The verdict is in on exactly how many pounds of black sea bass can be harvested annually by both recreational and commercial fishermen in South Atlantic waters for the foreseeable future.
During a special webinar held on Monday, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council approved a substantial increase in the Annual Catch Limit (ACL) for the black sea bass fishery.
The combined catch limit for both the recreational and commercial sectors would increase from the current limit of 847,000 pounds to 1,814,000 pounds and would be effective for 2013, 2014, and 2015.
For 2016 and beyond, the limit would be 1,756,450 pounds until changed. Currently, 57 percent of the annual limit is allocated to recreational fishermen and 43 percent to the commercial sector.
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For recreational fishermen, the increase in the ACL to 940,000 pounds is expected to result in a six-month fishing season for the staple bottom fishing species. With the previous limit of 409,000 pounds in place, the 2012-13 recreational fishing season for black sea bass lasted only 96 days, June 1 through Sept. 4 of 2012.
The fishing season annually begins on June 1, which means the recreational quota would likely be caught and the black sea bass season closed sometime in November or December.
The changes still must be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. If approved, the changes would be implemented through Regulatory Amendment 19 C.
The current recreational limits for black sea bass are five per person per day with a 13-inch minimum size limit, but as recently as early 2007, black sea bass were governed by recreational limits of 20 fish per person, a minimum size limit of 10 inches and the fishery was open year-round.
The council’s ACL decision appears to be the culmination of a saga that has been ongoing since black sea bass were deemed overfished and undergoing overfishing in 2010 by the National Marine Fisheries Service which prompted the SAFMC to begin implementing regulations to end the overfishing as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Earlier this year, a new stock assessment determined that the stock of black sea bass has been completely rebuilt, meaning future increases in the ACL and thus a longer fishing season are unlikely.
A return to the days of a year-round fishery for black sea bass for recreational anglers and charter boat operators is especially unlikely.
A six-month fishing season for black sea bass would leave local charter fishermen little to target each year from January through April. During that four-month stretch, shallow-water species of grouper are also closed and pelagic, or highly migratory, species such as Spanish and king mackerel don’t return to area waters until late April or early May.
Capt. Webber Smith operates a charter boat, Reel Deep, out of Marlin Quay Marina in Murrells Inlet and specializes in bottom fishing.
“(During the four month stretch), it kills us,’’ said Smith. “Trips are way off because nobody is going to spend the money and not be able to catch fish and keep them. They want to eat what they catch. That’s a lot of business we had in the past with black sea bass -- it’s really crippling us.’’
Smith echoed what the SAFMC has heard from fishermen during public testimony on the issue – black sea bass are very abundant on local reefs.
“They’re so many of them and they’re so big and aggressive, you can’t even get a bait past them to catch the grouper,’’ said Smith. “They’re more abundant now than I’ve ever seen them. I’m wondering if they’re going to start eating some of the smaller grouper out there. We’re catching them 20-22 inches (long) -- that’s huge for a black sea bass.’’
The webinar was scheduled specifically to expedite the selection of a new ACL for the species to hopefully get it in place for the 2013-14 fishing season, which begins on June 1.
The council was initially set to select from three alternatives during the webinar:
• 1 | Leave the current ACL in place.
• 2 | Increase the ACL to 2,133,000 pounds in 2013, a value equal to the Acceptable Biological Catch as recommended by the Scientific and Statistical Committee, with a decrease in catch limits in subsequent years.
• 3 | Allow an ACL increase to 1,756,450 pounds per year for 2013 through 2015.
The council reviewed public comment and discussed the three alternatives, before a fourth alternative to increase the ACL was introduced and approved, representing a compromise between the second and third original alternatives.
The compromise alternative was approved by the council by a 10 to 3 vote, with council members agreeing that an update to the black sea bass stock assessment will be needed by 2016.
Both Council Chairman David Cupka of Charleston and councilman Tom Swatzel of Murrells Inlet supported the second alternative.
“(The second alternative) would have resulted in nearly a half a million more pounds of fish and almost $10 million more in economic benefit for fishermen,’’ said Swatzel.
The Council also approved an action in the amendment to implement a seasonal closure (Nov. 1 through April 30) for the commercial black sea bass pot fishery.
The seasonal closure would address potential gear interactions with large whale migration and right whales during calving season. Measures approved by the council in the amendment must be reviewed by NOAA Fisheries before final approval and implementation.