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Ban on Grouper, Red Snapper Hurting Local Industry

Potential for Ban on ALL Bottom Fishing In 10,000 Square Mile Area Looms

By Ted Carter

SBJ Staff

Part 1 of 3

1/11/2010 - The federal government is about to place off limits a vast portion of the Atlantic that has been a fertile backyard for Georgia’s recreational and commercial fishermen.

Fishermen are marking their calendars for mid-2011 and wondering what fishing options will be left to them after the U.S. government closes off nearly 10,000 square miles of federal waters to bottom fishing. The target area for what could be a decades-long closure covers a stretch from South Carolina near Charleston to just below Central Florida’s Cape Canaveral. For Georgia, the closure area would begin about 30 miles off shore.

Put simply, federal officials say, not enough young grouper and red snapper in these waters are getting an opportunity to grow old and reproduce. The blame rests with bottom fishing, they say, citing a fatality rate of between 60 percent and 80 percent of undersized fish of these species that are caught and discarded.

Fishing discards are the “800-pound gorilla of the fisheries management arena,” said Spud Woodward, director of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division.  “You pull a fish up from 200 feet and it doesn’t do well after that.”

What’s coming, he said, is a massive, unprecedented closure. But it’s one the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council can’t avoid without violating the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, he said.

Revisions to the law in 2006 gave fishery managers until 2010 to present strategies to remedy overfishing once that is deemed to be occurring. A 2008 assessment concluded grouper and red snapper discards had reached unacceptable levels, officials say.

No use looking for wiggle room, said Woodward, the Georgia DNR’s representative on the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, one of several geographically based councils set up by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The law is specific in its mandate and does not allow outside factors such as economic hardship to override the goal of stopping the overfishing.

“Magnuson-Stevens is driving this,” Woodward said. “It’s forcing the council to act in ways it never contemplated before.”

Woodward expects the closures to come “sometime” in 2011. “This is such an unprecedented measure,” he said in a phone interview last week from his Brunswick office. “We’re all just trying to get our minds around it.”

Settling on a duration for the fishing closures offers a dilemma – the shorter the closure the more severe the restrictions must be, while the longer the closure the less severe the restrictions  need be. Closing alternatives under consideration range from 15 to 35 years, 

“What we’re talking about is a rebuilding schedule,” Woodward said. “The less severe the alternative (in terms of area closed and restrictions put in place) the longer the duration.”

The Fisheries Council’s preferred alternative would set a 35-year rebuilding schedule. This alternative, according to Amendment 17A (the designation given the contemplated action) would “support little or no harvest of red snapper in the initial years of rebuilding but would allow some incidental catch of red snapper when targeting co-occurring species.”  This alternative would require a kill reduction rate of 90.3 percent.

Another alternative calls for a 50-year restriction that would require an 85 percent reduction in total kill. An alternative to rebuild the stock through 2036, four years longer than the preferred alternative, would require an initial reduction in total kill of 88 percent.

The Fisheries Council’s preferred alternative would prohibit commercial and recreational harvest, possession and retention of species in the snapper-grouper family year-round in an area that includes commercial logbook grids 2880, 2980, 3080, 3179, 3180, 3278 and 3279 between a depth of 98 feet (16 fathoms; 3m) to 240 feet (40 fathoms; 73m). It would allow black sea bass harvest, possession and retention in the closed area if fish were harvested with black sea bass pots with endorsements.

Further, the preferred alternative would allow tilefish harvest, possession, and retention in the closed area.

Divers using spearfishing gear could harvest snapper-grouper species in the closed area.

Fisheries managers and fishermen alike are holding out some hope, however slight it may be, that a new assessment of grouper-red snapper populations later this year will ease the need for drastic action.

“We’re all hoping that it will tells us the measures won’t have to be as severe as we’re now thinking,” the DNR’s Woodward said. “It’s sort of like getting a second opinion from a doctor.”

Part 2:  Local Commercial Industry Reaction

Part 3: New Years Off to Dismal Start for Charter Fishing Business

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