Council takes steps to ease strict quota on black sea bass

A push is being made by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) to expedite a stock assessment for black sea bass before the 2013-14 fishing season, which starts in less than nine months, on June 1.

Black sea bass are a staple species on the S.C. coast, and the fishing season for them has dwindled over the last three years to a low of only 96 days this season, which opened June 1 and closed on Sept. 4 in the South Atlantic Region.

With a quota of only 409,000 pounds of black sea bass for recreational fishermen in the entire region, the real possibility exists the season could be even shorter in 2013 and close during the summer tourist season since fishermen say the recovering species is growing in numbers and size and the quota is being caught quicker.

The quota, or annual catch limit (ACL), has remained at the current level although adamant testimonials from fishermen who have made it clear the black sea bass stocks are in much better shape.

Council member Tom Swatzel of Murrells Inlet, in an email sent before last week’s SAFMC meeting in Charleston, urged his fellow council members to help in expediting the stock assessment.

Swatzel’s impetus is to help the state’s fishing industry and coastal economy by trying to achieve a larger ACL and thus a longer fishing season that would extend through the summer and into the fall or even winter months.

“The recreational black sea bass fishery is vital to charter and headboats and indirectly to many coastal businesses in the Carolinas during the summer months,” Swatzel said. “To end up with a closure in July or August would be devastating.”

First, the stock assessment would have to be completed and reviewed by the SAFMC before any changes in the ACL could be approved, and then subsequently given final approval by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Progress appears to have been made on one potential roadblock to a quick stock assessment.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Monitoring, Assessment and Prediction Program (MARMAP) has a backlog of 5,000 black sea bass otoliths that need to be read, thus providing important age composition for fish caught.

Otoliths are hard, calcium carbonate structures found in the head of fish and can be read by biologists to determine a fish’s age, similar to reading the rings on a tree trunk.

The N.C. and Florida marine fisheries agencies volunteered their labs and personnel to assist with aging the backlog of otoliths and the hope is that process will be finished by the end of the year.

“Age composition provides important information about the relative abundance of each age class in the population of black sea bass, which is needed to be able to estimate recruitment or how many fish are born each year,” Swatzel said. “Having more fish at older ages and some fish across all ages means a more stable population.”

The SAFMC has also made it known to Southeast Data, Assessment and Review (SEDAR), which is responsible for completing stock assessments, that the council considers accomplishing a quick black sea bass assessment a priority.

The question is can the entire process including an increase in the ACL be completed in time to extend the 2013-14 fishing season for black sea bass?

“The [updated stock assessment] is scheduled for the required Scientific and Statistical Committee review in April, so it looks like the (SAFMC) will not be able to take (any) action on the update, such as increasing the annual catch limit, until June,” Swatzel said. “It would take an emergency action by the council in June to modify the annual catch limit in time to affect the 2013-2014 black sea bass fishing year. Emergency actions usually take effect after about 60 days. It’s going to be a very close call.”