Anglers will learn Monday whether there will be an open season for red snapper off the Atlantic Coast next month, which would be one of the few opportunities to harvest the highly-sought fish since strict protections went into effect in 2010.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing regulations in federal waters off the Southeast coast, will consider several options during its meeting in Charleston, S.C., that would open red snapper Oct. 6 and last anywhere from seven to 23 days spread over three-day weekends.
The possibility of a 2017 season surprised many when it was first revealed last month and was part of a major shift in the debate over the health of the red snapper population.
Red snapper has been protected by strict regulations since 2010, a result of the federal government finding the species to be overfished to dangerously low numbers.
Many local anglers have long argued the science supporting that finding is wrong and view the regulations with great suspicion. Many say they catch more red snapper than any other fish — including ones they can legally keep — and that the species has been thriving off Jacksonville’s coast for years.
Although a 2014 study that concluded red snapper remained overfished despite the measures taken to protect them, government biologists officially changed their tune earlier this summer.
The biologists said they believed the species was strong enough to endure conservative fishing seasons without reversing their recovery. That finding was based on new data showing there were more red snapper than previously estimated, as well as the conclusion that key data was no longer reliable enough to be used when setting regulations.
The council has several options for the 2017 season, including its “preferred” option that would open red snapper for 12 days over four three-day weekends beginning Oct. 6. Other options include having no season and seasons lasting seven, 13 and 23 days.
All of those seasons could be shortened if anglers report catching more fish than estimated.
While many anglers in Jacksonville’s fishing community will likely celebrate having a season this year, conservationists worry that the loosened regulations could reverse the species’ recovery.
The decision for this year’s season is only a temporary one, and the council has been working on a major overhaul of the rules for deciding whether the fish can be open to harvest each year.
Those changes, which are expected to create an open season next summer, will also be voted on during Monday’s meeting.