mississippi gulf coast — It’s the time of year when both state residents and visitors are taking to the water hook, line and sinker. The warmer weather makes fish more active. And where there are fish, saltwater recreational fishermen aren’t far behind.
In 1997 58,000 state residents purchased the $4 saltwater fishing license. Two thousand non-residents purchased a $28-yearly license, and another 8,452 purchased $8 licenses good for three days.
All that activity translates into a big economic impact. Mississippi saltwater fishing is estimated to result in $155 million per year in direct sales of bait, tackle, boats, gasoline, food and lodging. Overall economic impact is estimated at $293 million.
Tom Becker, who is captain of the charter fishing boat The Skipper and secretarytreasurer of the Mississippi Charter Boat Captains Association, said the latest figures from the American Sportfishing Institute show that the economic impact of recreational fishing in the Gulf of Mexico totalled $7 billion per year.
“That’s a lot of money,” said Becker. “I don’t think people are really aware of the economic impact. The charter boat captains were talking last night about getting the word out. We need something to wake people up because the laws they keep putting on us could be devastating to the whole industry.”
Charter fishing representatives met recently in Washington regarding the issue of red snapper harvesting limits. Fisheries officials have a goal of a sustainable yield of red snapper by the year 2009. Red snapper is one of the most popular fish targeted by recreational fishermen, and is also a species important to commercial fishermen.
Becker said efforts are being made to conserve red snapper stocks by requiring that shrimpers use devices which allow the red snapper to escape shrimp trawls, and by restricting recreational and commercial harvesting.
“If it doesn’t work, come September 1 the red snapper industry in the Gulf will be closed for the year,” Becker said. “On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that is when we start snapper fishing. It is a very big part of the sportfishing industry. People love to catch their snapper and take them home. The make great table fare. You know what you pay for red snapper filets in restaurant. The current daily limit for red snapper is five per person. If they reduce it any further, people aren’t going to want to go out to catch fish.”
A day after Becker made that comment, the limit was reduced to four red snapper daily.
Early in the season the Coast’s estimated 80 charter boats fish for species like speckled trout, red fish and other migratory species. When water temperatures drop, the fish leave except for the red snapper.
“When they leave, we have nothing to fish for except the snapper,” Becker said. “The season closed earlier than expected last year. It was closed from Thanksgiving Day to end of year. We lost close to $300,000 just right here in Biloxi due to trips for snapper fishing that were cancelled. We were told earlier in year there was no expected closure. Then they closed it in the middle of November due to new data that said we had exceeded our quota for the recreational fishing. We have got to protect ourselves before they close this thing. If we don’t, we’re going to be out of business early this year.”
Charter boat fishing captains also aren’t happy with the decision by the National Park Service to charge $200 for a two-year license to fish around the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
“We will be talking to our senator about that,” Becker said. “Why are they picking on us? Why doesn’t the weekend warrior or private sector also have to pay a license to fish around there?”
Becker said that charter fishing boats shouldn’t be considered commercial, but instead a recreational boat for hire.
Although closing the red snapper season too soon is a concern, recreational fishermen are also concerned about properly managing the resource for seasons to come.
“I sure am concerned about resource depletion,” said Becker, who has worked on government stock enhancement plans for the Gulf of Mexico. “We need to determine how to enhance stocks of any fish deemed in stress before it becomes a major issue.”
Recreational fishermen are also trying to police themselves as far as numbers of fish caught. Becker said years ago the charter boat captains implemented a rule of one red fish per customer although the state limit is three red fish. Red fish aren’t as plentiful as in the past, and fishing limits have been reduced.
Becker said the recreational fishermen are also more likely to do catch and release except with red fish, which are less likely to survive being caught and released.