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Sport fishermen win a greater share of the annual red snapper catch in the Gulf of Mexico

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NEW ORLEANS — Recreational fishermen get a greater share of the red snapper catch in the Gulf of Mexico under a rule approved by a governing body.

On Thursday, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council increased the share of the catch going to recreational fishermen — made up of charter boats and non-commercial anglers. The council met in New Orleans.

The change gives recreational fishermen 51.5 percent of the total catch and commercial fishermen 48.5 percent. Currently the catch is split 50-50. The change needs the approval of the U.S. Commerce Department.

The increase came about after scientists re-examined catch data and discovered they'd underestimated what non-commercial fishermen caught.

Red snapper is a highly prized fish and highly managed. Commercial and recreational fishermen must abide by catch limits and other rules.

Roy Crabtree, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said management of red snapper has helped the stock recover and rebuild.

For instance, red snapper had disappeared off the coast of Florida near St. Petersburg 15 years ago, he said. "They're back all the way down to the (Florida) Keys now," he added. "We've made huge progress."

Still, the species needs to be protected because it has not recovered entirely, he said.

Every year regulators establish catch limits for red snapper. For 2016 and 2017, the total catch is expected to be set at just under 14 million pounds.

Glen Brooks, the president of the Gulf Fishermen's Association, a group representing commercial fishermen, agreed that red snapper is rebounding.

"The fishery has rebuilt tremendously, more than anyone anticipated," Brooks said.

Still, commercial fishermen opposed giving recreational fishermen a greater share and said the shift would keep red snapper off the tables of restaurants. "It takes away from the American consumer," Brooks said.

On Wednesday, during public testimony on the issue at the council's meeting in New Orleans, chefs spoke out against increasing the recreational catch limit.

Commercial fishermen are allowed to catch red snapper throughout the year, but they must abide by a quota system. Federal officials said there are 383 quota share-holders in the Gulf.

Bob Zales, the president of National Association of Charter Boat Operators, said the shift in favor of recreational fishermen was based on "indisputable science."

He said a review of catch data showed regulators had miscalculated the amount of red snapper recreational fishermen caught.

Even with the greater share, Zales said the red snapper fishery is too restrictive. He said the fish have recovered so well fishermen should be given more freedom to catch them.

"If you fish in the Gulf of Mexico, you'll catch a red snapper," he said.

He said the abundance of red snapper — due in part to there being fewer shrimp boats in the Gulf — should prompt regulators to ease restrictions.

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