NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Fishing regulators have voted to increase this year's red snapper quota by 2.5 million pounds and to start a recreational season Oct. 1 if the anglers' share of the catch so far allows it.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council increased this year's quota on Wednesday from 8.46 million to 11 million pounds for one of the Gulf's most popular eating and sports fish. A recreational season would get up to 21 consecutive days.
The length is uncertain because recreational anglers have regularly exceeded their 49 percent share of the total annual quota. Their catch through June will be subtracted from the increased recreational quota of 5.9 million pounds when figures become available in mid-August. If some of their quota remains, there would be a second season.
Commercial boats are assigned 51 percent of the annual total.
Decades of overfishing had depleted the species when the first recovery plan for redsnapper went into effect in 1990. The total quota had been about 9.1 million pounds for years when regulators cut it to 5 million pounds. It has risen steadily since.
Council member Kay Williams, of Vancleave, Miss., wanted this year's total set to 12.1 million pounds — the highest choice on the agenda. She said the lower quota penalizes commercial boats and people who buy red snapper for failure to control the recreational sector.
"We just took a million pounds away from the commercial industry," said Williams, who cast the only "nay" in a 15-1 roll-call vote.
Last year, recreational anglers were assigned just under 4 million pounds and caught 5.8 million pounds. In 2011, the recreational quota was 3.9 million pounds; the catch 4.6 million, according to the website for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division.
"I think we came a lot closer in the last couple of years than before," Roy E. Crabtree, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said during the meeting.
He said part of the reason for the underestimates is that the average fish size increased faster than expected. That's beginning to stabilize, he said.
Each commercial fishing boat is assigned an individual weight quota. Those for 2013 will be increased when the final rule is published, "hopefully sometime in September," NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Kim Amendola.
Recreational anglers and "head boats" that take groups of anglers into the Gulf don't have weight quotas. Rather, they have daily per-person bag limits and specific dates when they can take red snapper.
Each state sets its own season and daily bag limit for state waters; only Mississippi's and Alabama's seasons and bag limits match those in federal waters. Taking those into account, NOAA Fisheries sets the season for federal waters based on estimates of when the recreational quota will be met.
This year, it originally set four seasons — one each for Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, and one for Mississippi and Alabama. Texas and Louisiana challenged that plan, and a federal judge threw it out. The federal season wound up running June 1-28 in federal waters off all five states.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has had agents at marinas check the catch this season. The total through June has been well under NOAA Fisheries' preseason estimates, Assistant Secretary Randy Pausina, the state's top fisheries official, said Tuesday.
"If you're looking at pounds, we are at 65 percent of what they said we would harvest in this state," he said.