Gregg Holshouser’s Outdoors Column | Recreational black sea bass fishery closing quickly, again

The length of the black sea bass fishing season just keeps shrinking for recreational anglers in the South Atlantic region even while the stocks of the staple species are certainly on the rise.

Earlier this week, NOAA Fisheries Service announced the 2012-2013 recreational annual catch limit (ACL) of 409,000 pounds for black sea bass has been reached and the fishery will be closed at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday.

Now anglers must wait nine months before the fishery – a critical one for Grand Strand fishermen – opens back up on June 1, 2013.

Black sea bass were governed by very liberal recreational limits with no closed season up until about three years ago, which over the decades depleted the stock.

But then the species was listed as overfished and undergoing overfishing in 2010 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, prompting the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) to implement regulations to end the overfishing as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The fishing season annually begins on June 1 and starting with the 2010-11 season the recreational black sea bass fishery has been shut down early for three straight seasons after the ACL was deemed to have been caught by NOAA Fisheries Service. In addition, bag limits have been lowered and minimum size limits raised systematically for the species.

The black sea bass season was open for 8 1/2 months during the 2010-11 season and 4 1/2 months during the 2011-12 season. Now just a little over three months after opening on June 1, the fishery is closing for the 2012-13 season.

This latest closure, while expected, still represents a nightmare situation for local charter and party boat operators who especially depend on black sea bass during the late fall, winter and early spring months when few other species are available to harvest.

“This year the recreational black sea bass fishery closed after just 96 days, even with a minimum size limit increase in July to 13 inches,” said Tom Swatzel of Murrells Inlet, who serves on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. “I’m fearful that the season could close even sooner next year without an increase in the annual catch limit.”

Swatzel points to a combination of a growing population in size and numbers of black sea bass, small catch limits on the species and overages as the culprit for the quick closures.

“The reason the recreational black sea bass seasons continue to get shorter is that the fishery is successfully rebuilding, with more and larger sea bass being caught against a relatively small annual catch limit,” Swatzel said.

Swatzel is hopeful an increased ACL and thus a longer fishing season for the species could be in play for the 2013-14 season.

“It’s important to remember that the December 2011 black sea bass stock assessment justified an annual catch limit that would be 25 percent more than the current 409,000-pound limit,” Swatzel said. “However, since the National Marine Fisheries Service allowed the annual catch limits to be exceed for a number of years (termed an overage), due to the agency’s inability to come up with timely catch estimates, the 25 percent increase was subtracted and the current annual catch limit could be held through the 2013-14 season. In many ways, fishermen are being victimized by a successful fishery rebuilding program that just has not been managed well.”

Swatzel points out an updated black sea bass stock assessment is expected to be completed early in 2013. While he is optimistic – even sure – the assessment will show an improved stock of fish, he is only hopeful changes can be made in time for the upcoming 2013-14 fishing season.

“Based on the numbers and the size of the fish that are being landed, I think it’s likely the assessment will justify a substantial increase in the annual catch limit, hopefully in time for the 2013-2014 season, assuming there are no substantial overages in the catch limits this fishing year or the next,” Swatzel said.

If the ACL isn’t increased and remains the same, Swatzel fears the black sea bass fishery could close as soon as July or August in 2013, effecting the tourist fishing season that is critical to local charter and party boat fishermen.

“A recreational black sea bass fishery closure in July or August would have a huge impact on the coastal economy,” Swatzel said.

Red Snapper

NOAA Fisheries has offered anglers a tiny window of opportunity with an extremely limited opening of the red snapper fishery in South Atlantic federal waters.

The recreational fishing season will open for two consecutive weekends (Friday through Sunday), Sept. 14-16 and Sept. 21-23. During the open red snapper recreational season, the bag limit is one fish per person per day with no minimum size limit.

The commercial red snapper season runs for a week, from Sept. 17-23. During the open commercial red snapper season, the daily trip limit is 50 pounds gutted weight with no minimum size limit.

NOAA Fisheries may change the commercial and recreational season dates if severe weather conditions exist. NOAA Fisheries will announce via NOAA Weather Radio and a Fishery Bulletin any change in the red snapper fishing seasons due to weather conditions.

Once the brief seasons are complete, the red snapper fishery will again be closed with no harvest or possession of the species allowed.

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.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council hopes the data produced by the catches can be used to help with another stock assessment for red snapper in 2013.

Fish Five Classic

Fisherman’s Headquarters of Conway is hosting the 1st annual Fish Five Classic Tournament on Sept. 8 at Bucksport Marina.

The event is the culmination of the weekly bass tournaments staged by Fishermen’s Headquarters in recent years. To qualify, anglers had to compete in five of the weekly tournaments this year, and up to 40 fishermen are expected to compete in the grand finale event.

The tournament will be held from safe light to 3 p.m. and spectators are welcome at the weigh-in.

For more information on the weekly tournaments or the Fish Five event, contact Jay Booth at Fisherman’s Headquarters (843-397-3474) or online at www.facebook.com/fishermans.headquarters.3.

Dove Season

The 2012-2013 mourning dove season in South Carolina is Saturday through Monday (noon until sunset); Tuesday-Oct. 6; Nov. 17-24 and Dec. 21-Jan. 15.

Legal hunting hours for mourning dove season, except for Saturday through Monday, are from 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset. The daily bag limit is 15 birds per day.

Dove season traditionally opens on either the first Saturday in September or on Labor Day, whichever comes first. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, seasons for migratory game birds cannot begin before Sept. 1.