Gregg Holshouser’s Outdoors Column | Red snapper fishery expected to open in limited capacity

Red snapper fishery expected to open in limited capacity

After nearly 2 1/2 years of being closed to any harvest in South Atlantic waters, red snapper will likely once again be available for recreational and commercial anglers for a short stint this late summer and/or early fall.

The red snapper fishery has been closed in the South Atlantic region since January 4, 2010 after the species was deemed to be overfished and still undergoing overfishing by a 2008 stock assessment.

At the time, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council had considered a ban on all bottom fishing in large areas off the Southeast coast to further protect the red snapper from release mortality when anglers targeted other snapper-grouper species.

Instead the SAFMC's Snapper-Grouper committee stated that the ongoing ban on all catches of red snapper would be sufficient to end overfishing of the species, therefore eliminating the need for a closed area, much to the relief of fishermen all along the South Atlantic coast.

The approach appears to have worked. At a meeting last week in Orlando, the SAFMC requested an emergency rule to allow recreational and commercial fishermen to harvest red snapper on a very limited basis, possibly beginning in September.

Recreational anglers in the South Atlantic region, which stretches from Cape Hatteras, N.C., down through the east coast of Florida, would be allowed to keep one fish per person per day with no size limit during a series of three-day weekend openings, likely sometime in September, according to Roy Crabtree, southeast regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Service.

The commercial fishery would be allowed a total of 3,668 fish or 20,818 pounds (gutted weight) during seven-day increments subject to the quota, with a limit of 50 pounds per trip and no size limits.

The council hopes the data produced by the catches can be used to help with another stock assessment for red snapper in 2013.

The emergency rule still requires the approval of U.S. Secretary of Commerce John Bryson, and Crabtree said Bryson is expected to act on it within 60 days. For recreational anglers, it could take only a few three-day weekends of fishing for the quota to be met and the fishery to be closed again.

“It's unknown how long the recreational fishery will remain open,” said SAFMC member Tom Swatzel of Murrells Inlet. “I suspect it may only be two or three long weekends.”

The impact locally will be minimal, since red snapper are largely an incidental catch on bottom-fishing trips from Brunswick County, N.C., to Georgetown.

“Historically only about 10 percent of red snapper landings occurred off South Carolina so the re-opening will not have a significant impact here,” Swatzel said. “At this point, any additional fishery is helpful to charter and head boats, especially since the black sea bass season keeps getting shorter and shorter.”

In northeast Florida, where red snapper are a major component of the catch on bottom fishing trips, the brief re-opening of the species for recreational anglers will be received with open arms.

“The re-opening is significant for fishermen in northeastern Florida,” Swatzel said. “Last week in Orlando we heard not only from red snapper fishermen but also from Chambers of Commerce and Hotel and Restaurant Associations about the economic importance of the red snapper fishery to the coastal economy [there].”

A bigger issue than red snapper for recreational fishermen in Horry and Georgetown counties is the current handling of the black sea bass fishery.

Swatzel noted the latest projections revealed at the Orlando meeting show the 2012-2013 quota for the recreational black sea bass fishery could be met as soon as Sept. 4, which would close the fishery only a little over three months after it opened on June 1. Once closed, the fishery would not open again until June 1, 2013. The council requested a new stock assessment be done on black sea bass in 2013.

Black sea bass are considered the most common and important reef fish caught by recreational fishermen on bottom fishing trips out of Grand Strand ports. The closure is expected despite an increase in the minimum size for the species from 12 to 13 inches which will go into effect on July 1.

“A recreational black sea bass closure in September would have a significant economic impact on the Grand Strand,” Swatzel said. “It's hoped that a new stock assessment conducted next year might impact the 2014 [fishing] season.

“The other issue affecting the season length is the inability of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to accurately count the fish that are caught. The overages keep getting subtracted from the annual catch limits, further reducing the season.”

Pending commercial closures

Swatzel noted that the annual quotas for the commercial fishing sector for the jack complex (including almaco jack, banded rudderfish, lesser amberjack), gray triggerfish and greater amberjack will be met soon. The NMFS is predicting quota closures for the jack complex in July, gray triggerfish in late September and greater amberjack in December for the commercial sector.

Governor's Cup

Charleston entry Summer Girl had a super tournament releasing three blue marlin to win the second event in the South Carolina Governor's Cup Billfishing Series, the Bohicket Marina Invitational Billfish Tournament, on June 9.

Summer Girl won a total of 1,800 points, the first time since 2008 a boat has released three blue marlin in a Governor's Cup event.

Miss Magnolia, out of Hilton Head Island, finished second with 1,500 points after releasing two blue marlin and one white marlin. Cotton Picker, of Savannah, Ga., was third with 1,200 points after releasing one blue marlin and two white marlin.

The third of five Governor's Cup Events will be held next weekend, June 27-30, when the Carolina Billfish Classic out of Toler's Cove Marina in Mt. Pleasant is staged.