Murrells Inlet seafood dealer Chris Conklin will be sworn as a new member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council at the start of the council’s meeting on Monday and will immediately find himself embroiled in what promises to be an intense discussion on the proposed establishment of more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) off the South Atlantic coast.
The impact on South Carolina fishermen – both recreational and commercial – could be significant if all the proposed MPAs are approved, and the council is being urged to do just that by at least one environmental group, the PEW Charitable Trusts.
Eight MPAs were established by the fishery council in 2009 and now the council is being urged to consider a suite of 30 MPAs, including 27 square miles of the historic Georgetown Hole, perhaps the most commonly known offshore fishing area for boats out of Murrells Inlet and Georgetown.
The proposed MPAs are designed to protect two deep-water grouper species – Warsaw and speckled hind – from by-catch when anglers are fishing for other snapper-grouper species and fishing would not be allowed within their boundaries.
Conklin, 28, who will represent the Grand Strand area and South Carolina on the council until his term ends in 2016, already has strong feelings on the MPA issue. He is concerned that there has been no monitoring of the effect the eight MPAs already in place have had on fish habitat and fish stocks, particularly Warsaw and speckled hind.
“We don’t need to be closing down all this bottom for two species of fish,’’ Conklin said. “These 27 square miles they’re wanting to close down of the Georgetown Hole, that’s a huge area and a lot of bottom, prime fishing territory for us. People from the entire state fish the Georgetown Hole.’’
The South Atlantic Expert Working Group on MPAs, composed of experts in fish biology, marine ecology, and resource conservation and management sciences, proposed the 30 MPAs along the South Atlantic coast for SAFMC members to consider at the meeting.
“Let’s show the fishermen what the MPAs have done that are already out there,’’ said Conklin. “Let’s see the progress before we go making decisions on closing off large areas that are really going to affect all the businesses on the land from fresh seafood restaurants, (seafood) markets, your tackle man, commercial and recreational fishermen alike.’’
The further protection from incidental by-catch for Warsaw and speckled hind is being sought even though it has been illegal to harvest the two species in federal waters (beyond three miles offshore) since Jan. 31, 2011. There is also an annual four-month closure for all shallow-water grouper species from January through April that further protects Warsaw and speckled hind.
The council will not make a final decision on MPAs at the meeting, but could develop proposals and eventually schedule public hearings on the issue.
Conklin, a graduate of The Citadel with a degree in Business Administration, feels his experience in the commercial fishing industry and as a recreational fisherman will enable him to contribute on-the-water expertise to the council.
“I’ve been paying attention to (fish stocks and laws) my whole life,,’’ said Conklin. “I grew up in the business, I come from a heavy, heavy background of coastal snapper-grouper fishing especially. I know what’s going on – I see it every day. I don’t have any reservations with telling experts what’s going on and how we can offer a good solution, and make choices that will benefit recreational and commercial (fishermen) alike.’’
Conklin is replacing Tom Swatzel, also of Murrells Inlet, as one of South Carolina’s representatives on the council.
Swatzel, who served two three-year terms on the council, and Conklin were both among the applicants for the council seat earlier this year and both were among the three nominees South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley sent to the Secretary of Commerce for the position. Earlier this year, Acting Secretary of Commerce Cameron Kerry, the brother of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, selected Conklin, owner-operator of Seven Seas Seafood, for the position.
“At the end of the day, we’re appointed to this council to offer common sense and make the best choices for our coastal communities to keep fish out there for generations to come and keep our coastal economies thriving,’’ said Conklin.