When the local black sea bass fishing season was shut down earlier this month, recreational boat captains quickly cried foul. Though the species is listed as overfished by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service, local fishermen say they’re seeing plenty of the fish, so much that the bass are eating other species and disrupting the ecosystem. At least in the fight so far, the feds have the power. The season has closed down earlier and earlier each year for the past three years. This past year, the season lasted only 96 days.
The argument, as it has for the past few years, comes down to a very basic disconnect. Local fishermen who are out on the water every day say there are lots of fish. Federal regulators say there aren’t.
That leaves us with two big questions: How do we 1) figure out who’s right and 2) convince the other side?
The first part is already in the works. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which oversees the region’s fisheries, is pushing for an updated assessment of the fish as quickly as possible. If the council can move with enough speed, a new assessment could provide for higher limits before the season opens next year, though it would take emergency action to approve any changes in time. Funding challenges could also delay or hamper new stock assessments, as a shortage of manpower has complicated attempts to study thousands of fish otoliths collected for a better sense of the fishes’ ages.
Murrells Inlet council representative Tom Swatzel is among the most vocal of those who say a new count is needed.
“The recreational black sea bass fishery is vital to charter and headboats and indirectly to many coastal businesses in the Carolinas during the summer months,” Swatzel said in an email to his fellow council members recently. “To end up with a closure in July or August would be devastating.”
Swatzel, who also blames the early closures on what he sees as a poorly designed rebuilding plan that was too lax at the beginning and too strict later on, is optimistic that a new count will prove the stock is growing and healthy. In fact, a 2011 assessment determined that there were likely more fish out there than had been previously thought. And the numbers justified raising the catch limit about 25 percent. Unfortunately, because the limit had been exceeded in previous years, the overage had to be taken out of subsequent years’ limits, putting us in a bizarre situation of knowing we have more fish but not being allowed to catch them.
The increased fish numbers and bigger fish that boat captains are likely the result of the rebuilding program put in place in recent years. In that case, it’s good news for all parties involved, that the stock is rebuilding and that there will be more to catch. But that’s little comfort to the charter boat captains who find themselves unable to make the living they had expected this year.
As The Sun News outdoors columnist Gregg Holshouser wrote recently, “This latest closure, while expected, still represents a nightmare situation for local charter and party boat operators who especially depend on black sea bass during the late fall, winter and early spring months when few other species are available to harvest.”
And the lack of business does not stop at boat captains. The tourists who will now no longer come for fishing trips will also no longer stay in local hotels or eat at local restaurants or stop at the local gas stations. Such closures affect all of us in the local economy, which makes addressing them and determining if they’re really needed a high priority.
So what will it take to answer the second big question? How can one side convince the other that they’ve got it right? That’s a tall task.
“The saga of black sea bass management in the South Atlantic does not inspire confidence in fishermen,” Swatzel said Thursday. “Bad policy decisions, lack of timely catch reporting (many question the accuracy of the reports and estimates, the new [recreational survey] program may be better), inadequate frequency of assessments, and the lack of NOAA funding for the critical data collection and analysis necessary to meet the mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Act are at the top of the list of concerns.”
As with many disagreements, the key may be better communication and involvement from both sides. Participation by fishermen in the process of stock assessment and management – learning how counts are conducted, why limits are in place and what can be done to help – can make a difference. “Fisherman participation in and scrutiny of assessments has been helpful in ensuring more accuracy,” said Swatzel.
At the same time, those overseeing the fisheries could make a better effort to engage boat captains and fishermen to bring them into the process and help both sides realize that they are seeking the same goal in the end: a healthy fishery that will provide livelihoods and sustain a local industry for decades to come.