Spawning areas established to protect key Atlantic fish species

The recreational cobia fishery will close in federal waters from Georgia to New York on June 20, 2016.
The recreational cobia fishery will close in federal waters from Georgia to New York on June 20, 2016. CCA South Carolina

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council officials approved five offshore areas as Spawning Special Management Zones, or SMZs on Friday at a meeting in Jekyll Island, Ga.

Among them are three off the South Carolina coast and another off of North Carolina at a meeting.

In addition, NOAA Fisheries announced during the meeting that the recreational fishery for cobia will close on June 20 in federal waters from Georgia to New York, which is the Atlantic group of the species.

The area off the coast of South Carolina that will be closed to snapper-grouper fishing is a 3.03-square mile tract of bottom that is part of the Georgetown Hole, located about 55 miles southeast of the Winyah Bay jetties.

Also to be closed to snapper-grouper fishing are two experimental artificial reef areas established by the state Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) known as Area 51 and Area 53, each approximately 3 square miles in size off the South Carolina coast.

A 5.1-square mile area off the coast of North Carolina known as the South Cape Lookout site will also be closed.

The fifth closure is a 3.6-square mile area off the east coast of the Florida Keys known as the Warsaw Hole, or 50 Fathom Hole.

Fishing for snapper-grouper species would be prohibited and anchoring not permitted in closed areas, but trolling for pelagic species such as wahoo, dolphin, tuna and billfish would be allowed.

If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the five areas ranging in size from 3- to 5-square miles, and be the first such Spawning SMZs designated in federal waters off the South Atlantic coast.

“The selection of the Spawning SMZs has been a long and deliberative process, focusing on sites that are most beneficial for spawning snapper-grouper species such as speckled hind and warsaw grouper while balancing impacts to fishermen,” said South Atlantic Fishery Management Council chairperson Dr. Michelle Duval. “The council chose these areas based on scientific recommendations, input from its advisory panels, a great deal of public input, and the results from cooperative research with fishermen familiar with the unique habitat attracting species at selected sites.”

Cobia in the Atlantic group are governed by a 630,000-pound annual catch limit (ACL) for recreational anglers. But in 2015, 1.7 million pounds of cobia were landed in the region, according to NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP).

The Atlantic group of cobia is closing due to the overage of the ACL.

Changes are in store for cobia limits in state waters too, with legislation currently working its way through the S.C. Statehouse.

State waters include estuaries and up to three miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

The legislation proposes a closure of the recreational fishery in state waters in the month of May only in what would be established as the Southern Cobia Management Zone, from Edisto Beach south to the Georgia state line.

The current cobia limits are two-per person per day with a 33-inch minimum size limit (fork length). The legislation proposes limits of one per person per day with a boat limit of three for all state waters.

State CCA reaches landmark

The year 2016 marks a milestone for Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) South Carolina.

The statewide grassroots organization aimed at protecting, preserving and enhancing marine resources along the coast is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

On a national scale, the CCA was originally established as the Gulf Coast Conservation Association in Texas in 1977 to try to halt commercial netting that was damaging populations of spotted seatrout and red drum.

In 1986, the CCA became the first state chapter established on the East Coast.

During the past 30 years, CCA has been a leader as a watchdog regarding laws on fisheries and issues and on the water boosting the marine environment in numerous ways.

“We were the first state chapter on the East Coast, and I think that really kind of shows the proactive, forward thinking outdoor leadership that South Carolina has built a reputation for,” said Scott Whitaker, in his 16th year as CCA South Carolina’s executive director. “We've got a tremendous sporting heritage and tradition in South Carolina and in my opinion that’s kind of a carry over to just how important our marine and natural resources are to South Carolinians.”

Whitaker, by the way, is the longest-serving active state executive director among the 18 others representing their respective states in the organization.

“The neat thing about CCA and in South Carolina in particular is I think of us as a complete organization,” said Whitaker. “We’re active in every aspect of angling, whether the advocacy end of it or the creation of habitat. We’re addressing everything in between that touches saltwater angling. That’s a testament to our volunteer base.”

Among the projects CCA is involved with include artificial reef establishment and enhancement, and the S.C. Oyster Restoration and Enhancement (SCORE) program.

CCA has been instrumental in establishing five near-shore artificial reefs from off North Inlet to Port Royal in the last five years. Numerous oyster reefs have been established in estuaries along the South Carolina coast, including some along the Grand Strand, with CCA volunteers doing much of the dirty work.

“We now have four flourishing oyster recycling reefs built in Murrells Inlet that we continue to monitor and be proud of,” said Chris Hawley, chairperson of the CCA’s Waccamaw Chapter.

The Waccamaw Chapter has proven to be a leader among South Carolina’s 16 chapters, which are located not only on the coast, but throughout the state.

For two straight years, the Waccamaw Chapter has set state records for attendance and raffle revenue. At the 2015 banquet, the attendance was 580 and the raffle revenue was $30,000.

For the third straight year, the Waccamaw Chapter”s fundraising banquet will be staged – appropriately – at Sunnyside Plantation on the banks of Murrells Inlet.

The banquet is set for Friday, March 18 at 6 p.m., starting with a social hour during which attendees can enjoy drinks, bid on silent auction items and enter raffles.

Dinner, catered locally by Inlet Affairs, is up next before the night is capped by a live auction, which will feature various hunting and fishing trips among other items.

Tickets are $60 for individuals, $85 for couples and include a year’s membership to CCA. Sponsorships are available.

For more information, contact Hawley at 843-455-0371 or chawley24@gmail.com.

SALTT Finale

The last of four tournaments in the Student Angler League Tournament Trail was held last Saturday out of the Campbell Marine Complex in Georgetown.

In the high school bass division, Conway’s Dylan Drew and Colby Calhoun took first with a five-fish aggregate of 6.52 pounds – Drew catching the lunker, a 2.01-pounder.

Conway’s Gage Fortson and Jacob Richardson took second with a three-fish aggregate weighing 5.38 pounds. Georgetown’s Chase Todd and Marshall Sasser finished third with two fish totaling 2.96 pounds.

No slot reds were caught in the red drum division but some were caught and released. Colin Newton of Waccamaw High School and Ben Pardue of Conway Middle School caught the largest red drum based on photo evidence.

Following are the overall SALTT champions for the 2015-16 season:

High School Red Drum: Colin Newton of Waccamaw High School and Noah Payne of Rosemary Middle School.

Middle School Red Drum: Ben Pardue and Charlie Holmes of Conway Middle School.

High School Bass: Chase Todd and Marshall Sasser of Georgetown High School.

SALTT will host two upcoming bass tournaments, on April 2 at Samworth WMA in Plantersville and April 16 the Campbell Marine Complex in Georgetown.

Anglers must have registration and dues paid to participate. The events are designed to increase participation in bass fishing for the league, as 90 percent of members targeted red drum during the 2015-16 season.

Any student attending a public or private school in South Carolina can participate in the tournaments.

For more information visit www.salttfishing.com.

Local CCA Banquet and Auction

What: Coastal Conservation Association Waccamaw Chapter's Celebrating Conservation Banquet & Auction.

Where: Sunnyside Plantation, located at 3741 Hwy. 17 Business, Murrells Inlet.

When: Friday, March 18, 6 p.m.

Tickets: $60 for individuals, $85 for couples and include a year’s membership to CCA. Sponsorships are available.