Area fishermen voice anger over catch limits; Wahoo, dolphin may follow bass

A majority of fishing boat operators from Little River, North Myrtle Beach and Brunswick County, N.C., spent Wednesday in North Charleston, stressing to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council the negative consequences they expect from a black sea bass closure, according to the owner of an area fishing boat operation.

On the heels of the National Marine Fisheries Service announcing the impending closure of the black sea bass fishery for the winter, the council regulators held the mandated scoping meeting to get comments on plans to set the same kind of annual catch limits on dolphin, wahoo and cobia - big time, summer-month, recreational and tournament catches.

They also are proposing catch shares on commercial catches of some fish in the snapper-grouper fishery and golden crab.

Larry Horowitz, owner of Voyager Deep Sea Fishing Fleet in Calabash, N.C., said fishermen are concerned that the new rules will not only hurt them, but will affect restaurants, tackle shops and other businesses that support the fishing industry.

"It's going to destroy a lot of people," Horowitz said. "I'm sick over it. We have a lot of concerns."

Several of those concerns were addressed during the meeting Wednesday in North Charleston.

The fishery council "is definitely concerned about how we feel about black sea bass," said Cameron Sebastian, owner of Little River Fishing Fleet.

"The first meeting they had, no one was there about the black sea bass, so we expected that Wednesday.

"But the council saw the need and dedicated a room to talk about the closure, how it occurred, and why it occurred. It shows me they have an interest in giving us information about what's going on with black sea bass."

Sebastian said the strong support from attendees showed council members how serious they are about the issue.

The real meeting took place before the first angler stepped up to the microphone.

Nearly 100 commercial, charter and recreational anglers crowded into a small side room before the meeting, consolidating an attack on the latest round of offshore fishing closure and restriction proposals.

The pre-meeting was part of a sea change among commercial and recreational anglers.

No longer content to rail at council regulators or each other, the once disorganized, occasionally feuding groups are coming together with new targets in mind: the U.S. Commerce Department that ultimately decides the restrictions, and Congress, whose 2006 revision of fishery laws have led to the tightening of regulations.

The pre-meeting Wednesday followed a demonstration in Washington last year by several thousands anglers from the Lowcountry and across the Southeast, part of a lobbying effort that helped pull back a proposed closure of snapper-grouper fishing.

The $600 million per year saltwater fishing industry brings thousands of boats on trips offshore per year.

The anglers' showing Wednesday was the sort of movement that regulators concede frankly they didn't see much of at public meetings and hearings even as recently as a few years ago.

"It's killing us. We need regulators to get out on the [Gulf] Stream and see what's going on rather than read some statistics off a paper," said Buddy Dennis of the Little River Fishing Fleet, during public comments.

"The biggest thing we're pushing is how [the restrictions] are going to impact the economy. They want to go from two wahoo per fishermen to two wahoo per boat. People are going to say, 'I'm not spending "$1,500 to $2,000 to go catch two fish,'" said charter boat captain Keith Logan, with, at the pre-meeting. He helped organize the group.

Among other moves decided Wednesday, the various captains will carry a petition opposing the regulations from customer to customer to sign, then send it off to national legislators.

Organizers gave out the phone number of the Secretary of Commerce, and they urged every angler in the room to get to the microphone and speak.

The decisions are mandated to be made quickly.

Without enough time or funding for new studies, regulators partly are using outdated, incomplete species count numbers that even they have acknowledged are simply not good enough.

The anglers in the room laughed when told by a council staffer that recreational catch numbers were derived partly by random calls to people who live along the coast.

More than 80,000 South Carolina residents hold saltwater fishing licenses, a number that does not include out-of-state license owners and some tourist anglers.

At the multimillion-dollar industry's peak before the 2008 recession, recreational anglers were making more than 2.5 million trips per year offshore.

Commercial anglers are facing what Murrells Inlet fisherman Larry Jones called "derby fishing" - nearly all boats in the region chasing up and down the coast to the same spots, at the same time, after the same catch, when they are restricted from catching other fish.

Staff writer Janelle Frost contributed to this report.