RFA Southeast Members Comment on SAFMC Meetings

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RFA Southeast Members Comment on SAFMC Meetings

Council Votes To Terminate Work on Amendment 21 Catch Share Development

March 11, 2011 - The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) Snapper Grouper Committee voted this week with regard to the Snapper Grouper (SG) Amendment 21 Catch Share portion of the document and the majority of SG Committee members voted not to pursue Catch Shares with SG Amendment 21, except in terms of revisiting the Wreckfish individual fishing quota (IFQ) rules.  The Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), which had submitted official comments to the SAFMC in opposition to the intent of Amendment 21 to establish catch share programs for nine stocks subject to statutory overfishing in the Southeast region, praised the decision as a win for the coastal fishing community. 

"This win has once again proven that the pressure we are exerting on the council, both through our efforts and through the pressure on the politicians is paying dividends," said Dave Heil, RFA-FL chapter member and lead attorney in the ongoing case against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on behalf of red snapper.  Heil and fellow RFA volunteers in the Southeast have been pressing hard on the ground in the last six months to help preserve angler access to the red snapper resource in the South Atlantic, and he feels that the vote by the SAFMC this week proves that their efforts are paying off, even if only slightly.

"We had our first victory earlier this year in pushing back the 98' to 240' bottom closure. These wins are proof that we are able to win these battles against Pew Environment Group and Environmental Defense Fund," Heil said, referencing groups which have respectively pushed for deeper regulatory restrictions on recreational fishermen while simultaneously lobbying for integration of IFQ programs and Catch Share initiatives throughout the Southeast.  "We must now redouble our efforts in opposing these regulations and regain control of our fisheries," Heil said. 

"Finally were starting to see some movement on our fisheries issues from our elected officials," said Jack Holmes, president of the Southern Kingfish Association (SKA) and member of the RFA national Board of Directors.  Holmes noted the hearing outcome is just the beginning, and that there is still a lot of work to do as grassroots activists within the recreational sector. "I'm firmly convinced our Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is on our side but Sen. Bill Nelson still leans toward the environmental factors.  EDF now will dig in even harder using their money and influence with our representatives, and now is not the time to let up as fishermen, we have to see flexibility reforms be put back into the Magnuson Stevens Act," Holmes added.

Capt. Mark Brown of the RFA-SC said it's been a long couple of days at the SAFMC meetings in St. Simons Island, GA, but he said there's been good turnout by members of the recreational fishing community along with "some positives" in terms of management policies directed at anglers.  "Wahoo was left alone at two per person, and dolphin catch limit was recommended for nine per person but nothing too drastic along with a 20-inch fork length size," Brown said, adding however that black sea bass remains a big issue. 

This morning, the SAFMC made significant changes to the snapper-grouper committee's recommended changes in black sea bass management.  A recommended change in the fishing year start date to January 1 was defeated; instead, the SAFMC voted to retain the current June-May fishing year and specify separate commercial ACLs for June through November and December through May based on landings from 2006-2009.  Recommendations by the committee to implement a March through April spawning season were defeated, and the Council also approved a recommended reduction in the black sea bass bag limit from 15 fish to 5 fish per angler.  The SAFMC also agreed to pursue geographically split fishing years beginning with the 2012-2013 fishing year through a regulatory amendment, which would split the sea bass fishery into the NC/SC region and a GA/FL region. 

Black sea bass are currently off limits to recreational fishermen following word from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that their harvest collection methods showed that anglers had already reached their allowable harvest according.  Fishermen in attendance for the SAFMC hearings are hoping that a reduction in the daily bag limit might eliminate the need for a seasonal closure during late winter and early spring when black sea bass are one of the few species available in the Southeast Atlantic. 

SAFMC member Tom Swatzel of Murrells Inlet, SC, told the Sun News out of Myrtle Beach, SC today that a spawning season closure would've had a painful impact on charter and party boat operators during the months when other staple fisheries have already been declared off-limits.  "There's no real justification for a spawning closure since black sea bass spawn at differing times throughout the range of the South Atlantic and don't form spawning aggregations," Swatzel said. "The spawning closure will remove sea bass as one of the few remaining fish available to catch offshore in the spring months, inflicting even more economic harm on already hurting fishermen."

The Sun News noted that the drop in the daily bag limit from 15 fish per person to five is a drastic one for black sea bass and represents a major change from liberal limits in the history of regulations for the species. "While the reduction of the black sea bass bag limit to five fish is necessary to try and keep the recreational fishery open, it's still painful for charter and head boat operators and couldn't come at a worse time," Swatzel said.

According to Capt. Brown, attendance was strong as nearly 100 people showed up on St. Simons Island to voice concerns at the public comment portion of this week's meetings.  "There were some loud and exasperated exchanges but for the most part the discussion was cordial enough to get the point across that the fishermen feel that enough is enough with this style of runaway fishery management that is costing jobs and destroying the fishing industry," Brown said, adding that most fishermen expressed frustration about the different situations that they were being forced to accept due to the legal constraints written into the Magnuson Stevens Act.

"Developing management for all of the species, both assessed and un-assessed, within the region of the South Atlantic are a priority in order to meet the deadlines and to stay compliant with Magnuson.  Because the re-authorization now requires ACL's (annual catch limits) and AM's (accountability measures) to be put in place by the end of 2011 for all species, some parts of creating management are rushed along without an understanding or science to back it up," Brown noted. 

Of course, not all those in attendance were opposed to the overly restrictive measures, as Capt. Brown pointed out that a group of environmental activists were also present and vocal, "to push their agenda of keeping the Council from deterring from any other path than the most restrictive management possible in accordance with the law."

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