June 28, 2014

Texas Gulf Coast red snapper adapting well to artificial reefs

State-regulated waters are benefiting from researchers’ attempts to add habitat for recreational fishing.

June and early July are the precious times of year when many Texas fishermen decide to throttle off-shore in search of red snapper, one of the Gulf Coast species especially designed for a charcoal grill.

It is a precious time, not because the snapper only show up around now; they live year-round off the Texas shore. They aren’t easier to catch in June; in fact, they’re pretty easy to catch any time.

Texas fishermen often complain that they can’t let their bait settle to other species without the snapper latching on to it. Nothing is more frustrating than reeling in a snapper from the depths, only to have to release it and wonder if it will survive.

Federal regulations dictate that recreational fishermen have only nine days this year in which to catch the snapper in federal waters. The time can and does differ from year to year.

The limit is two snapper per fisherman, and that nine-day limit includes all the days when the wind is blowing too hard to get out on the water, and it includes all those non-weekend days when most fishermen can’t leave their daily jobs to do a little Gulf Coast fishing.

That creates a big problem. Federal waters begin nine miles off-shore in Texas and it’s out there where most of the snapper are, because that’s where the best habitat exists. The habitats include oil rigs, rock piles and sunken ships. The nine miles of state-regulated waters are mostly nice and flat, sandy and mud bottoms without structure. Fun for walking on the beach, but scarce habitat for a fishery.

That could be changing.

The Texas fishery researchers I’ve talked with believe the snapper are abundant in the Gulf. They accept the fact that the species were heavily over-fished at one time and regulations were necessary to bring the snapper population back to a healthy number.

They believe we reached that point several years ago, and that’s one reason the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department refused to go along with federal authorities on limiting the snapper season in state waters. Here, you can fish them all year.

The feds don’t like that, so last season they attempted to punish Texas fishermen with a shorter season than other Gulf states.

It’s a fight that isn’t going to go away. But there might be an answer, nonetheless.

In 2007, TPWD highlighted its artificial reef program and made a big splash by purposefully sinking the 473-foot Texas Clipper, a famed merchant ship that once served as the training vessel for the Texas A&M Maritime Program in Galveston.

It has been a remarkable success, both as a fish habitat and a tourist attraction for fishermen and divers.

The Gulf Coast has long been marked with sunken ships, many of them liberty ships from WWI, but they are mostly in federal waters. Now, with the success of the Texas Clipper, Texas researchers are taking a look at establishing artificial reefs closer to shore, within reach of smaller boats and out of reach of federal regulations.

In 2008, and continuing through 2011, more than 5,000 concrete culverts were scattered along the bottom of the gulf just eight miles off shore from Port Mansfield.

This month, in the Coastal Conservation Association magazine Currents, a report by Richard Kline, a researcher at UT Brownsville, shows that the program seems to be working as hoped.

His grant study is not complete, but he and his team seem to be getting closer to answering some of their initial questions. They wanted to know if it mattered how the culverts were scattered on the Gulf’s bottom. Some have been clustered together, while others were strewn about without pattern. It looks like the fish don’t mind it either way.

He also wanted to know if the artificial reefs actually provided adequate habitat for the fish, or were they just a curiosity where the occasional snapper or grouper wanted to hang out for a while. Turns out, the fish are calling the new structures home.

“While our federal snapper season may be curtailed for years to come, and oil platforms are being removed at an astounding rate, the snapper population on this artificial reef is certainly abundant, healthy, and growing,” Kline writes in the June-July issue of Currents. “Our analysis of this reef shows that snapper and groupers are arriving at this preferential habitat and remaining there.”

It’s too early to load the boat and declare Texas state waters full of snapper and other game fish, there are still long-range questions to be answered.

In a telephone interview from his office in Brownsville, Kline said he is seeking further funding to continue his research.

“We do have some natural reefs in Texas that hold snapper, and we’re trying to see what they offer that we can include in the artificial reef programs. We still have to prove conclusively that these reefs are not just fish aggregation devices, but are places where the fish are actually reproducing. That’s a difficult challenge when you’re looking at a body of water the size of the Gulf.”

But as he points out early in his article, “Saltwater recreational fishing has a $2 billion impact in Texas alone.”

That’s enough incentive to continue the research and hopefully bypass that everlasting federal vs. state regulatory stalemate.

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