When you’re out on the high seas and you’ve got the whole ocean beneath your feet, there are all kinds of beautiful fish to reel in and admire.
There’s a catch when it comes to your catches, though: If it’s not in season or within the size limit, you’ll have to throw it back.
It can be tempting to keep a tasty Red Snapper in the fall or stock up on Triggerfish, but Alabama’s fishing rules and regulations are more than just arbitrary restrictions. Every time you throw back a fish that you’re prohibited from keeping, you’re helping Alabama’s natural populations sustain and replenish themselves.
This may seem like an obvious responsibility—to do our part and help our diverse ecosystems flourish—but without strict oversight of our local fisheries, we’d be at risk of overfishing. In fact, overfishing isn’t as uncommon as you might think; just ask Japan why we’re growing urchins in a lab here in Birmingham, or ask Maryland and Virginia why we ship lots of our Blue Crab up their way.
Thankfully for us and our neighbors, programs like the Audubon Nature Institute’s G.U.L.F. (Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries) project are keeping our waters trending in the right direction.
G.U.L.F. is currently overseeing a handful of Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs), and right now they’re working with Alabama on our Shrimp fishery to help Brown, White, and Pink Shrimp stay plentiful for decades to come. (G.U.L.F. also sponsored an FIP for Alabama Blue Crab years ago, which we wrote about in 2015.)
The Fishery Improvement Project follows the typical tenants of seafood sustainability. Simply put, our fisheries must limit harvesting to allow populations to replenish themselves and enforce fishing methods that won’t have a damaging environmental impact, all while complying with national and international regulations.
"Limits for both commercial and recreational harvests are critical to the sustainability of our resources," said Scott Bannon, Director of Alabama's Marine Resources Division. "They are designed to maintain current stock levels or to increase abundance of a stock. Some species just need to have a population sufficient to reproduce annually, but other species need several years to reach maturity. Those that need more time are generally the ones that experience overharvesting, so we're working to grow those stocks."
While it’s our human responsibility to protect and maintain our aquatic ecosystems, sustainability isn’t just an environmental issue. It’s an effort that’s intrinsically tied to our seafood industry as well.
For example, if Alabama anglers and commercial fishermen were to overfish a particular species, our seafood processors would have to eventually limit the amount of that product they can distribute, which would limit that product on restaurant menus. And if this trend were to continue, it could cause that species to disappear from Gulf waters altogether.
This isn’t the burden you might think it is on Alabama chefs, though.
When a Gulf seafood product is limited to certain seasons or amounts, it allows our Southern chefs to get creative. Our waters are home to much, much more than the typical Snapper, Grouper, and Flounder that you may be used to seeing on the menu. Sustainability allows our restaurants and markets to feature these species—including a number of bycatch species that were previously though to be “trash fish”—that are just as tasty even though they’re less popular.
“Catch limits may seem like a pain when you're out fishing," said Jim Smith, chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission. "But it is important to remember that those limits are in place to maintain healthy sustainable stocks so we can all catch and cook those species every season.”
So while it may be a bummer to throw back some would-be prizefish on your next fishing trip, remember that you’re directly contributing to the sustainability of Alabama’s fisheries. And maybe you can reward yourself with a nice Gulf seafood dinner.