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State proposes plan for regulating red snapper season

Texas’ wildlife agency has sent a plan to Washington outlining how the state would like to regulate some fishing in federal waters.

If approved, the plan would lengthen the recreational red snapper fishing season in Texas, and serve as a test for how well states can manage the protected red snapper fishery.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department proposed its plan for regulating recreational fishing in federal waters in a permit application it submitted in February to the National Marine Fisheries Service as part of a two-year pilot program to allow states to regulate recreational fishing. Federal waters begin 9 miles offshore and extend out 200 miles.

After the parks department takes public comments and holds a series of meetings, the federal fisheries service will likely decide whether to allow the proposed plan in mid- to late-April, said Lance Robinson, Coastal Fisheries regional director at Texas Parks and Wildlife.

In recent years, the federal red snapper fishing seasons have been short, sometimes lasting just a few days, which caused outrage and frustration among some recreational anglers.

The state regulates recreational fishing in state waters up to 9 miles offshore, where the season is year-round, Robinson said. But the highly sought red snapper typically live in deeper waters farther offshore.

“The short time frame, coupled with bad weather events, limits our fishermen’s ability to get out and catch red snapper,” Robinson said.

“Texas historically accounted for about 20 percent of the catch. As we’ve become more constrained, our landings have dropped to about 6 percent to 10 percent.”

Under state management, the wildlife department estimated it would be able to extend the season for recreational fishing in federal waters up to 104 days, Robinson said.

The department based the 104-day time frame on the idea that Texas would account for about 16 percent of the annual red snapper catch in the Gulf of Mexico, Robinson said. Looking at historical landings and data collected around the state, the department estimated that would likely allow a 104-day fishing season for private anglers with their own boats and people fishing on for-hire charters for red snapper, he said.

The state tracks catches through surveys at boat docks and by monitoring landings reported by anglers, Robinson said. The department has been doing that since the 1980s, he said.

The changes, which are being proposed as part of a pilot program for 2018 and 2019, stem from language added to a budget bill Congress passed last summer, Robinson said. The amendment gave the five Gulf states the authority to manage red snapper into federal waters, but did not spell out how the states should go about regulating the season, he said.

“They didn’t give a lot of guidance or a lot of direction in how to calculate it so that left it in the state’s hands,” Robinson said.

The five Gulf states — Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas — have all submitted different permit applications, Robinson said.

In January, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council recommended the National Marine Fisheries Services approve pilots for the five Gulf states to test state management of recreational fishing for red snapper.

The Environmental Defense Fund — one of three conservation groups that sued the U.S. Department of Commerce and the fisheries service for extending the recreational fishing season — offered support for the pilot program.

“EDF has long called for innovations in the way we manage recreational fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and we applaud those who are considering new approaches,” said Matt Tinning, senior director of Environmental Defense Fund’s U.S. Oceans Program.

“We support this two-year opportunity for the states to show that they can manage their private red snapper anglers under the conservation tenets of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is a 1976 federal law that created conservation guidelines for federal fisheries.

If the National Marine Fisheries Service approves the state’s permit proposal, the recreational fishing season in federal waters would likely open June 1, Robinson said.


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Agencies prepare for active shooters in Texas City

Agencies from Galveston and Harris counties came together at Texas City High School to participate in an active shooter training Wednesday.

After a shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month that left 17 people dead, Texas City police decided to test preparations for potential school shootings.

“We decided to bring agencies out to the high school so everyone can get to know the school and feel more prepared in a future situation,” Texas City Police Department Assistant Chief Joe Stanton said.

Texas City High School students were on spring break and not on campus.

Texas City SWAT, La Marque Police Department, Texas City Bomb Unit, Harris County Bomb Unit, Galveston County Sheriff’s Office, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Precinct 3 Constables and airmen from the Texas Air National Guard 147th Attack Wing were among the agencies involved in the training.

After a briefing in front of the high school led by Capt. Rex Spotted Bear with the Texas City Police Department, agencies broke up to prepare for an active shooter.

Bomb units prepared their bomb robots, SWAT suited up and constables went inside the school to get the lay of the land.

Throughout the day, agencies ran drills and practiced potential situations that would arise in an active shooter scenario.

A large part of the training was giving new technology a try, which could change the way police handle a threat.

The bomb units practiced moving their robots throughout the school. These robots have the ability to surveil the area, find potential bombs and sometimes neutralize them.

A drone was flown in the school, which could be used for various reasons. Drones could be useful in finding shooters if they escape the school, Spotted Bear said.

While agencies were testing their technology, Texas City SWAT practiced how to enter a room during a threat and begin hostage recovery.

“This is our way to get a good understanding of how our plan is working and what else we need to accomplish,” Spotted Bear said.

Practicing drills is effective and necessary for this situation, officials said. If there were an active shooter at a school, the first police to get to the scene would enter the building, officials said.

After the training, each agency will take what they have learned and discuss what needs to be changed in their plan, officials said.

In June, Texas City will have a full-scale active shooter training that will include simulated hostages, officials said.


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Woman gets 75 years for killing former boyfriend

A Texas City woman was sentenced Wednesday to 75 years in prison for the shooting death of her former boyfriend.

Judge Michelle Slaughter sentenced Roshonda Latrice Howard, 45, at the conclusion of a three-day murder trial, bringing to an end a 5-year-old case that was rife with delays as experts debated Howard’s mental competency.

Howard shot 37-year-old Jacob Felts to death in a Wal-Mart parking lot in 2013

On Wednesday, Felts’ relatives described him as a kind, caring person and the five years they had to wait for a resolution in the case as unbearable.

Felts, a La Marque resident, was an electronics department employee at the Victory Lakes Wal-Mart in League City and was leaving work when he was shot, police said. He was taken by helicopter to Memorial Hermann Hospital where he died from a gunshot wound to his chest, according to the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“He was a great loss to a lot of people,” said Nancy Felts, Jacob Felts’ wife of three months when he was shot and killed. “I blame myself sometimes for him being gone. A kind man was taken away from so many people.”

Nancy Felts testified that in the months leading up to her husband’s death, the two kept seeing a black truck that looked like the one Howard drove. At one point she asked whether they should seek a restraining order, she said.

“I was talked out of pursuing a restraining order,” she said.

Ever since Howard was charged in connection with Felts’ death, officials have questioned her mental health, twice delaying legal proceedings.

Nancy Felts testified Wednesday that she knew that Jacob Felts had previously dated Howard, but they had not been together for some time when she and Felts started dating.

“I have never spoken to that woman before,” Nancy Felts said.

Howard turned herself in to League City police after the shooting, according to a probable cause affidavit.

The night Felts was shot, Howard told police she had dated him for about six years before he ended the relationship and that she was badly hurt by the decision, according to recordings of a statement she made to investigators.

The breakup came after she had been in and out of hospitals and that she was depressed and delusional, she said in the recording.

Howard told police that Felts had been cheating on her, but Felts’ relatives Tuesday denied that claim.

Security video showed a woman parked next to Felts’ SUV getting out of her car and firing several shots into the driver’s side window and door of Felts’ vehicle, police said.

Eight shell casings were found at the scene, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Voices were telling Howard to shoot Felts that night, said Margaret Hindman, one of Howard’s defense attorneys.

In 2015, Howard was found incompetent to stand trial for murder and spent time in state hospitals for mental evaluation, records show.

Officials eventually found Howard competent to stand trial in November 2017 and a warrant was filed in the 405th District Court to return her to Galveston County for trial, records show.

Slaughter late Monday called for another competency evaluation and a doctor testified Tuesday that Howard was “presently competent,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Adam Poole said.

Defense attorneys argued that, despite the doctor’s evaluation, Howard was incompetent to stand trial, but Slaughter eventually ruled that she was competent and that an earlier guilty plea would stand.


Courtesy 

Roshonda Latrice Howard


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Texas House committee to take up pilot board debate

A Texas legislative committee will soon enter the fray in a growing local fight over fog delays and rules governing the board charged with overseeing pilots who guide ships into ports.

An agenda item for the March 26 meeting of the Texas House Select Committee on Ports calls for discussion about the structure and duties of two area pilot boards and how to ensure a balance of representation on the boards.

The committee was formed during the most recent legislative session to focus on infrastructure and technology issues facing Texas’ ports. Texas Rep. Joe Deshotel, a Democrat from Port Arthur, is the chairman of the committee.

For months, the chairman of the Galveston Wharves Board of Trustees, which governs the Port of Galveston, has led calls for more representation and control of the five-member Board of Pilot Commissioners for Galveston County, which oversees the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association.

“Ultimately, we just want to be like every other port in the state,” Chairman Ted O’Rourke said. “I won’t stop until we reach that point.”

Representatives from the board of pilot commissioners Wednesday declined to comment, having just learned about the meeting.

Representatives from the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association said they were looking forward to the meeting.

“We are happy to share our perspective,” said James Andrews, the association’s director of operations. “We are definitely in favor of additional awareness on our safety mission, the application of our services and helping keep ships safe coming in and out of Galveston.”

Cruise lines, the biggest revenue generators at the Port of Galveston, have accused ship pilots of using fog as an excuse to delay vessels coming in and out of the island’s harbor.

Cruise line operators say an unusually high number of fog delays was in retaliation for their complaints about a sharp increase in rates pilots charge.

Until news of the committee meeting, the debate about fog delays had remained mostly regional. But the announcement suggests that might be about to change.

Port and city officials met with Deshotel in January to present the biggest issues facing the island docks, records show.

The second-ranking topic on the list was about pilot board representation, according to a letter O’Rourke and Mayor Jim Yarbrough authored for Deshotel.

“Most Texas ports benefit from having some form of representation and/or input on their boards of pilot commissioners, except in two cases,” the letter said.

O’Rourke for months has contended the port doesn’t have the same level of representation as other ports.

Each of the state’s pilot commissioner boards are slightly different, governed by different sections of the Texas Transportation Code, but this assertion is technically true, according to maritime experts.

Because of the port’s unique situation, some issues deserve evaluation in the next legislative session, the letter stated.

Several issues introduced in the letter became items on the March 26 agenda.

In addition to the pilot boards, the committee also will discuss public-private partnerships as a means for making improvements to port infrastructure, another idea introduced by the letter.

Legislative action regarding local pilot boards would be the first of its kind since the port and the pilots had a disagreement in 2013 over a bill former state Rep. Craig Eiland filed that would have reserved one spot on the five-member Board of Pilot Commissioners for someone on the wharves board.

But the bill ultimately wasn’t carried forward.

Wharves Board Trustee Elizabeth Beeton on Wednesday said she wasn’t overly optimistic about the pending committee meeting, but acknowledged conversation had to start somewhere.

“I think the inertia is too much in favor of the pilots to see changes there,” Beeton said. “But I could be wrong. I guess we have to start somewhere.”