Bill seeks to expand Black sea bass fishing season

For The Sun NewsMarch 7, 2013 

State Representative Stephen Goldfinch has been on the water, and he’s seen first-hand the population of black sea bass that inhabits the natural and artificial reefs off the South Carolina coast.

Goldfinch, R-Murrells Inlet, has seen what is on the reefs from below the ocean’s surface while commercial spearfishing and above the surface by hook-and-line as a recreational fisherman.

The 30-year-old freshman state representative has a major issue with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) continuing to govern black sea bass with a strict quota which quickly is caught each season – beginning annually in June – by the South Atlantic region’s recreational fishermen.

Goldfinch has sponsored a bill that would open up a year-round season for black bass within state waters, which extend to three miles off shore. Most Black sea bass in an annual season are caught beyond three miles, but catches within three miles of shore typically improve during winter months.

Black sea bass were governed by very liberal recreational limits with no closed season up until about four years ago, which over the decades depleted the stock.

The species was listed as overfished and undergoing overfishing in 2010 by the NMFS, prompting the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) to implement regulations to end the overfishing as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The fishing season has been shut down early for three straight seasons for recreational anglers after the Annual Catch Limit (ACL) was deemed to have been caught by NMFS. In addition, daily bag limits have been lowered and minimum size limits raised systematically for the species.

The black sea bass season was open for 8 1/2 months during the 2010-11 season and 4 1/2 months during the 2011-12 season. During the current fishing season, 2012-13, the fishery was open only 96 days from June 1 through Sept. 4, 2012. Traditionally, local fishermen have relied on black sea bass as one of the few species available to catch and harvest during the late fall, winter and early spring months.

While the fishing season has been shrinking, the fishermen, including Goldfinch, concur - the numbers of black sea bass on local reefs has exploded. Some fishermen even report that black sea bass are so plentiful, they are negatively impacting the juveniles of other important reef species such as grouper and vermilion snapper.

``Black sea bass are tremendously overpopulated,’’ Goldfinch said on Wednesday from Columbia. ``The federal government keeps telling us they are over-fished. That not only is a lie, it is fraudulent.’’

On Tuesday, the bill by Goldfinch – H 3735 – was introduced to the S.C. House of Representatives and read for the first time. If approved, it would enable South Carolina to take over jurisdiction of black sea bass from the federal government in state waters. Federal waters, beyond three miles offshore, would remain under federal jurisdiction and subject to the same closures.

``The law (would) basically mirror federal law, 5 fish per person per day and 13-inch minimum size limit, but it would be opening up a year-round season for black sea bass in state waters,’’ said Goldfinch.

The move is not unprecedented in the South Atlantic region. Both Georgia and Florida have year-round black sea bass fishing seasons in state waters.

Fish caught in state waters, regardless of time of year, would still be counted as part of the 409,000-pound recreational Annual Catch Limit (ACL), or quota, for black sea bass in the South Atlantic region which the NMFS uses to close the recreational fishing season in federal waters.

A stock assessment for black sea bass is expected to be completed this month, and with the species evidently prospering, a recommendation for a larger quota could be presented to the SAFMC at its upcoming June meeting.

Fishermen are hopeful that an increase in the ACL could be put in place by the SAFMC at the June meeting in Stuart, Fla., which could mean a longer black sea bass season for the upcoming 2013-14 fishing season.

Meanwhile, Goldfinch will continue to push for a year-round season for the species in state waters. He appears to have found his niche in Columbia on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs committee.

Goldfinch said he also is working on a truth in seafood act and another bill that would prevent unmanned drones from monitoring fishing activities around Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

In particular, Goldfinch has his eye on the restrictions the NMFS has on reef species in the Atlantic, including black sea bass, vermilion snapper and grouper which currently makes reef fishing virtually pointless from January through April. His goal is to find the proper mix of conservation and accessibility to the fisheries for the fishermen.

``It’s being guided and directed by environmentalists,’’ Goldfinch said of the numerous restrictions on fisheries. ``These efforts are efforts to push back against the federal government and give states a little more rights than they have had in the past few years. We need to be getting back to where we were.’’

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