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Total ban on East Coast bottom fishing?

East Coast anglers are just four months away from a possible total ban on bottom fishing, which federal fishery managers claim is required to end overfishing of red snapper.

After reviewing alternatives – and realizing a lawsuit will likely be filed – the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) decided to divide a proposed new rule into two parts at a contentious June meeting in Stuart, Fla.

Amendment 17A will address rules for red snapper only, and Amendment 17B will address measures to end overfishing for the remaining species (speckled hind, Warsaw grouper, golden tilefish, snowy grouper, black grouper, black sea bass, gag, red grouper and vermilion snapper).

“The potential for a lawsuit against the Council on red snapper is very real and very great. Dividing the amendment helps ensure that any action taken by litigants would not delay the management plans for other species,” said SAFMC member George J. Geiger.

The action is in response to a 2008 red snapper stock assessment that claims snapper are being taken at eight times the sustainable level. Closure of large areas of federal waters (from South Carolina to north/central Florida) to all snapper and grouper fishing (commercial and recreational) is necessary to achieve a 87% reduction in snapper take, according to NOAA’s National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS).

However, just shutting down all fishing for red snapper will not be enough – according to the NMFS. Even with a total closure, they say red snapper will still experience excessive bycatch mortality (dead discards) as anglers pursue other species of snapper and grouper. NMFS claims the bulk of red snapper catches are from the recreational fishery, which they argue kills an estimated 40% of released fish. As a result, the SAFMC is considering closing areas where snapper catches are highest.

Size and configurations vary, but include waters off the coast of Florida as far south as Cape Canaveral. The SAFMC delayed a decision on the area closures following what was called a “very stressful, very long week” of meetings June 8-12 in Stuart.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 85 charter captains, headboat operators, tackle manufacturers, fish house operators, recreational and commercial fishermen gave emotionally-charged comments and questioned the data being used to close snapper fishing from 3 to 200 miles offshore.

Many attacked the 2008 stock assessment, questioning the data, models and formulas used to conclude such reductions are necessary. Ironically, the NMFS and SAFMC agree with anglers who claim current red snapper numbers are up and on the rise – but counter the overall fishery is in trouble because there are not enough larger, older snapper being caught.

The NMFS’ stock assessment data shows no record of red snapper older than age 13 since 2004. A 2007 stock assessment estimated the total number of red snapper age 10 or older in the entire South Atlantic at only 1,300 fish.

However, in just the past several weeks, two East Coast charter boat captains have extracted snapper otoliths (ear bones) that Georgia and Florida biologists have aged at 19, 18, 17 and 13 years of age, as well as three 12-year-old, eight 11-year-old and five 10-year-old fish.

Wave after wave of new rules are causing the death of both the commercial and for-hire charter boat industry. Recreational anglers say trips offshore are no longer worth the cost. Sport fishing represents an annual economic impact of $4.4 billion and 75,000 jobs in Florida.

An estimated 22,300 anglers have signed a petition opposing the rules and disputing catch surveys and assessments. But, the number pales in comparison to the more than 100,000 names routinely generated by environmental groups (like the Pew Trust) that support such drastic rules and lobby hard to keep bills that would relax them from getting out of committee in Congress.

Anglers recently presented the SAFMC with a report by former NMFS researcher Frank Hester that criticized the snapper fish count as incomplete. But, federal officials say they are using the best (and only) data available, adding that the MSA forces them to end overfishing within one year. Fishing Rights Alliance (FRA) representatives said if the SAFMC closed fishing down, it planned to file suit (similar to one filed in May over new rules in the Gulf). The SAFMC will revisit the options at their Sept. 14-18 meeting in Charleston, SC.

While that rule is being debated, the NMFS is expected to act on a request for another (temporary) rule that would close the red snapper fishery totally for six months to possibly a year.

Dr. Roy Crabtree, NMFS Southeast Regional Administrator, gave an update on the pending one-year red snapper closure, stating a 30-day public comment period will be held in July. After a 30-day review of comments and another 30 days after being published, the ban could take effect sometime in October.

Meanwhile, the East Coast red snapper fishery remains open with a bag limit of 2 fish per person/day included in a 10-snapper aggregate bag limit, and a 20-inch total length size limit.

For additional information, visit http://www.SAFMC.net.