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New Year Off to Dismal Start For Charter Fishing Business

Category: Top Stories

By Ted Carter

SBJ Staff

Part 3 of 3

1/11/2010 - A recent cold, gray, drizzly Friday morning on the docks at Lazaretto Creek Marina reflected the despair charter boat captain Steve Amick says he feels about the year ahead and the ones that will follow.

His livelihood might not be so lively, he says.

“I’m looking at a dismal 2010,” said the long-time Lazaretto Creek charter operator, whose customers will be tossing back any grouper or red snapper they catch for the next few months.

That’s just the start of Amick’s woes.

He and other charter captains, recreational anglers and commercial fishermen are staring squarely at a decades-long ban on bottom fishing in an approximately 10,000-square-mile expanse of the South Atlantic from just north of Charleston, S.C., to just south of Cape Canaveral, Fla.

That puts one of Amick’s prime fishing destinations – the Savannah Snapper Banks about 30 miles off Wassau Sound – off limits, possibly for the next 35 years.

Federal fisheries regulators, specifically the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, are moving forward “in an ultra-conservative” way, said Amick. “They’re dishing out the maximum amount of dosage.”

The dosage is designed to restore stocks of the grouper-snapper species that a 2008 assessment survey deemed overfished.

With the designation, the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Management Act effectively removes any option for the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council other than closing off vast expanses of federal waters, officials say.

The council is expected to select from several strategies by mid-year. All options specify lengthy closures, the shortest being 15 years. The 15-year closure would carry the most stringent bottom fishing restrictions for its duration, however.

The council’s option is a 35-year closure of waters at depths of 98 feet to 240 feet.

Those depths are precisely where coastal Georgia’s bottom fishermen need to fish to make a trip worthwhile, according to Amick, who routinely motors the 30-40 miles off shore necessary to leave behind sandy, fishless ocean bottom and reach the fertile, fish-rich Snapper Banks.

“It’s killing the industry,” he said.

And making the purchase of any sort of boat a lot less appealing, he added. “I don’t want to buy a charter boat or a commercial boat. And I don’t know if you’d want to buy a recreational boat this year.”

Georgia’s coast is a popular fishing destination, but its charter and commercial fishing industry is relatively small. Spud Woodward of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources attributes this to the long treks required to reach productive bottom fishing grounds off Georgia.

Seven  Georgia-based commercial fishing vessels have federal permits, according to the DNR.

Figures for 2006 show that Georgia’s fisheries generated the lowest level of landings revenue among the South Atlantic states that also include North and South Carolina and Florida.

The region as a whole saw a 31.4 percent decline in wholesale dealers from 2000 to 2006, according to the South Atlantic Marine Fisheries Management Council.

On the sport fishing side, 31 charter boats have federal permits to take grouper and snapper, the DRN says.
The state has about 150 registered saltwater guides.

Woodward, the Brunswick-based director of the DNR’s Coastal Resources Division, said the logic behind the grouper-snapper rebuilding plan is sound. “If you’re going to protect the fish, you’ve got to protect where the fish are.”

As a consequence of the fishery closure, Georgia may have to rethink how it promotes its recreational fishing, perhaps going to a marketing strategy that highlights trolling for king and Spanish mackerel and other surface fish, as well as near-shore and inshore fishing opportunities.

On the commercial side, fishermen need more predictability, said Woodward, DNR’s representative on the South Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council. “We need to move into a new era. If they are going to have a three-month season on red snapper, they (the fishermen) need to know when that is,” he added.

That’s a sentiment shared by McIntosh County commercial fisherman Charlie Phillips, who serves on the Fisheries Council with Woodward. He said he would like to see an end to the “derbies” that occur with the opening of mini seasons on various fish species.  “You go catch something to flood the market with until it (the season) closes,” he said, noting the difficulty this causes in the wholesaling and retailing of fish, not to mention the lower prices the fishermen fetch for the catch.

The hope, Phillips said, is that after the Fisheries Council resolves the fishery closing issue it will consider switching from an open-and-closed-season policy to “catch shares.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the Marine Fisheries Service and the nation’s regional fisheries councils, last month formally endorsed catch shares. The approach sets a strict overall catch limit and divides that total catch among individuals such as fishermen, communities, cooperatives or companies.

The Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News reported last month that studies have found that when fishermen no longer have to race to fill their nets, they make more money by fishing less while doing a better job of conserving.

The newspaper reports, however, that critics say the shares system turns fishing into a property right that gives commercial interests an advantage over recreational anglers.

Meanwhile, Phillips emphasizes that the massive closing of South Atlantic waters is not a “done deal yet.” A new grouper-snapper assessment to be done this year will bear heavily on whatever happens, he noted.

Phillips insists the vote he’ll make will put the good of the fishery ahead of his livelihood.

“I don’t vote for what works for me, my boat or the people who work with me here,” said Phillips, owner of Phillips Seafood in Crescent.

“I’m having to use some science and some common sense.”

He said he will give close scrutiny to the new grouper-population assessment, “watching and asking questions.”

He will be especially interested in ecological consequences of the contemplated closures, he noted. For instance, closing off one fishery may exert new, unplanned pressure on another one, he said.

That sort of outcome occurred with the multi-year inshore ban on harvesting red fish. As their populations soared back, researchers found an unexpected drop in the young crab population.

With the pending closures, “a lot of people are going to be out of business.

They do not understand, Phillips said, “why they are getting whacked when they are seeing fantastic numbers of new fish.”

The rub, Phillips noted, is that without “recruitment of new young fish to grow the stock, they can’t know this is going to continue.”

Phillips said he has surveyed the seascape and decided his future is in harvesting clams.

Part 1: Ban on Grouper, Red Snapper Fishing Hurting Local Industry

Part 2: Local Commercial Industry Reaction

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