by needlessly cutting their fishing season in response to complaints from commercial fishermen, and now their state lawmakers are stepping up to tackle the issue. 

This year's federal fishing season for red snapper was initially set at 40 days long, but then regulators slashed it to just 9 days. Recreational fishing captains say the federal policy is destroying their business for the year and has forced them to cancel hundreds of already-scheduled trips with customers who want to fish.

"I already had the boats sold out for the season and then I had to cancel those trips because I couldn't provide the service," Capt. Mark Hubbard, a recreational fishing captain out of Madeira Beach, Fla., told FoxNews.com. 

Hubbard and other fishermen point out that the number of red snapper this year is the highest in decades, and say the regulation is purely bureaucratic and not really about protecting fish. The recreational fishing industry employs an estimated 150,000 people along the Gulf and pumps some $7 billion into the local economies, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. In 2012, more than 3.1 million recreational anglers took 23 million fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico region.

"I already had the boats sold out for the season and then I had to cancel those trips because I couldn't provide the service," Capt. Mark Hubbard, a recreational fishing captain out of Madeira Beach

- Mark Hubbard, recreational fishing captain

Those figures could fall dramatically, thanks to a federal policy that Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., called “reckless” and one that “severely hurts our fishermen and the Gulf economy… the old system governing recreational fishing for red snapper is unquestionably broken.”

Now, the gulf states are counteracting federal regulations by setting longer fishing seasons in their own state-controlled waters that extend 3 miles off the coast. Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas all have set longer seasons, and last week Mississippi also did.

Some state and federal laws actually conflict, as Mississippi claims control over water going out 9 miles from the shore rather than the 3 miles recognized by the federal government. 

Federal regulators told FoxNews.com that they slashed the fishing season because recreational fishermen had routinely fished more than their allowed quota of fish, according to the agency's estimates. Additionally, commercial fishermen complained about that, since they compete to catch the same fish, and sued in court to force the agency to crack down. The commercial fishermen won the lawsuit.

“The judge said we had to take more effective action,” Roy Crabtree, the administrator of NOAA’s Southeast Region National Marine Fisheries, told FoxNews.com.

Crabtree also noted that red snapper are doing very well and are now relatively plentiful despite being fished nearly to depletion in the 1990s.

“We have made remarkable progress in rebuilding the stock,” Crabtree said. “We have the healthiest population in 30 years.”

Given that, recreational fishermen say there’s no good reason to drastically limit their fishing season at the last minute.

“This agency is completely incompetent to manage fisheries,” said recreational fishing captain Bob Zales, who operates in the Florida panhandle.

Zales is happy with the recent state actions and said he made out well this year by fishing entirely in state waters instead of federal waters. But not all fishermen can do that – Hubbard says that in his part of Florida, near Tampa, almost all of the red snapper are in federal waters and so the regulations have hit him hard.

Environmental groups support the restricted fishing window.

“For many years, there were too many fish being caught -- for five of the past six years, the recreational red snapper quota has been exceeded, at times by almost 100 percent.  We need to fully rebuild red snapper populations, in order to have greater fishing opportunities,” Ellen Bolen, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Fish Conservation Program, told FoxNews.com.

She added that the fish are currently relatively young and need to be protected until they are old enough to reproduce.

“Right now we have young snapper, but need a mix of the old and young. Just like a town.  Right now we have a town full of teenagers. In order to have a functioning town, we need a healthy mix of adults, teenagers and babies,” she said.

Fishermen say they support policies that will lead to more fish, but say there is a healthy balance that regulators fail to strike.

“I want a healthy fishery as much as anyone. My business depends on that,” Hubbard said.

Fishermen question the accuracy of the government estimates that show fishing over the quota.

“But let’s assume it’s real -- tell me what damage it did to the fishery? We have the highest mass of fish we’ve ever seen,” Zales said, adding that some people simply don’t like the idea of recreational fishing and want to stop it.

“Environmental organizations, who have infiltrated our federal government -- they are hell-bent on reducing the fleet of fisherman,” Zales said.

George Russell contributed to this article.

Maxim Lott can be reached on twitter at @maximlott or at maxim.lott@foxnews.com