ORANGE BEACH, Ala. – The Gulf Coast's tourism industry is betting on red snapper to survive the winter.
In an unusual move, the federal government is allowing fall fishing of the popular schooling snapper, a favorite for anglers who missed nearly an entire summer of saltwater fishing because of the BP oil spill.
Enthusiasts typically flock to the Gulf to catch red snapper during the summer, and the fish is off limits later in the year. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday it was allowing snapper fishing over eight three-day weekends beginning Oct. 1.
In coastal areas hardest-hit by the oil, the special season is more about tourism dollars than seafood. Tackle shops, restaurants, hotels and stores that suffered steep declines in revenue because of the Gulf of Mexico gusher are hoping for a big boost headed into what is historically the slowest season of the year.
"It's not going to save the summer, but it's certainly going to help put cash in the drawers and get people through the winter," said Mike Foster, a spokesman for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Danny Pitalo's small tackle shop in Biloxi, Miss., depends heavily on coastal visitors for business, and he said the fall snapper season could help keep him going.
"It will be a big help for us," said Pitalo, whose shop is still operating out of a trailer because of damage from Hurricane Katrina five years ago. "Our tackle business is gone, our tournaments are gone. The charter season is pretty much gone."
Red snapper seasons in the Gulf are based on weight quotas. This year's limit was about 6.9 million pounds, with commercial boats allowed to catch 51 percent and recreational boats allowed to harvest the rest.
The regular season opened June 1, and plenty of snapper were caught off the coasts of Florida and Texas before it ended in late July. But fishery experts estimate only one-third of the quota set aside for recreational anglers was harvested since so much of the Gulf was closed because of the oil spill.
Peter Hood, a federal fishery biologist, said estimates show about two-thirds of the recreational limit is still waiting to be caught. That means an estimated 2.2 million pounds of red snapper are available this fall in areas with pent-up demand like Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Repeated testing hasn't shown any spill-related contamination in fish taken from areas that have been reopened for angling, Hood said, and experts don't expect any problems with red snapper.
Johnny Greene, a charter captain based at Orange Beach Marina on the Alabama coast, said some boat operators aren't interested in the fall snapper season because they made so much money off a BP program that paid crews thousands of dollars each week to scout for oil in Gulf waters.
"(And) some people are so far behind they say there's nothing that can help them," he said. "Personally, I think it's a really good thing."
Tourist revenues were down as much as 50 percent on the Alabama coast because of the oil spill, and that contributed to a 10 percent decline in tourism statewide, said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department.
The state spent about $300,000 on promotions for the beach before Labor Day, and it has a TV commercial geared toward fishing that will likely air this fall in conjunction with the red snapper season, he said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said the red snapper season was a commonsense step toward bringing business back to charter captains.
Anglers are allowed to catch a maximum of two red snapper a day with a minimum length of 16 inches on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays until Nov. 22, when the season closes.