Gregg Holshouser’s Outdoors Column | Vermilion Snapper and Black Sea Bass could be eligible again in 2013

As the end of 2012 inches closer, there is renewed hope for local fishermen for the 2013-14 fishing season in the wake of a South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) meeting held the first week of December in Wilmington, N.C.

The council dealt with a variety of issues, but developments regarding two staple bottom-fishing, or reef, species could have the biggest impact for local recreational fishermen.

A recent stock assessment on vermilion snapper determined the reef species is not overfished or experiencing overfishing. The SAFMC is taking action through a regulatory amendment which is expected to be implemented next summer and could increase the annual catch limit (ACL) by about 240,000 pounds or 25 percent.

Currently, the recreational vermilion snapper fishery is closed from Nov. 1 through March 31 each fishing season, but that could change for the 2013-14 season which begins on June 1, 2013.

“The ACL increase could result in removing the recreational season closure for vermilion and/or increasing the bag limit,” said council member Tom Swatzel of Murrells Inlet. “It is important to note that for the last two years recreational landings of vermilion have fallen well short of the ACL.”

Vermilion snapper landings totaled 64 percent of the ACL in 2011 and 84 percent in 2010.

“It looks like it will be possible to have a year-round recreational fishery for vermilion snapper, which will be a big help to charter and headboat businesses,” Swatzel said.

Black sea bass are the most commonly sought species on bottom-fishing trips out of Grand Strand ports and fishermen have had to endure ever shortening fishing seasons for them over the last three years, culminating with a 2012-13 season that lasted only 96 days from June 1 through Sept. 4.

In September, the SAFMC pushed for an expedited stock assessment but a backlog of 5,000 black sea bass otoliths needed to be read for inclusion in the stock assessment and it was unclear whether the otoliths could be read in a timely fashion. At the meeting, the council learned the otoliths have been read and that critical data will be included in the stock assessment.

“This puts the stock assessment on schedule to be completed for mandatory Science and Statistical Committee review in April and council consideration in June,” Swatzel said. “Assuming the stock assessment in June reflects the large numbers of black sea bass fishermen are encountering on the water, the ACL could be increased for the 2013-2014 season through an emergency action. The timing will be very tight to get an ACL increase in place before a recreational closure occurs.”

Swatzel is unsure how much a possible ACL increase would extend the recreational black sea bass fishing season.

“For charter and headboats in our area, it’s important to avoid a black sea bass closure that affects the peak business season of June through August,” Swatzel said. “The short 90-day recreational season this year just barely got boat operators through August.

“I’m hopeful that an increase in the black sea bass ACL will extend the recreational season at least into the fall, but based on the short season this year, it would take a very large ACL increase to have a significant impact on the length of the season.”

Other developments at the SAFMC meeting of local importance include:

VMS monitoring

The current hot-button issue is a Vessel Monitoring System proposal that would require commercially permitted snapper-grouper fishing vessels to be equipped with a system that would allow federal law enforcement and fishery officials to track such vessels at all times.

Despite the efforts of Swatzel and North Carolina representative Tom Burgess to nix it, the proposal was approved by the council for public hearings in 2013.

According to Swatzel, the average VMS unit costs $3,000. Reimbursements for purchasing the units would be available from NOAA for the cost of the unit, but fishermen would need to pay for the unit and its estimated $300 installation cost in advance and wait up to 45 days for reimbursement. Plus, fishermen would be responsible for the approximate $500 annual service provider fee.

Public testimony was clearly against the proposal at the Wilmington meeting.

“Fishermen resented the idea that NOAA would track their every move and felt that having VMS on their boats was akin to the tracking ankle bracelets that criminals are forced to wear,” Swatzel said. “Beyond the resentment, fishermen brought up the cost of VMS; the difficulty of operating VMS, with its computer type keyboards, in the wet environment of spray-prone small boats and the battery drain of running VMS 24 hours, 7 days a week, whether the boat is at sea or at the dock.”

Red Snapper

The council gave final approval to Snapper-Grouper Amendment 28, which would establish procedures for a red snapper fishery until the next stock assessment can be conducted in 2014.

Akin to this year’s emergency action, Amendment 28 would establish a red snapper ACL and then short recreational and commercial fishing seasons lasting a minimum of three days that would begin in July. The recreational season would consist of weekends.

There would be no recreational or commercial size limit. A one-fish recreational bag limit and a 75-pound commercial trip limit would apply.

Heiden honored

Long time local fisherman, Capt. Eric Heiden, was honored last week by Wright & McGill Co./Eagle Claw as the first ever Pro Staff Member of the Year in honor of his many contributions to the fishing industry.

The 77-year-old Heiden, an Eagle Claw staff member for over 30 years, has operated Heidenseek Charters out of Georgetown Landing Marina over the years and currently is co-operator of Critter Gitter charters. Heiden is also a founding member of the Florence Bluewater Fishing Club.

Eagle Claw also credits Heiden with introducing at least 3,000 youngsters to fishing in the last three decades and inventing many fishing products that remain in use. Heiden has also been and remains active in the never ending battle to provide input on and help shape fisheries laws.

Heiden, along with his fiancé Rosa Lee Odom, were hosted by Eagle Claw in Denver to receive the award and will be featured in Eagle Claw’s annual catalog.

“The fun part is I’m going to be in a huge international catalog as staffer of the year,” Heiden said. “It was a lifetime dream. I’m up there with the Bill Dances and those people and that’s cool. I’m not one to be humble, but I was humbled by the award and by being able to see the Eagle Claw operation. Let’s just say I wasn’t completely but almost at a loss of words.”