‘Commercial guys can fish 365 days a year, but the rec guys can only fish three days.’

Mark Miller, founder of Equal Rights Fishing Alliance
Mark Miller, founder of Equal Rights Fishing Alliance Special to the Sun Herald

Eighteen boats paraded behind the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor on Sunday to protest the three-day federal red snapper season.

The season began Thursday and ended at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. Boat rally protests also took place Sunday in Galveston, Texas, Perdido Pass, Panama City and Tampa Bay.

The protest was organized by the Equal Rights Fishing Alliance to draw attention to increasing restrictions on recreational fishermen, especially the season’s length. Last year, the season was 11 days.

“The whole purpose of this is to call awareness to what the federal fisheries management people are doing,” said ERFA founder Mark Miller. “It is just wrong. This started when they started regulations back in the 90s. The root of the problem and a lot of people don’t get: They are making different rules for different groups. They are making a different rule for commercial, and making a different rule for recreational. And it’s gotten now where the commercial guys can fish 365 days a year, but the rec guys can only fish three days.

“It’s just absolutely ridiculous. And they’ve made it worse now because they’ve split out another group, the charter-for-hire sector, and they’re giving them 49 days. If they’re going to keep making groups, where is it going to stop? They should make rules for scuba divers and free divers and cast-net throwers. All of these people fish differently. They’re going the wrong direction.”

Miller has a simple solution.

“They need to combine the groups and make one set of rules for everybody,” Miller said. “Really, the way to manage the resource is through gear restrictions, bag limits and small area sanctuaries.

“Can’t be anything more important than small area sanctuaries. They are not addressing that. If they were really wanting to address the environment, they would be looking at small area sanctuaries. Nobody has a problem with small area sanctuaries where they say, ‘You can’t fish over here, but you can go over there.’’’

Miller credited regulations for succeeding at restoring the red snapper population. He believe it’s confusion resulting from what’s actually being caught.

“They’re worrying about what’s being caught and coming out of these waters,” Miller said. “When they first started these rules they were saying that the average red snapper was a couple of pounds. Now they’re saying it’s like 8 1/2 pounds.

“But instead of relaxing the regulations, they’re saying, ‘Oh, they’re catching more pounds because basically there are so many pounds that the recreational people can catch.’ But they’re managing it by numbers. So they say you can catch two fish. They’re not recognizing that there are more fish out there.”

Biloxi Harbor Fuel and Bait co-owner Ross Broussard believes one of the ripple effects of the shortened red snapper season is reduced business.

“I don’t sell bait when people don’t get to go fishing,” Broussard said. “Pogy sales and squid sales and live bait sales are down. A lot of the smaller boats didn’t get to go out because of the weather.”