Local recreational fishermen have reason to hope for a longer, more productive and – in the case of some charter boat operators – more lucrative 2013-14 fishing season in the wake of a South Atlantic Fishery Management Council meeting held earlier this month in St. Simons Island, Ga.
The limited bottom, or reef, fishing options available to anglers along the South Atlantic coast over the last several years have been well documented. Some relief may be on the way for the upcoming fishing season, which starts June 1, particularly for charter and head operators who target reef fish.
Two of the main species caught on such bottom fishing trips – black sea bass and vermilion snapper – are now expected to be available for harvest by recreational anglers longer in the upcoming season.
The council unanimously approved increasing the annual catch limit (ACL) for vermilion snapper, known locally as beeliners. A recent stock assessment determined the species is not overfished or undergoing overfishing.
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The ACL for vermilion snapper will be increased by 30 percent and the recreational closure will be eliminated, meaning the species will be available for harvest year-round. Vermilion snapper have been closed to harvest from November through March each fishing season since 2009.
The measures approved by the council for vermilion snapper are still pending final approval of the Secretary of Commerce.
“The 30 percent increase in the overall vermilion snapper ACL is great news,” said Murrells Inlet’s Tom Swatzel, a member of the SAFMC. “It will help struggling commercial fishermen and a year-round recreational fishery will be a big boost to charter and head boat businesses.”
Black sea bass are the most common reef fish caught locally and the council is awaiting a stock assessment for the species, which will soon be completed. The assessment will then undergo a mandatory review by the Scientific and Statistical Committee in April.
The view from the water by fishermen – both recreational and commercial – the last few years has been that the stocks of black sea bass on local reefs are extremely strong.
“It is anticipated that the stock assessment will justify a badly needed increase in the ACL,” Swatzel said.
While expecting an increase in the black sea bass ACL and knowing time is short to get a potential new ACL in place before the start of the fishing season on June 1, the council has called a special meeting for May 13.
The SAFMC will meet via Webinar, a first for the council, to assess and vote on the expected new ACL for the species, and then expedite it to the Secretary of Commerce for approval. The hope is to have a new ACL in place by June 1.
“I believe the fishery council understands the tremendous importance of the black sea bass fishery,” Swatzel said. “Many fishermen, both commercial and recreational, have expressed to the council what they are seeing on the water – a whole lot of sea bass, many of which are very large. It’s time to expedite an increase in the catch limits.
“A substantial increase in the black sea bass ACL would be a big help to charter and head boat operators.”
But while vermilion snapper are expected to be available for recreational harvest year-round, Swatzel doesn’t expect that to be the case for black sea bass during the upcoming fishing season.
“I would caution against expectations that an ACL increase this year would be substantial enough to allow a year-round recreational fishery [for black sea bass],” he said. “Based on last year’s fishing effort, which caught up the recreational catch limit in a little over 90 days, the ACL would have to quadruple to come close to supporting a year-round fishery, which I think is unlikely.”
The council also addressed other issues:
•Vessel Monitoring Systems
: The council, in a 10-3 vote, approved for public hearings a proposal for all commercially permitted snapper-grouper vessels to be equipped with the systems that would allow federal law enforcement and fishery officials to track them at all times.
Swatzel and two council members representing North Carolina – Tom Burgess and Anna Beckwith – voted against holding the public hearings.
“In my estimate, overall public comments at the meeting ran 30 to 2 against the VMS requirement,” Swatzel said. “Some of the comments came from taxpayers who opposed the federal government spending money on such a program. A compelling case cannot be made for VMS in this fishery, especially based on the economic burden to fishermen.”
Public hearings on this issue will be held April 13-25 with one hearing set for April 23 at the Hilton Garden Inn in North Charleston from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
•Marine Protected Areas
: The SAFMC received a report from the Marine Protected Area Expert Workgroup of their recommendations for MPAs designed to provide protection for two deep-water grouper species – warsaw and speckled hind.
The recommendations are downright scary for South Atlantic fishermen, and include 30 additional MPAs. Seven of those are adjacent to the S.C. coast, encompass almost 320 square miles and include historic fishing areas such as the Georgetown Hole.
The workgroup has designs on prohibiting all fishing, including trolling, in the MPAs.
“This is an issue that fishermen will need to keep a very close eye on,” Swatzel said.
The Waccamaw Chapter of Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina will stage its annual Celebrating Conservation Banquet and Auction Saturday at The Beaver Bar in Murrells Inlet.
Weather conditions Saturday will determine whether the event will be held inside or outside. The evening begins at 6 p.m. with an open bar and appetizers, followed by dinner, during which attendees can bid on silent auction items and buy raffle tickets.
After dinner, the night will be capped by a live auction featuring marine-related items and various fishing and hunting trips. For more information on tickets ($50 per person, $75 per couple), which include a year’s membership to CCA, or sponsorships contact Chris Hawley at 843-455-0371 or firstname.lastname@example.org .